For those unfamiliar with the term – gaslighting is a manipulation tactic used to exert power over a subject by causing them to question their subjective reality and possibly their sanity. This form of brainwashing works by eliciting doubt and confusion as a means of undermining and marginalizing the views and beliefs of others. It’s a way to control other’s behaviors by first distorting their thoughts.
For some, control can be necessary to maintain a sense of order. Sometimes individuals and leaders feel the need to gaslight those who are out of order for the greater good of the churches and communities they serve. If this applies to you, then here are some basic tips and scenarios to help you get started:
- Create near unobtainable expectations for spiritual standards of living or religious commitments. Then, criticize those who can’t meet such expectations. Continue to emphasize your expectations, but throw in a thought or message about grace and the importance of self-care. Demanding high expectations with occasional positive reinforcement through grace is a surefire way to get the confusion started.
- Question or make strong, negative inferences about someone’s allegiance to their faith, God, or the church. But, be passive about it. Tell them that obedience and servanthood are fruitful signs of the faithful, and maybe they should examine their commitments outside of the church.
- Use hyperbole and, if need be, outright lies. If a parishioner takes issue with something you’ve said, change the meaning. Tell them they misinterpreted you even if they didn’t. Then reframe the scenario so that they second-guess their assumptions. Pro tip: if you do this with a false sense of compassion, you can even elicit guilt on their part for thinking you might have been or done something wrong.
- Talk down to people. This can be literally, from your platform or pulpit – don’t be afraid to call people out in public and minimize them or their feelings through a little public shaming. You can also cause others to question their integrity as faithful believers, and it will help discredit them should they ever dissent.
- You can talk down to people in a more figurative sense too. Be confident, assertive, and project onto them. They’ll become so distracted by their insecurities that they’ll start to take your word and trust in you more than their conscience. And this will limit possible dissension.
- Make insinuating claims or sweeping generalizations that might offend or upset them. Then, direct the subject towards their feelings. “Why are you upset all the time?” or “There’s something in your spirit that is causing you to be angry with me.” This will make them question their reactions and the motives behind their emotions. With practice, you can make them feel as though they are too sensitive, that they constantly overreact, or that they have an inherent problem with your leadership.
- When consulting with people that have told you they’ve prayed about a decision and are at peace with a course of action that you don’t like or agree with ask them, “but have you really prayed about it?” Use repetition when necessary. Make sure they know that you speak for God and because you don’t agree with their choices that they’re probably wrong no matter what peace they feel.
- Also, question where the answer came from in their prayers. Use prompts such as: “Was it God that was speaking?” or “Are you sure you aren’t just listening to the world to hear what you want?” Don’t worry about insinuating that they’re intentions aren’t pure. In fact, let them know you think their intentions are good. Let them know you believe they’re a good person who loves God and wants to do the right thing. But then, reinforce that they’re probably still wrong. A little condescension can go a long way.
- Use the Bible against them and in your favor. Let them know that they’re ability to correctly hear from God and read his word might be compromised. Only a true believer, by your definition, can glean from God’s word and since they’re not a true believe they can’t possibly divine something from His word. You want to limit their chances of concluding scriptural interpretations on their own.
- When someone you’re actively gaslighting hesitates in responding to your questions when you confront them, or if they waver at all in their answers – point this out. Let them know they seem confused and use this against them. Explain that this is probably an example that they are wrong and you are right. Infer that they might not know what they know because they aren’t as prepared, or as well versed, as you. Remind them that you know more and that you’ve seen this before and that you alone can help them with their doubts or disagreements. This will help solidify the distrust of their instincts.
- When the person you’re gaslighting is finally at the breaking point of confusion about what to believe, what to do, and who to trust – remind them that you are always there to help them. Gaslighting works best when a façade of trust is built up, and your subject can’t see the strings your pulling to control them. In the end, they should be too unwilling to speak up, express opinions or emotions but, if they do, they should also be readily willing to trust your judgment instead of theirs.
If you’re reading this and you haven’t caught on yet this shouldn’t be taken literally, then I’m sorry. It’s important for these behaviors to be exposed so that they can be prevented. And if you are someone who deems it necessary to exert control in this or any way, then you need to understand that you are harming more than you are helping. You’re not serving God; you’re serving your ego.
If you read this and you identify with the side of feeling confused, too sensitive, and you are having trouble trusting your judgments, making decisions, or are too anxious to express these things openly – then you are probably a victim of this type of manipulation. It may be necessary to remove yourself from the relationship, situation, or community that is causing this – spiritual or otherwise.
If you have ever experienced gaslighting, specifically within a spiritual community, or if you have any tips or scenarios that you’ve seen used or have been used against you – please include them in a comment below.