Understanding Gaslighting

Let’s talk about gaslighting — a manipulation tactic that seeks to distort reality and erode one’s sense of self. In this episode, Dan and Rachael dissect the mechanics of gaslighting, from its manifestation in personal relationships to its insidious presence within larger structures and societal frameworks.

Gaslighting operates in the shadows, a subtle and insidious act that can be challenging to spot and break free from. 

Our hope is that this conversation will not only help you identify instances of gaslighting but also shed light on the path toward profound healing. 

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: All right. Rachael, I have to ask, do I ever put you in the bind of a Bible quiz?

Rachael: No. You never have.

Dan: I have never. So have I ever put you in kind of like a cultural question quiz?

Rachael: I’m just, I’m trying to think. My brain is like, wait, what would a cultural question quiz be? Like something about generational differences.

Dan: Let’s just say the answer I know is no. So just to start that, I’m just saying…

Rachael: Yeah, you’re not typically a quiz… You don’t typically quiz me.

Dan: No, I don’t like quizzes at all. I never did very well.

Rachael: You ask good questions, you ask good questions, but never with a, there’s a right answer to this question.

Dan: No. And I didn’t do well in school and I didn’t do well on quizzes, especially what was, at least in my era, called pop quizzes. So here’s a pop quiz. Do you know Webster’s 2022 Word of the Year?

Rachael: No, I do not.

Dan: It’s our topic. Gaslighting.

Rachael: Oh wow.

Dan: It’s so big that Webster, even though the word has been in circulation since about 1938, there was a British play called Gaslighting, which was eventually turned into a movie in about, I think 1943 or 1934. And the term gaslighting in that context, it was a malevolent man married to a woman who he was “gaslighting”. And what would happen is he would go to the attic to do terrible things and their lighting, gas, would begin to dim, and he would convince her, or was working to convince her that the lights were not changing at all. So as we come to this term, gaslighting, it has a history, but let’s just say in this age of misinformation, in this age of dissemination of information, that on many levels is just abjectly untrue. Yet we have many media and other sources working very hard to convince people that their perception of reality is not true. So this is not a fun topic, and it moves us into one of the realms that you have done so much good work in terms of emotional and spiritual abuse. So as we step into the term gaslighting, I dunno about you, but this is just, I almost feel sick as we begin this conversation.

Rachael: Yeah, I mean, on so many levels, because I mean, I didn’t realize gaslighting was the Webster’s dictionary word for 2022, but I’m not surprised at all. Because you’re right, I’m familiar with this word more in a kind of interpersonal intercommunity, forms of gaslighting, like you said, emotional abuse, domestic violence, spiritual abuse in religious context. But when we think about the larger, I mean just in some ways our nation’s in-capacity to tell true stories, to tell the full story is a form of gaslighting in and of itself. Like what’s happening right now with this banning of books to tell history, to tell historical stories, because somehow that’s more violent than the fact that it’s already happened. It’s like these are very collective forms of gaslighting. So yes, that feeling sick to your stomach, and we talked about this in another podcast, I think around story and body, but the sense of the gut, the gut brain. And so when we talk about a term like gaslighting, it is such a visceral experience. And I’m sure so many of you who are listening, maybe this is a newer concept for you, maybe this is something you’re so familiar with and you’ve actually gotten a lot of healing and gotten out of context where you’ve been gaslit. But it is that it does make you sick to your stomach because it is being told to counteract and in some ways, to ignore and to disregard your gut and what your gut is telling you. It’s crazy making. I know I’m in the presence of being gaslit when I feel like I’m taking crazy pills, but the visceral experience is like nausea. It’s wanting to vomit. So yeah, being sick to your stomach feels like an appropriate physical reaction to even the term.

