How to navigate ‘gaslighting’ as Catholics

gaslighting

When was the last time you encountered the term “gaslighting”? Chances are, it was recently.

“Gaslighting” has become a prevalent concept utilized by many, ranging from one’s acquaintances to media personalities and political figures.

Sometimes the word is used to describe legitimate experiences of catastrophic emotional abuse, while other times it is a label employed by those confronted with a perspective different from their own.

Considering the frequency of its use, one may wonder if gaslighting is more common in, and even characteristic of, the present age. Or, it could be argued, there is now language with which to discuss certain behaviors and a greater awareness concerning them. Conversely, the term might be overused and mistakenly applied to situations, further depreciating those who have endured this form of manipulation.

Navigating this terminology and differentiating legitimate abuse from perceived injury can thus be complicated, particularly as contemporary language and the modern-day collective consciousness are saturated with this term’s use and misuse.

As professionals in the fields of social work and therapy, respectively, Sherry Flemming and Andrew Parker guide Catholics to aid them in traversing this landscape.

Defining ‘gaslighting’

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “gaslighting” as the “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time.” It notes that this manipulation “causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories.”

This definition states that the typical result is “confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

Flemming

Flemming’s definition is similar. “Gaslighting is basically denying another person their perspective, when it’s used in a manipulating way,” she said.

Flemming, a social worker, described gaslighting as the manipulation of a person for one’s own benefit by getting that person to believe that their viewpoint does not exist or is false. She stressed that this behavior has no regard for absolute, objective truth but only for subjective opinions.

“The people who engage in gaslighting are defining truth for themselves without considering other people’s perspective of truth and without really, truly seeking truth,” said Flemming. She noted that those who employ this behavior are self-serving and either unwilling or unable to consider the views of others.

Adobe Stock

“It’s just us using the other person to fill up some role for ourselves,” agreed Parker, a registered counseling therapist with Channel of Peace Counselling Association situated in eastern Canada.

He recounted how, even though the person being gaslit might perceive “the lies or misinformation” inherent in this form of abuse, it can still “create doubt” and a belief that “they are doing things wrong.” Accordingly, they can suffer devastating long-term effects.

The consequences

There are significant repercussions to gaslighting, including the harm of both people involved.

“It damages people because in relationships we’re supposed to love and care for each other,” said Flemming. She added that, for the person who is gaslit, there is a failure to meet their need to have a voice, to be understood and to have concern shown for them.

“That’s why it’s so damaging,” Flemming said.

In email correspondence with Our Sunday Visitor, Parker explained that gaslighting results in getting “someone to do what we want in the moment.” However, he said, instead of allowing truth, mercy, humility, grace and love to “flow freely,” the person who gaslights another is “effectively saying ‘I can’t trust that, and I need to be in control of your reactions, so I don’t feel powerless.’”

Parker maintained that this would do “grave harm to the victim and destroy the relationship, even if it continues on in appearance, because it isn’t a real two-way relationship.”

“Christ doesn’t seek to control us and instead invites us to freely love him,” said Parker. “We shouldn’t need to control others or be threatened by their free will.”

In addition to destroying the relationship when engaged by someone as a coping mechanism, gaslighting often exacerbates that person’s underlying struggles.

“The problem is, even if we don’t intend to emotionally abuse someone, like with the ways an anxious person might try to control their environment to escape anxiety, that will in the long-term actually make the anxiety worse, using gaslighting in a relationship comes at a terrible cost,” said Parker.

This is true for both people involved, regardless of the motivation.

Not always malicious

Besides instances of clear malevolence, both Flemming and Parker agreed that people can be involved in gaslighting without conscious malicious intent.

Flemming perceived that some people want little to be asked of them personally.

“Gaslighting demands that others change to make us happy, while self-reflection of our role requires something of us,” she said. “It’s easier to try to control and manipulate situations or others than it is to be reflective of ourselves.”

Gaslighting can also be the result of a lack of emotional resources or awareness.

