Gaslighting: What It Is and What It Isn’t

When I was still living with my parents, just before I got married and made my escape from the cult, I almost had a nervous breakdown. I was under tremendous stress, and that on its own was probably enough to drive me a bit batty. But I had more than a little bit of help in reaching a point of actively questioning whether I was going insane.

It started subtly at first, with my parents denying things that had happened years ago—long enough ago that it made sense that we might remember those situations very differently. But then it increased to more and more recent events with my parents painting very different pictures of what had happened than what I remembered. At first, I didn’t think anything malicious was involved, even as I increasingly began to question my ability to remember something accurately even a few hours after it happened.

Then one night, the veil was lifted, and I saw clearly the terrifying reality that my parents were trying to destabilize my sense of reality. The night before, I’d heard the sounds of Pete’s Dragon wafting from the living room to my bedroom. I barely took note of it as I went about doing whatever I was doing. But then the next night, as I walked through the living room, I noticed they were watching it again.

I paused and asked, “Didn’t you just watch this?”

I didn’t need them to tell me that they had. I knew they did. It was more a question of why—why watch the same movie twice in a row?

But they looked at me and feigned confusion, so I clarified, “You watched this last night. I heard you watching it last night. Now you’re watching it again tonight.”

Without missing a beat, they told me, “No, we didn’t watch this last night.” Their faces were calm and direct.

I felt the familiar stirrings of the paranoia I had increasingly been experiencing rising up in me, but I was confident enough in my hearing, if not other aspects of my memory, that I reasserted I had heard the movie playing last night.

They denied it again…and again…and again. I lost count of how many times they told me they hadn’t seen the movie the night before. I knew it was impossible that they wouldn’t remember watching the movie twice in a row, but I never dreamed they would lie to me. The only other explanation was that my mind had officially broken.

I was on the verge of a panic attack and actively wondering if this was the moment I would go insane when their façade broke and they began to giggle, admitting that they had indeed watched the movie the night before. “We’re just playing with you!”

It was that moment that I realized they were actively enjoying my distress. I didn’t know what to call it at the time. It would be years later that I would discover the concept of gaslighting. But I could tell that it was intentional in that moment and that it was designed to unsettle me.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had the “but this happened”/”no it didn’t” argument with them. It wasn’t even the most serious incident because, honestly, them watching a movie twice in two nights had no bearing on my life. But it was the first time they had slipped up enough to lose the mask, their mirth leaking through.

I went back to my room, sick with the knowledge that for sport and control my parents were willing to actively fuck with my sense of sanity, that they were willing to lie to my face about my own experiences…and that they were damned good at it.

They never admitted to doing it again, but I recognized the signs from then on. I could not shake the paranoia they had instilled. Each time it happened again, I felt like my brain was going to snap. I resorted to transcribing conversations in my journal or on my computer immediately after they happened so that I had a record of what was said–and that it had even happened. Eventually I began refusing to have conversations with them without another person to witness, usually my fiancé phoning in over the phone, because I couldn’t trust them and had lost my trust in myself.

To this day, I get sick thinking about how close they came to causing a psychotic break in me. There are no words to describe the horror of feeling like your mind is someone else’s play thing.

Today, I see so many social justice activists tossing around the word “gaslighting” for anything and everything, and it concerns me to see how watered down the word has become.

Gaslighting is a terrifying and extreme experience. It’s a very serious form of abuse. But it isn’t what many people are using the word for.

Samantha Field has also spoken out on this issue, and I want to acknowledge that she has some great things to say but I want to expand on what gaslighting is and is not because I think it’s vital that social justice and the left stop using this word as a catch-all.

Gaslighting is not disagreeing with someone. It’s not disagreeing with their worldview, holding a different perspective from them on sensitive issues, or actively disagreeing with their interpretation of politics and society.

If someone thinks something is a result of sexism, it’s not gaslighting for another person to disagree with that and think that they’re misinterpreting what they experienced. That might feel silencing, demeaning, infantilizing, minimizing, and a whole lot of other things, but it’s not gaslighting.