Dan: Anytime someone is working to discredit, to invalidate or shame you and to make you feel small and powerless. And again, we’ll come back to this word, but it’s not the only word where you feel stupid in the presence of another, where it isn’t just somebody showing off that they know more than you. It really is an effort for them to gain, not just control, but a kind of complete control over you. So I think it would be important to just give some examples. And again, part of the dilemma with giving examples is they’re not perfect because what we’re talking about is motive. We’re talking about a person’s working to accomplish something that can utilize sort of structures of interaction that in and of themselves are not good. But every time somebody, and well, lemme give you one, minimizing what you’re going through. I’ve had plenty of people minimize suffering or struggle that I’m going through, and I don’t think they’re gaslighting me, but it’s one of those, oh, it’s not that big of a deal. Why would you think it’s that big of a deal? You’re overreacting, you’re just too emotional. So you can see it isn’t just sort of one element. It’s almost like watching it compact into five interactions in a short period of time. But other ways, you know have been or others have been gaslit.

Rachael: Yeah, I mean, gosh, I just want to add to what you’re saying, that sense of, I think what I’ve often heard is not only you’re too emotional, it’s like you’re too sensitive. Why are you so sensitive? You’re crazy. Just that sense of, again, it’s a very explicit kind of minimizing and evading, I think the distraction changing topics and whether the changing of topics is like, well, I want to talk about things that frustrate me about you. I mean, one of the ways I feel like I’ve experienced gaslighting is, and I think we can talk about what’s actually happening and you can maybe help me put words to what’s happening, but the felt experience is I’m actually trying to bring up something that’s hurting me or frustrating me in a certain context, in a church context, in past relationships. But I leave the conversation feeling like I’m the abuser. I’m the one that actually is in the wrong, who’s harmed and failed and needs to do better. And so leaving with almost guilt and shame and a sense of, I guess, so I see probably shaming and blaming, lemme shame you and blame you so that I can project everything you’re bringing back onto you and you can be bad. And I don’t have to own anything because I don’t do anything wrong.

Dan: I find that it’s like a two stage process. The frustration or hurt that I’m experiencing and sharing with another person turns, first of all to be my own fault. You’re just too sensitive. You shouldn’t have been in that position or situation to begin with. And here’s part of the problem. Often there’s this minuscule portion of truth, but it’s not true. It has an element. But then to move from, I’m at fault for my own pain, and then the other person begins to make it clear that I have actually hurt them far more than there’s been any, shall we say, suffering on my part. So not only am I responsible for my pain, but now I’m even more so responsible for theirs. It is an incredible jujitsu move where you end up pitting yourself and something feels, again, we’re going to keep coming back to this word of you just feel crazy. So having your motives attacked ad hominem arguments where all the features of past failures get lined up, almost like an army, an infantry that’s attacking you, that leaves me often in a position where, wait a minute, we’re dealing with this conflict. But you bring this entire regimen of past failures, and again, you can see the weight of feeling it back to your word shaming and blaming, but ultimately questioning and leaving me with regard to my perception or with regard to what I’m experiencing, it all feels like I am destitute, terrible. The failure and the only failure in the context of whatever the issue is.

Yep. You want to just stop? We can just stop this podcast and say, folks, I hope you deal with it. But just to say it’s not the same thing as being in a good argument, you can really be pretty intense. But it’s, again, you’ll hear this word again and again, it’s mutual when you’re in good argument. It’s not the same as being in a debate. It’s certainly not the same as questioning perception. I mean, there are just times Becky has said, I think your way of looking at this problem is really being skewed by X, Y, or Z. And I’m like, really? I’m not seeing? So again, there are times where we have literally prayed that we would have a hermeneutic, a way of reading reality that’s consistent with what’s true by far, not claiming that I read, particularly when I’m in pain, reality as well as I could. So it isn’t being questioned, it’s not a debate or argument. It’s not the same thing as even addressing hurt or disappointment. But again, what is the core? It’s a lack of mutuality, a lack of give and take where curiosity and kindness is involved. You can’t be in a relationship where there’s some degree of kindness and curiosity and feel the same effects of gaslighting as we’re talking about.

