What is gaslighting in cults & toxic groups?

What do we do when something upsets our status quo? When it confronts our deepest held ideals, threatens to dethrone our idols, and tarnish our heroes? What do we do when someone comes forward and says “I was a victim of abuse. This person [who you all held in such high regard] took something from me, damaged me profoundly.” And out pours their awful story.

In my time in evangelicalism, I’ve observed the lengths people will go to in order to protect the way they see the world. Sadly, sometimes, even often times, this does not deal kindly with those who deserve our utmost compassion and care, and whose deep craving to be heard and believed is too often met with scorn and cover-ups.

Long before the abuse victim finds the courage to speak up (if they find it at all), there exists a psychological phenomenon that has a unique ability to keep them silent and make them doubt their own story. This can be true for cults and toxic groups. It can also be very true for domestic violence situations – very often, in fact.

Guys. We need to talk about gaslighting.

“Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim [1].”

The term has its origins in a pretty messed up movie called “Gaslight” from the 1940’s. In it, an overbearing, abusive husband paints his wife as the crazy one, and makes her believe she is seeing and hearing things, by messing with the gaslights and denying it. That is the super quick version, but the full movie was pretty twisted by 1940’s standards. In recent years, the term has been used in clinical and research literature quite extensively.

It’s just a shame more people don’t know what it looks like, because this little trick is one that can be used by abusive individuals or toxic/unhealthy groups to hold people captive, and make them believe they are crazy or incompetent.

It’s horrible. Insidious. It can heap more damage on people who are nothing like the narrative set up around them, and put the monster inside their own head as the words of the abuser continue to do damage even when they are not around. Let me show you how it can look, but before I do – a hefty trigger warning! The Lifeline phone number will be at the end of this post. Call it if you need it.

Now. Gaslighting is often a term used in domestic violence relationships. But I think it’s fair to say that in cults or toxic groups, it is often individuals in positions of power who abuse other individuals. So the gaslighting example I’m about to give you could be one between guru/pastor/leader and follower:

A victim, lets call her Karen, attempts to confront her abuser over something he said that she didn’t believe to be true. She’s tried before one on one, but he yells at her until she stops and just listens. No one is there to witness it. So this time she asks him about it in front of someone. “I just wanted to clarify something you said to me on Tuesday,” she says, fearful.

“I didn’t speak to you on Tuesday,” he responds, glibly.

“Yes you did. I was at your office. I arrived at five past ten. I texted you because I was going to be late,” Karen says. She starts to feel anxious.
“No you didn’t,” he says. “I wasn’t there Tuesday.”

She knows he was. She goes to check her phone/diary. “See, here’s my appointment. I was there. SO were you.”

He grabs his phone and opens up their text message history, fumbling for a second. “Here. No text message. You weren’t there Tuesday. Your memory is playing tricks on you.”

She panics, but presses on with rising anxiety. “Anyway! We had a discussion where you said (insert damaging statement here).”

He leans across the table, face exuding empathy and care, “Karen, that conversation never happened. You imagined it. Your mind is not reliable.” He then turns to the person sitting next to them. “She clearly needs our support. She’s just not stable.” Karen feels shame, embarrassment and confusion. She is still hurt by the original thing he said, the one she tried to confront him over, but now her mental stability has been called into question in front of a witness, perhaps even a friend who now looks down on her.

The thing is, she was there on Tuesday. She did send the text message. He just deleted it so the evidence was gone, and denied the conversation that would have outed him as having damaged her psychologically. Ask any abuser if they are an abuser. The vast majority will say no. They’ll say no up until a criminal conviction and then sometimes after that. Jails are full of people still claiming innocence. That’s why its important to know gaslighting when you see it – so you know you aren’t the guilty one.

Karen’s guru/pastor/leader may have set himself up as an authority figure or a person with power and control over her life. To anyone else, including the person beside him in the example above, he may seem eloquent, caring, and utterly incapable of abuse.

Karen isn’t crazy. The first time gaslighting happened to her, she may not even have noticed it or second guessed her own mind. But as the behaviour progresses, she may doubt herself more and more. She may experience abuse, be it psychological or otherwise, and yet he may erase evidence and pretend it never happened only to point again to her ‘faulty brain’ and ask her why she is imagining such awful things.

Its insidious. It can be big moments like this, or like in the movie – causing the lights to dim and then denying that they have dimmed – or it can be subtle.

–          An “I forgive you” from the abuser when the victim has done nothing wrong.