It isn’t gaslighting someone to disagree with their interpretation of yours or someone else’s thoughts, feelings, or intentions. None of us are mind-readers and none of us can know the internal experience of someone else. There is room to disagree when someone else is purporting to know what a person who isn’t themselves is thinking, feeling, or intending.

It isn’t even gaslighting to remember the same situation in different ways. People’s memories are made of what their brains perceived as salient at the time; therefore, it isn’t uncommon for two people to have been in the same situation and have different memories of that situation.

In a similar vein, gaslighting isn’t forgetting details of a conversation, encounter, or event that another person seems to remember well. (This is where it took me some time to recognize it happening to me because there was a genuine chance that my parents didn’t remember something from five years ago the way I did. There’s also a chance I could have encoded my interpretation as opposed to the actual words that were said).

It’s not gaslighting trying to persuade or influence someone to agree with you using emotionally persuasive or manipulative tactics. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation, but not all manipulation is gaslighting.

I’ll even go so far as to say that denial and lying aren’t inherently gaslighting because gaslighting is a far more sinister technique that goes beyond merely trying to escape accountability.

Gaslighting is a campaign to undermine a person’s sense of sanity by making them actively question their ability to trust their memories and sensory perceptions (e.g. what they hear, see, smell, etc.). And it requires a relationship where the gaslighting person is in a position of trust and uses that trust to break down a person’s own ability to reality check themselves.

The term comes from a movie in which a husband actively drives his wife to the brink of insanity by insidious toying with her environment such as removing things from his wife’s purse and pretending she removed the thing and doesn’t remember doing so or causing noises and sputtering lights but then pretending that his wife isn’t seeing what she saw or hearing what she heard.

It’s part of what makes Shutter Island so terrifying, wondering if DiCaprio’s character has just been insane the whole time or if it’s all an elaborate plot to convince him he is because he knows too much. Once they can convince him he’s insane, they can control him.

This is not a tool in the average person’s tool box. It’s calculated and deliberately orchestrated. It’s not something a stranger can implement. It requires time…first to build up the victim’s trust in the perpetrator and then to erode the trust of the victim in themselves. I believe that’s important for people to understand.

As Samantha points out, misusing the term “gaslighting” whenever a discussion becomes uncomfortable and triggering waters down the meaning, but I’d also say that it discredits the word as well. People will remember being accused of “gaslighting” unjustly or seeing someone else unjustly accused of it, and it will influence how seriously they’ll take the concept.

Abuse survivors have a hard enough time as it is being believed when they disclose that they’ve been abused in various ways. False accusations, though comprising a small percentage of accusations, manage to undermine the credibility of all accusations.

In other words, those who cry wolf don’t just damage their own credibility, they damage the credibility of everyone who is watching out for wolves.

Which means we have to be careful about how we use terms that connote abuse like “gaslighting” (or “violence,” which could be a whole post on its own). We cannot allow these terms to come to mean merely that someone has made us uncomfortable by disagreeing, has stimulated difficult emotions, or has inadvertently triggered past trauma.

Those of us who know what it is have a responsibility to speak out when we see it being misused or misapplied. Otherwise, we assist the wolves. People will get so used to hearing “wolf!” that they’ll stop paying attention. They won’t see that someone is being psychologically eaten.

EDIT: my partner pointed out a caveat in which trust may not be present but extreme dependency is. I think it’s fair to say that in instances in which someone has power over defining someone else’s environment, as in the case of captivity, that gaslighting can happen in the absence of trust. The captive may not trust the captor but may not have another source of reality testing and validation available. For most people, that is not a circumstance they will encounter.

Authentic Movement Continued: Holding Safe Space

Last week, I talked about my first experience with Authentic Movement at an herbal conference that I attended recently. Today, I want to follow up with a discussion of safe space and spirituality.

As a cult survivor, I am naturally skittish around spiritual gatherings. As I said last week, my motto tends to be, “Never let anyone get you into a state of anything less than guarded.”