Rachael: Exactly. And I think that’s, you know when someone is weaponizing something, if you think about different experiences when someone is weaponizing, weaponizing your confusion, weaponizing past failures, weaponizing an argument versus when someone is just genuinely trying to come to a common ground with you. Because I’m always up for a good debate, a good argument. I like the tussle. I enjoy, not enjoy in a sadistic way, but I appreciate a good wrestling match that is sharpening where there is a mutuality, but always with the kind of curiosity and kindness as to how did you come to feel that way and see that way. And it’s totally appropriate even if you have good intentions to own your impact and to be curious about your impact. And that’s such a difference than I think the realm of gaslighting because when you are in the presence of someone who’s gaslighting, there is no capacity to ever own harm, impact. There is a weaponization of good intentions, even though you can say, I know you don’t have good intentions, there’s something really wrong about your intentionality here because that doesn’t even feel like you have my best interest at heart.

Dan: Let’s just say we have been in a number of wrestling matches, but can I brief aside before we get back to some of the symptoms, some of the effects of this, I just within the last week or so, I learned something about you that I had never known before. Do you mind me bringing that up? So why would wrestling have a certain degree of affinity to your life? Anything that you want to share with our audience? About your past.

Rachael: Sure. I mean, in high school, I was the wrestling homecoming queen of my high school. If you’ve never heard of such a thing, you probably aren’t from Oklahoma. But my brother was a wrestler, so I grew up going to wrestling tournaments, wrestling duels. I understand this sport of wrestling. I’m a big Oklahoma State wrestling fan. So yes, we were having a conversation about wrestling with one of our staff who used it as a beautiful, beautiful metaphor of how to do good story work and how to have solid ground. And I just disclosed that I was a former wrestling homecoming queen and have quite an affinity for wrestling.

Dan: And I don’t, because I was, at least at one time in the Ohio State records for having been pinned the fastest in the heavyweight division. A gentleman who was like six eight picked me up and pinned me at a regional match because the first two wrestlers, heavyweight division were hurt. I was the last third string. 17 seconds. But wrestling actually just even being around it, that’s alright. I’m more proud that you were the queen than I was a record, a record maker actually. So the reality of when you’re in a match where you have the energy of two people working to engage and in some sense of the word to win the argument, but when you’ve got someone who’s cornered you and is demeaning and is silencing and taking away the opportunity to take seriously your perspective, be it in a marriage, be it in a friendship, be it in church or any other setting, we’re talking about an energy literally to make you feel confused, crazy, small, ashamed, silent, and to shut you down. So what do you find to be two or three of the top symptoms of being gaslit?

Rachael: I think that sense, again, we’ve said it, like being silenced, you just said it being silenced, small, crazy. But I think ultimately for me is when the only way that feels out you can get out of being cornered is to concede, is to agree, is to be like, you know what? You’re right. And not just, you’re right, but now I’m going to apologize to you for this bad behavior, for being so crazy, for being so emotional. I’m sorry I made you feel this way. I will do better. Whatever. That sense of the only way to get out of the situation, which is another abusive situation, is to concede or agree or just turn in contempt towards yourself. Just take in the shame and the blame.

Dan: Well, and where you are questioning your own sanity and what I’m almost saying, questioning your own goodness.

Rachael: Absolutely.

Dan: That those kinds of moments where I’m not saying that we are not meant to bring to one another a kind of questioning. How are you thinking? It doesn’t seem well, it doesn’t seem like it fits the trajectory of what I know about you in terms of your love of goodness, your love of beauty, your love of others. So I mean, there is a place for being able, we’ll go back to the crown on your head wrestling. And yet the reality is when you’re in that bind, and I think you put it most brilliantly, whenever you have to in one sense, just you give up the farm, take it because the misery involved in the kind of onslaught you’re suffering doesn’t seem worth it in that moment. So concession with craziness would be the simplest definition for me of the effects of being gaslit. So I do want to spend, oh my goodness, the rest of our time beginning to talk about, okay, where and how are we to move in the presence of that kind of gaslighting.