“Ordinary people who aren’t normally gaslighters can sometimes engage in this behavior,” said Parker. “Sometimes we just lack effective ways of setting a boundary, or communicating, or we grew up in a home where we experienced our caregivers do it, or we get really stressed when faced with a problem or disagreement in our relationship and shut down when flooded with it all.”

The graduate of Divine Mercy University in Sterling, Virginia, noted that gaslighting can be a means of “escaping uncomfortable arguments or emotional hurt” that is inevitable in relationships.

That said, even if “not done serially,” Parker stressed that any use of gaslighting is harmful. He encouraged people to not be afraid to “seek out help to stop hurting” others in this way.

“We need the courage to examine ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for any way we treat our friends, family and spouses that falls short of loving them as we love ourselves,” he said. “If gaslighting is something that anyone can do, it is something we should all be examining ourselves for.”

This includes Catholics.

A problem among believers

“I think sadly gaslighting is certainly alive and well in Catholic relationships as we aren’t immune from mental struggles or poor relationship skills, or whatever might contribute to the gaslighter gaslighting,” said Parker.

The husband and father of four proposed that Catholics might even be at “special risk” for gaslighting.

He explained that the “beautiful teachings of our faith,” such as those on forgiveness or marriage, can be twisted or misused by some individuals. “[They] are great sources for the Catholic gaslighter to draw from, even unwittingly, and then turn them back on the victim,” he said.

Adobe Stock

Parker described the conditions by which a Catholic spouse could be susceptible to this type of manipulation.

“For Catholics committed to living out their vows until death, there can be a lot of suffering and emotional abuse going with the belief ‘this is my spouse and I’m the problem’ or ‘I need to accept this behavior and stay put,’” he said. “The emotionally abusive gaslighter may even use that against us too.”

“God can do much with our suffering and bring healing, but we may need help getting out of a gaslighting cycle,” Parker continued.

Getting help

Parker had suggestions for those who may identify with this type of experience in marriage.

“If you feel your spouse is constantly telling you your perception is wrong, it can help to find a trusted person to run things by that can help us stay more grounded in reality,” he said. “The best thing to do is to talk to someone.”

He noted that a consequence of opening up to a third party might be a strong reaction in one’s spouse. Such a response may itself be “a sign we are on the right track.”

Our sense of ‘we aren’t crazy or imagining things’ can come back and we can slowly realize we have the strength to say ‘no’ to people and to … not tolerate that behavior any longer.

“Those most likely to gaslight are most likely to deny it because it would be threatening to them to admit it,” Parker said.

He affirmed that something significant happens when an individual takes the step of reaching out for professional assistance or seeking the support of others. This almost inherently aids in breaking the hold that the falsehoods of gaslighting have on a person.

“Our sense of ‘we aren’t crazy or imagining things’ can come back and we can slowly realize we have the strength to say ‘no’ to people and to … not tolerate that behavior any longer,” said Parker.

He noted that the process of setting boundaries can be a catalyst for the person doing the gaslighting to “reflect on whether that is really who they want to be in a relationship.” This might prompt them to seek help to be able to be in a healthy relationship.

“We can encourage our spouse to get help with their own feelings with another professional as we continue on our own path,” Parker said. “[We can] hope that they will be willing and able to change their behavior.”

That said, not all gaslighters are interested in changing. Some are intentional, pernicious, calculated and unrepentant in their use of this form of manipulation.

Malicious intent

The origins of the term “gaslight” can be traced to a stage play, “Gaslight,” by Patrick Hamilton. Two films of the same name, released in 1940 and 1944, are adaptations of this play.

Within both movies, the central female character is inundated with attempts to manipulate her into believing she is mentally unfit. This includes her observations of troubling and inconsistent things, including the bizarre dimming and brightening of the gaslights in the home she shares with her husband. This is a means of psychological control by her spouse who, unbeknownst to her, is a criminal who has a vested interest in having her declared insane.