–          An “I love you” from someone who causes you physical harm. If you want to know what love looks like, check out 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13. It’s a pretty good checklist on what love is and isn’t.

In an article on Psychology Today, Robyn Stern (PhD) suggests there are three stages to gaslighting. The first is “disbelief.”

“When the first sign of gaslighting occurs,” writes Stern. “You think of the gaslighting interaction as a strange behavior or an anomalous moment. During this first stage, things happen between you and your partner, or your boss, friend, family member, that seem odd to you.”

The second is defense, where you try to defend yourself against the gaslighting type of manipulation. I wasn’t going to lift a big quote from Sterns article, but gee, its good. She explains it this way:

“Think about it—you tell your boss, for example, you are unhappy with the assignments you have been getting; you feel you are being wrongly passed over for the best assignments. You ask him why this is happening. Instead of addressing the issue, he tells you that you are way too sensitive and way too stressed….. well, maybe you are sensitive and stressed, but, that doesn’t answer the question of why you are being passed over for these better assignments. But, rather than leave it at that, or redirect the conversation, you start defending yourself, telling your boss you are not that sensitive or stressed, or, that the stress doesn’t interfere with your ability to work. But, during this stage, you are driven crazy by the conversation…. going over and over, like an endless tape, in your mind.”

The third stage cited by Stern is depression:

“By the time you get to this stage you are experiencing a noticeable lack of joy  and, you hardly recognize yourself anymore. Some of your behavior feels truly alien. You feel more cut off from friends—in fact, you don’t talk to people about your relationship very much—none of them like your guy. People may express concern about how you are and you are feeling—they treat you like you really do have a problem.”

Side note: she is the author of a book called The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulations Other People Use to Control Your Life.” If you need it, get it.

What are the warning signs?

I’m no psychologist. I’m no expert on gaslighting even though I’ve experienced it. But I can tell you that, no matter how long you’ve faced it for, you can get back to a place where you can spot it and deal with it. It might take therapy. It might take time. But it can be done.

I think we could probably say that the first warning sign is that those three stages listed above rang some bells with you. Gaslighting isn’t always obvious. In fact, it uses subtlety and confusion as weapons. It isn’t always “on purpose” as the abuser may operate this way almost habitually. It is always damaging, I would argue. But again, I’m not an expert.

Who is? Dr. Stephanie Sarkis PhD. She posted these 11 warning signs in an article on Psychology Today. Read it for further detail. Its good. But here’s the scoop. (Thanks Psych Today/Dr Sarkis):

  1. They tell blatant lies
  2. They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof
  3. They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition
  4. They wear you down over time
  5. Their actions do not match their words
  6. They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you
  7. They know confusion weakens people
  8. They project [ie. accuse you of the thing they are guilty of]
  9. They try to align people against you
  10. They tell you or others that you are crazy
  11. They tell you everyone else is a liar

Seriously, if you’ve got the time to do it, go read the article. The examples might help you understand what is happening to you or someone close to you. I’m not going to try and write some pithy, cutesy article with all the answers here. But I am going to tell you this: you can recover. I’m a huge advocate of therapy here. It might start by calling a domestic violence service. They can help you through it and point you to where you can get some good counselling and reclaim that beautiful brain of yours.

I have experienced this phenomenon. I remember, at the height of my gaslighting (in one scenario), I believed I was dumb, defective and utterly hopeless. I can’t tell you how dark that time was. Imagine my utter horror when I was chosen in a human resources class to do an IQ test (we were studying psychometrics). My result came back, well, okay I’ll say it – high.

So high I had to sit back and think “Well. I’m not dumb then, am I? If I’m not dumb, then maybe there are some other things I am being lied to about here.” That was my trigger for a journey out.  It has taken time, but I’ve reclaimed my brain. It’s a good one. I like it.

I’m telling you that because encouragement helps. But like I said, I’m not going to offer you five steps out of the situation you may be in. I’d strongly suggest:

–          Contacting a domestic violence service. Google one in your local area (Click here if you need to clear your browser history afterwards)

–          Contacting the Cult Information and Family Support Service (or a cult support service in your local area if you have one). www.cifs.org.au

–          Access counselling services through your local GP

–          Calling the police if your immediate safety is at risk

–          Calling Lifeline on 13 11 14 if you are feeling depressed and at risk.

Gaslighting is wrong. It is abusive. It might feel too hard to overcome. I get that. But you can do it. Just don’t feel like you have to do it alone. There is so much help out there. Don’t quit. Please access help. Life can be beautiful again.

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