Rachael: I mean, ultimately I think what first has to just be reckoned with, and it’s just a helpful category to begin to have something tangible to know what you’re working against. And I, for myself, and working with numerous people, this has been true, is getting a sense, getting help in how to address the ways of a narcissist or a narcissistic structure. Because the reality is gaslighting is 100% one of the primary tools of a narcissist or a narcissistic structure. And when I say narcissistic structure, I’m just simply talking out, I think religious structures that are spiritually abusive are narcissistic. They don’t have a true genuine core of humanity. White supremacy is a narcissistic structure. Misogyny is a narcissistic structure. In many ways, empire itself, is a narcissistic structure. Anything that is more concerned with defending itself than the flourishing of human beings and other people is in narcissistic structure. So whether that’s getting a good book to begin to have language, right, because that’s so much of what happens with gaslighting is you lose a capacity for language that you can trust. So having a sense of defining, and you’re up against something that is literally confusing you and distorting. So you can’t define what it’s you’re up against and you lose your sense. You could go into a confrontation or conversation knowing exactly what you feel and exactly what needs to be engaged, but you lose it so quickly in the presence of something that is like a black hole of a star that’s imploding. So whether it’s a good book that has categories or talking with a therapist that is helping you continue to find your grounding or find your sense of self, that has to be part of the healing process.

Dan: Oh, so crucial. But let’s also make the linkage that narcissists, especially those with significant power, and even more so in organizational structures, create narcissistic structures. So the narcissist is not just going to engage in the particular way he or she will. They’ll create a system that places them and they’re thrown at the center with in one sense, relationships built around it that serve to make sure that if you question the system, the structure that you likely won’t be in a dialogue, you won’t be in a conversation. There will be vastly more the prospect of beheading. And in that, you know, that it’s ruled by fear, it’s ruled by shame, and often ruled by a single powerful entity or presence that controls how the organization, system, institution will move forward. But it’s going to move forward through the process of this structure of disinformation. But when we come back to the particularity of what’s going to happen to you is that gaslighting. So I think coming back to say, can you smell grandiosity? Can you smell that thin-skinned violence? When a leader or a powerful narcissist is questioned, do you get a sense of how shame and fear gets utilized as the currency of relationship? Where as long as you’re adoring, you’ll have a place and often a place of significance and power, but the moment you differ, you question…

Rachael: Or expose.

Dan: …there is a violence that you are going. So I think those are some of the categories. And then to further that sort of the obvious grandiosity of a narcissist, we also have to say there are what’s called depleted narcissists that don’t look particularly like a narcissist because they’re often brooding intense.

Rachael: I have found that to actually sometimes be harder, way harder to, I definitely have dated a deflated narcissist, and it was really scary because I felt the same level of craziness and gaslighting. But for example, when I went to try to end the relationship, they wanted us to go to dinner in a very public place where they, I mean, just annihilated me for how cruel I was and how could I do this to them in front of everyone at this restaurant? And then I’m feeling terrible. The least I could do is go to dinner with this person because I’m the one that’s breaking up with them, disclose, I have this life-threatening illness and I’m only telling you about it. So these very manipulative, basically, again, I know in my gut this is the best decision I could make, but the way I’m feeling in this moment is like I am a horrible wretched person. How could I’ve been so kind to you? You’ll never meet someone as kind as me. So weaponizing kindness is a way to keep you close, and somehow their kindness entitles them to your loyalty and your presence instead of being a free gift freely given. So that’s just something to flesh out some of that deflation.

Dan: Lemme just say a little activated?

Rachael: Yeah, super activated still, there’s still a part of me that’s in that car driving away. You made the right decision, girl, you’re okay. Keep driving. Do not turn around. Do not pick up your phone. If anything, that experience should tell you you made the right decision. But I had to do so much work to hold onto myself because the feeling I had was I was just one of the cruelest people ever. And almost like, am I throwing away the best thing that ever happened to me even though I was miserable?