As a psychology graduate and someone who has dedicated my life to researching and understanding cult trauma, I can give you an academic breakdown of the methods cults use to tear a person’s identity down. I have written about my insider’s experience with recruitment here before too.

I know that cult experiences, though often appearing similar, are not the same as spiritual experiences. I can feel the difference between a positive spiritual exchange and an invasive, creepy ambush. But I’m always hung up on the visual similarities.

Some cult psychologists have chosen to take the easy way out. Since cults use trances, meditation, singing, drumming, dancing, and a myriad of other “spiritual” practices to manipulate people, some just view those methods as always dangerous. It makes sense. Why take the chance?

Others, like Margaret Thaler Singer, tentatively leave room for such spiritual practices to be used constructively by non-cult groups as long as participants give informed consent. In her book Cults in our Midst, it is very clearly it’s the lack of full disclosure that marks a cult in her mind.

I think informed consent is so important that it could almost become the sole criteria for differentiating cultic groups from safe groups . . . almost.

It still doesn’t explain how meditation in one space can be perfectly safe but in another space can potentially destroy one’s life. It doesn’t explain how two religious ceremonies can contain similar elements but one is destructive and abusive at its core while another is empowering and positive.

I didn’t go to the Authentic Movement class to learn about the difference between cults and safe groups, but I did stay for that. I was intrigued when the teacher said, “I’m not here tell you what to do. I’m not here to judge, interpret, or project any thoughts onto your movements. I’m only here to hold safe space for you.”

I wanted to find out what that meant. I think part of me might have even stayed because I wanted to see if she could even follow through on that promise.

True to her word, the teacher never said anything, either during or after, about anyone’s movements. The interpretation of what came up was entirely left up to the individual.

In fact, the entire weekend was like that, not just her class.

There were services that were very reminiscent of church from my childhood where we sang “hymns,” had a short meet and greet, were led in prayer, and listened to a speaker. However, unlike in my childhood, I never felt violated, manipulated, or threatened in any way at the herbal conference ceremonies. I was never pressured to make a confession or dedicate my life to a god, goddess, or cause. I wasn’t even expected to attend or participate.

It was so different from my previous experiences of camp at The Wilds that I spent the first day somewhat reeling from the unneeded defensiveness–something akin to the psychological version of when you think you’re picking up something heavy, but it’s actually so light that your arm flies over your head from the unnecessary force applied.

The herbal conference also had rhythmic drums, chants, meditation, yoga, and dancing around bonfires—all things that I know cults can and do use to numb the critical thinking of members, yet the atmosphere was one of openness and freedom. I did not lose myself in the those moments, but I know that I could have and that I would have been honored in my vulnerability, not preyed upon.

What made the difference?

Safe space.

It’s not just the lack of informed consent that makes cults dangerous. It’s the lack of respect for autonomy.

It’s not the tools (meditation, singing, preaching, prayer, etc.) that are the problem; it’s the environment.

Cults don’t care about creating safe space. They create experiences by manipulating your feelings and your perceptions, then they tell you how to interpret those experiences based on their projections of who you are and their judgment of your non-conformity.

But healthy spiritual groups don’t do that. They merely offer a place in which you can have your own experiences and interpret them for yourself. The spiritual leader’s job, whether it be a pastor, priestess, or guru, isn’t to guide you to where they are. It’s to hold you without judgment, interpretation, or projection as you guide yourself.

Ch-ch-ch-children! Grow One of Your Own! The scam of Biblical parenting.

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ philosophy towards raising kids. Like most IFB parents, they believed in the popular “spare the rod, spoil the child” myth that they think comes from Proverbs.

Technically the "spare the rod" phrase isn't even in the Bible. But beyond that, there's enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

Technically the “spare the rod” phrase isn’t even in the Bible. But beyond that, there’s enough empirical evidence to show that spanking has more detrimental effects than positive ones.

In and of itself, that idea is problematic, especially when that “rod” is taken literally to mean an instrument with which to beat someone (i.e. a belt, cooking spoon, wooden paddle, etc.) However, it’s not that philosophy that has been bothering me lately, even though it certainly bothers me at other times. It was one they extracted from another verse in Proverbs 22:6.

