Gaslighting occurs in a relationship when a person tricks the individual into doubting their experiences with comments such as:
“You’re crazy—that never happened.”
“Are you sure? You tend to have a bad memory.”
“It’s all in your head.”
If your friends, family, colleagues, bosses, professors, roommates, partners respond in any manner that leads you to believe that you should question your judgement, perception of reality, even your own sanity, that person may be using what mental health professionals call, “gaslighting.”
This term comes from the 1938 stage play, Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home, and then he denies that the light changed when his wife points it out. It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes the victim to question his/her own feelings, instincts, and sanity. Once an abusive person has broken down the victim’s ability to trust his/her own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship.
There are a variety of gaslighting techniques that an abusive person may use:
Withholding: “I don’t want to hear this again.” “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Countering: “You’re wrong. You never remember things correctly.”
Blocking/Diverting: “Is that another crazy idea you from [friend/family member]?” “You’re imagining things.”
Trivializing: “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” “You’re too sensitive.”
Forgetting/Denial: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You’re just making stuff up again.” (source: National Domestic Hotline, www.thehotline.org “What is Gaslighting?”
How do Christians tend to gaslight?
Withholding: “You are being faithless and ungrateful when you bring up things from the past.” “Your need to resolve this problem is another indicator of your empty soul.”
Countering: “If you were able to see things with spiritual eyes, you would know that your memory does not serve you well.” “When are you going to learn to forgive?”
Blocking/Diverting: “If you trusted God, you wouldn’t hold onto these sorts of issues.” “You have an issue with forgiveness.” “Your lack of humility and self-righteousness constantly interrupt our relationship.”
Trivializing: “The way you make everything such a big deal shows your total lack of faith to trust that God is in charge.” “When you finally learn to let go and let God, you’ll see why you’re blowing all of this out of proportion.” “A sin is a sin and there is nothing worse about my sins than yours. No one has the right to judge here.”
Forgetting/Denial: “I choose to trust God with those details and if you were a person of faith you would, too.” “If it really happened, God would have spoken to my heart about that, but he didn’t. So until then, I don’t have to respond to your issues.”
When you doubt your instincts within the context of any relationship—with friends, family, colleagues, bosses, professors, roommates, partners, the biggest healing maneuver is to set firm limits. We only have our experiences, which—when broke down—result in 2 things: what we feel and what we think.
If someone does not allow those two things to matter, we are no longer with a person who will accept our personhood. Period. I strenuously urge you to discontinue or avoid that relationship if you have tried more than three times to get that person to accept your experience of any event.
Mary Ellen Mann is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Denver (visit www.manncounselinggroup.com). After attending a Christian college, she did her graduate work at Columbia University. Recently she co-founded Last Battle, LLC and helped develop the first interactive website for survivors of sexual violation, www.lastbattle.org, to help survivors, family and friends of survivors, Christian leaders, and professionals who care about this population. Her book, From Pain to Power will be on the market September 22, 2015. Mary Ellen lives in Denver with her husband and their two sons.