Dan: Yes. So again, let’s just articulate the classic narcissist who is boisterous and intense in their self-adulation, they gaslight. But maybe the more subtle, therefore more sinister often comes in that depleted, deflated, not obvious forms of narcissism, but it’s so important to know that you’re walking away not just sad, but with a level of accusation that literally puts you into the position of being maybe one of the worst human beings to walk on the earth. Now when people hear that, you go, oh, you’re using your normal hyperbole, Dan, and you go, no, not in that experience. When I have walked away from interactions with somebody gaslighting me, the levels of depth of darkness that I’m having to wrestle with in my own heart, when you then add the unseen world, adding, using that gaslighting to actually in some ways to talk about what evil does in the unseen world really does fit the word gaslighting. So the intersection of the scene and the unseen irrespective, you’ve got to have categories to know. And so in that sense of getting help, I think so often the work that needs to be done is to see a good therapist who can begin to help you name and in some ways begin to just help you strengthen some of the boundaries that need to be, begun. Now again, if this is a spouse, this is a dear friend, this is your boss, it’s going to have a cost. So part of the labor is boundaries need to be built, but we don’t build boundaries until we’ve done the hard work of naming what is the cost of offense, a cost of honor. Because every time we talk about boundaries, we’re talking about creating honor between you and another person. That’s

Rachael: Right. Yeah. And I mean, again, this is where I just, if you’re listening and you are feeling like this is my situation and it feels scary and overwhelming, it’s because it is. And it’s okay to need help, and it’s okay to need, obviously if you are in danger or your children are in danger, then there are ways to get critical help to get out, to get the help to get out. But if these are situations that you know are going to take time, in some ways that counting the cost is essential because you already know in your body and in your experience to put a boundary around someone who wants total control of you is not going to go well. So how do you start small knowing that that small boundary will have a strong reaction, but the boundary setting is for you. To grow your courage and your strength and to reclaim your sanity. I remember a certain time where I was needing to get out of a very toxic relationship. And again, I think we’re going to get here, because the work I had to do after I got out was to do some of the work of, not in a shaming way, but in a curious way of how did I get so drawn into this dynamic that this actually felt like native land to me, like a homeland to me? How did this come to be a familiar way of engaging that it actually felt safer initially than someone who would actually honor me? However…

Dan: Shall we say that’s cutting like a neurosurgeon. Like one cell over and you’ve done harm to the hippocampus? How did you do that work without, in one sense, being a reentry into, I’m bad, I’ve done terrible things, et cetera.

Rachael: Well, I think in some ways, because I had a good therapist, and I’ll just say this, not that I think you should turn to Instagram as your therapist, but I’m just aware there are so many good communities and resources out there, people who are talking about these realities where you can in some ways feel more sane because other people are like, yes, that is a familiar experience to me. And sometimes when you find a community that’s helping you have language that can be really helpful. But I think because I had a good therapist who was helping me get out of this relationship, so we started small, okay, next time you get into this familiar conversation, because I knew it was a relationship I had to get out of, but I was in a very codependent, he was an addict that I didn’t know was an addict when I entered. My addiction was playing out and codependency. He was more deflated in the sense of every time I tried to end things or set that big boundary, tried to leave, he would move towards threatening to harm himself to take his life. So I wasn’t ready for that. That felt like I wasn’t ready to know that even if that horrible outcome became true, that that was not my responsibility. I needed smaller boundaries. So we were working our way because I was not in, I mean, certainly this was a harmful situation, but people knew what was going on and my therapist knew because I was addicted to this relationship, it was going to be a process that I would have to find myself in. It was like I would start small. That was enough of a reaction. Then I would kind of go set a little bit of a bigger boundary. I’m not going to see you this week. Meltdown. Wrecking his car and needing help. And again, this does sound like an extreme case. And so I am bringing one that was maybe more extreme in my experience to help show, but it actually wasn’t that unfamiliar to me in some ways, right? And then when I left, I actually had to practice sobriety. It was like I am three days sober from this relationship because I wanted to call and check in. And he was texting me, I miss you. You’re the only one who understands me. And these are all things that are getting into my story and why I would be drawn to someone who needed me to save them. So I think because I had someone who helping stay in a very compassionate place and connecting this to earlier stories of my life and connecting it to familiar stories of my life that I didn’t come to be drawn to these kind of dynamics in a vacuum. They are very in-storied. And in some ways I had to then it’s almost like to do the work of this immediate thing also meant I had to enter earlier work. And that’s why it’s really helpful to have a good story guide with you, whether that’s a therapist or a story coach or a spiritual director that does really good work. Having someone with you who’s familiar with getting on a narcissistic relationships, whether that’s again, with a relationship or a church community or working in your work environment or larger cultural dynamics that make you feel insane, that make you feel sick, and actually not just make you feel sick, but actually make you sick.