“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

My dad had a favorite illustration he would use in his sermons to convey how he thought this verse was to be used. It was the idea that children were like plants. If you want a plant to grow a certain way, you put constraints on it and prune it. Otherwise it will just grow any which way it wants.

The problem is that children aren’t like plants—at least not the way he viewed plants (For the record, I have a much different view of plants, but for the sake of this post, I won’t get into that.)

In his mind, a plant might be “living” in so far as it grew, but it wasn’t a conscious being. It didn’t feel pain. It had no hopes, desires, dreams, plans, or personality. Thus, cutting it or manipulating it to grow the way he wanted was about as offensive as molding clay.

Children are not like plants.

They do have personalities, dreams, hopes, sometimes even plans.

And they definitely feel pain.

To assume that growing a plant is the same as growing a child is grossly problematic. For one, plant growth is physical. It’s an awesome ability to be able to grow new shoots after being cut down, but you can’t cut a child’s arm and have it regrow in a better shape. Children don’t just grow physically, and obviously this illustration wasn’t talking about the physical growth of a child. It was about the mental growth.

One of the most important psychological developments for a child is the development of a sense of self—a sense of being a separate being from others. With that sense of self should come a growing sense of autonomy and an ability to think and reason for oneself.

But fundamentalism doesn’t acknowledge that aspect of growth in children and acts in a way that actively tries to stifle the natural development of the child’s psyche. Like so many of my friends who survived living in the IFB, I remember all too well the lessons and songs about obedience. Children were to obey right away, without question. Anything else was rebellion, and rebellion, I also remember being taught, was “as the sin of witchcraft,” which was a stoning offense in Bible times (both rebellion and witchcraft).

From a very young age, therefore, I was led to believe that questioning my parents’ reason for any rule was a dangerous place to go. As I got older and started to develop my own tastes, that presented unique problems. They thought rock, country, pop, rap, CCM, jazz, and any other music genre you can think of were all bad. They thought movie theaters and playing cards were sinful. They thought drinking alcohol was wrong. They thought wearing “tight” (aka didn’t fall off my hips without a belt) jeans and shirts was morally reprehensible. They thought shorts and bathing suits and tank tops were indecent.

And I discovered that I liked Shania Twain, didn’t think there was any logical reason why playing cards and theaters should be off-limits, wanted to wear clothes that fit and that expressed my unique style, and didn’t want to have to leave my cousin’s wedding reception early because people around me had wine in their hands.

I was doing what any normal teenager would do—developing my own ideas for myself. And they were hardly radical ideas to the rest of the world.

But in my family, I was “rebelling.”

There’s actually a psychological term for what I was doing—individuation. It’s a healthy and necessary step in the psychological development of a person.

In fact, as far as I know, every teen in the IFB goes through a “rebellious” phase—some sooner than later. Some are easier to “break” than others (yes, the goal is to “break the will” of the child—their own words)—but every child “rebels” within this paradigm.

So I had a strict upbringing. Who cares, right? It’s no big deal. What is so dangerous about this teaching that children, like plants, can be manipulated into absolute obedience?

The danger is this: Physical growth isn’t enough. Children need to stimulate their mind in order to develop their brains so they can function as adults. By making individuation a sin, my father automatically made growing up an act of rebellion.

I recognize that he is, to some extent, the victim of this teaching too. He didn’t come up with it on his own. It was taught to him, maybe by his parents (ironically, I don’t know what their parenting philosophy was), probably more so by his college and seminary training. And for that, I do not hold him responsible.

However, I do hold him responsible for perpetuating that teaching onto his own family and the church that he pastors.

Shortly before I left, my dad said, “I’m sorry I raised a daughter like you.” I suppose it must have been terribly disappointing to realize that his parenting method didn’t work as well as his gardening methods. Unfortunately for him, children aren’t chia pets.

Chia-Pet-Bunny