What is gaslighting?Question: "What is gaslighting?"
Answer: Gaslighting is a form of emotional and psychological abuse designed to gain control over the victim. Gaslighting has three main components: 1) Convincing the victim that the abuse she suffers is her fault, 2) Convincing the victim that she did not experience what she thinks she did, and 3) Separating the victim from people who support her. The tone of the victimizer can alternate between concerned and kind, and angry and abusive. The victim slowly learns to mistrust her own judgment, perception, and even sanity until she relies on the abuser to define reality for her.
The term gaslighting comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight staring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, which was based on a 1938 play, Gas Light. In the story, a woman named Paula moves with her new husband to her family home after the murder of her aunt, a rich opera singer. Paula begins to witness strange things like a picture disappearing, a brooch gone missing, and the titular gas lights dimming. Her husband convinces her that the incidents are either caused by her or never happened. He uses Paula’s supposed mental issues to justify his efforts to further sequester her in the house. In the end, we learn he had murdered Paula’s aunt and developed an elaborate plan to discredit Paula to her own mind so he could freely search the house for her aunt’s jewels.
The primary aim of the abuser who uses gaslighting is to manipulate his victim into believing him more than her own mind. The victim begins to doubt the reality of situations she clearly witnessed and to disbelieve her perception of the abuser’s behavior. The abuser alternates his nefarious behavior with concern and encouragement, leading his victim to rely on him for stability and support, and isolating her from those who have a true interest in her well-being.
Another example of gaslighting in popular fiction is Wormtongue’s “council” for Théoden, king of Rohan, in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. By the time help arrives, in the form of Gandalf the wizard, King Théoden so doubts his own mind that he believes everything Wormtongue tells him. In the movie version, Wormtongue also tries to gaslight Eowyn, telling her she is alone, implying that neither her uncle Théoden nor her brother can save her. She resists by turning away and declaring, “Your words are poison!”
Not all gaslighters are aware of what they are doing. Some have so deceived themselves they actually believe the lies they’re telling. Others are so afraid of the truth that they do anything they can to hide it. Kids often have no problem gaslighting their parents—falsely claiming mom never told them to do the dishes, for example—in order to avoid a punishment. Other gaslighters know exactly what they’re doing. “Negging” is a manipulative flirting technique wherein the man passive-aggressively insults the woman until her confidence drops and she feels the need to make him have a more positive view of her—often by doing what he wants. Whether intentional or not, gaslighting is sin and comes from a place of selfishness and a desire to control.
In fact, gaslighting was utilized in the first temptation mentioned in the Bible. Satan first prompts Eve to question what she heard God say about the tree of knowledge, and then he asserts that her account is wrong. That is gaslighting, as he caused Eve to doubt the reality of what she knew to be true (Genesis 3:1–3).
Gaslighting is also common in cults and abusive “churches,” as well as politics. It can be seen in abusers who convince children they deserve or desire their abuse. In preachers who tell questioning parishioners that their request for clarification on spiritual matters is sinful mistrust of God and disrespect of the pastor. Or in parishioners who criticize and then vaguely praise their pastor in an attempt to control him. In the political arena, when a leader or even a country flatly denies doing or saying what they publicly did or said, others may find it extremely difficult to counter the lie, especially if the media provide cover, or to address the issue in a meaningful way.
For the Gaslighter – Gaslighting can come from a place of great fear or great narcissism. It may be learned or instinctive. It is difficult for a gaslighter to admit he or she has a problem because the gaslighter believes that arranging the world in the “proper” way is a legitimate and reasonable goal. Anyone who works against that goal is obviously wrong and needs to be set straight. The Bible says differently:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3–4).
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you” (Romans 12:3).
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).
If you realize—or you’re told—that you are manipulative and controlling, please seek counseling. It’s likely there is a deep-seated wound that only Jesus can heal. And He is willing!
For the Abused – God made us to be interdependent on others in the church, but He did not make us to abandon all reason and rely solely on another’s judgment. God wants us to live in the truth.
“Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long” (Psalm 25:5).
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
“For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
If you suspect you are being gaslighted, please seek counseling. Do not isolate yourself from godly friends. And, if need be, keep a journal so you can remind yourself of the facts. If the gaslighter is a partner in a dating relationship, seriously consider ending that relationship. If you feel gaslighted in the church and discouraged from finding answers to your spiritual questions, come to GotQuestions.org!
Recommended Resources: The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by Johnson & VanVonderen
Dig into this topic more with Logos Bible Software—Get 10% off any base package.
What is spiritual abuse?
Does a person / ministry need a spiritual covering?
What does it mean to have a seared conscience?
What does it mean to be double-minded (James 1:8; 4:8)?
Does the Bible give any one individual spiritual authority over another individual?
Topical Bible Questions
What is gaslighting?