Dan: Literally. So let me recapitulate. So often the very small creates a revolution because that person has a pretty strong sense that even one sentence like what you’re saying, I’ll ponder, but not right now. I’m not enjoying this interaction, so I’m going to leave, but I’ll ponder what you’ve been offering me. I mean, at one level that doesn’t sound that big. But if you are in the presence of a vitriolic narcissist, look, that one sentence or two is going to create hell. But if you are clear enough, able enough, to stop the interaction and depart several times of doing that is going to create something bigger, which oftentimes as you put, it’s the meltdown.

Rachael: Yeah. And I just wanted to say, but what was so powerful about starting small is that instead of me walking away feeling bad and crazy, I have someone saying, all you’re asking for is a pause, is some time. And look at this reaction. What you’re asking for is perfectly reasonable. And someone who actually cared about your wellbeing and actually cared about you would be like, man, this is hard for me and I’m going to have to do some work to hold onto myself. But you know what? I actually do want you to feel like you can come levelheaded. So that’s what makes it powerful, is you start to go, I don’t have to be thrown when this reaction comes because I’m starting to see more clearly how insane it actually is, and who is the insane person in this dynamic. So when you get to the meltdown, you are not surprised by it. And you actually have some strategies, again, to protect yourself and the people in your midst who need protection to know what to anticipate. So I didn’t mean to cut you off, I just wanted to say…

Dan: No, no. Again, the meltdown we’re putting words to, it’s oftentimes the structure is they’ll put upon you the necessity to rescue them. And in that, from being assaultive to being incredibly dependent, it’s just this seesaw where you’re being thrown up in the air and then dropped hard and then thrown back and dropped. And so whenever you feel that kind of vertigo, nausea, that this is crazy, it’s enough to be able to step back and to be able to say, and so important to say, why am I in this relationship not only in terms of the current issues, but what would have propelled me to be in a relationship where this feels at some degree more normal than not. And that boy, again, it is such an important move, but it’s also one that’s so often gets laden with blame and judgment. Like, what’s wrong with me? Why am I so crazy? Versus being able to put it in the way you did, which is so gracious. It’s in-storied. So can we begin to pull some of the deeper weeds up that seemingly make you more susceptible to someone’s effort to gaslit? And to put it, I think before we end, if this is something that’s ongoing unchanging, that the person gaslighting really only intensifies, collapses, intensifies, collapses, one has to say, what is the cost for your life to remain in this church, in this institution, in this relationship? And there is and should be a sense of what is my exit strategy and what is the cost? What will I have to, in one sense come to engage in order to extract myself from in some ways a very dark structure and a dark relationship?

Rachael: Absolutely. And as we talk about so often at the Allender Center, and I’ve heard you say numerous times, Dan, Paul’s language in Romans about it’s the kindness of God that leads to repentance, and that just has to be the foundation upon which we even come to any of this cry for help. And this cry for deliverance is that sense of, it’s not be shame, it’s not going to be fear, it’s not going to be contempt that is going to offer that hand that you need. It’s going to be the kindness of God to know that you’re meant for so much more. But when this has been your norm, kindness doesn’t actually feel that safe either. And it’s like having to take it in small doses and trusting that grace is grace. It’ll come if it’s something, some cry of your soul is saying, yes, I actually want to be healed. I want to be delivered. I want out of this dynamic. And I just am speaking probably more from experience that these narcissistic wounds are just so prevalent in our culture. And so breaking these cycles is possible. Getting well is possible. Finding friends and partners and communities that do not leverage fear and shame as a way of control is possible. But I think as you’ve so wisely named, not without some deeper healing to the wounds that draw us back to these kind of reenactments and dynamics, but I just want to say loud and clear, healing, deliverance restoration is possible.