Unfortunately, such sinister behavior is not reserved for the big screen.

“We do have real instances of deliberate gaslighting on different levels,” said Flemming. “We have that on a micro level between individuals in relationships. We have it on a more community level when it comes to different things and … it can occur on a broad level, on a national level.”

Some motivations for this behavior can be for personal gain or power. “That’s not just in our day, that’s always been done,” said Flemming.

She encouraged a Catholic and spiritual vantage point regarding these instances of “deliberate, ill intent.” “That’s how the Devil creates chaos and confusion,” she said, calling this weaving of untruth one of “many tactics” of the evil one.

These tactics and motivations are not a new storyline.

Adobe Stock

Asked about the serpent’s interaction with Eve in the garden, where he queried her and cast doubt on what she knew, and whether this might be a primordial experience of gaslighting, Flemming responded affirmatively.

“Absolutely! The devil is the originator of gaslighting,” said Flemming. “What does Scripture tell us? ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’”

She noted that this is the way humans operate. “We’re constantly choosing to do good and righteous deeds, or we’re looking to be untruthful so that we can serve another purpose,” said Flemming.

The role of immaturity

In addition to straightforward occurrences of abuse and emotional manipulation, Flemming recounted scenarios where people may use the term “gaslighting” to describe their difference of perspective from others.

She cited the example of an individual who is immature both in their perception of the world and within relationships in general. Such a person might ascribe to a “victim” mentality which prevents them “from being able to really see the world clearly,” affecting their ability to apprehend “absolute truth in the world.”

“If you have a ‘victimhood’ worldview, then you see everything that happens in the world — all situations and most people — as people who have harmed you or hurt you,” said Flemming. “You’re not able to see them as existing for their own good or their own purposes.”

If such a person ends up in a disagreement with someone else, that person may experience the conversation as gaslighting.

“The person with the victimhood mentality may take that disagreement personally and see it as the other person is deliberately trying to condemn them or find faults in them or any number of negative assumptions that they could make about what the person is doing,” said Flemming. “It can happen easily.”

She perceived that this type of immaturity is growing in prevalence.

“Our society has become so immature collectively, I believe, that we’re no longer allowing people to have differences of opinion,” said Flemming.

Discerning distinctions

Flemming suggested that self-reflection can help ascertain the truth of our interactions in relationships.

“If you think someone’s gaslighting you, are they intentionally trying to deny you your perspective of a situation and convince you that their perception of a situation is the only perception? Or do they just have a different perception and you’re not seeing their side?” asked Flemming.

“People do have different perceptions of situations,” she continued. “Gaslighting is really when you’re denying the other person and you’re saying ‘no, this is the thing that happened’ and not giving any room for difference of opinion of what happened.”

Parker too saw that the word “gaslighting” can be taken out of context. That said, he maintained that the benefits of this terminology can potentially outweigh the harms.

“All in all, I am glad it is a more used term now, because, even if there is a risk of it being misused, I think it gives name to something many people experience but have trouble putting to words, precisely because it is a disorienting experience to be told what we are experiencing isn’t real,” he said.

‘Overdramatization’

Flemming regarded misuse, or overapplication, of this terminology as symptomatic of other larger societal ills.

The woman from Halifax, Nova Scotia, recognized that gaslighting is “characteristic of the overdramatized world that we live in” and “one of the many vehicles of that overdramatization that’s being lived out in people’s lives.”

Flemming explained “overdramatization” as a negative fruit of the consumption of certain programs, music and social media. “We see these just outlandish, ridiculous personal situations play out visually, lyrically, verbally and people buy into it,” she said. “Our culture has very negatively impacted the way we live our own personal lives.”

We don’t want to look inside and see what’s happening in our own life. It’s just easier to avoid and get distracted and busy with foolishness and that’s, unfortunately, what happens in the world.

The mother of three proposed that those entertained by such media may even “ascribe to that way of functioning.” “Instead of taking that time to be a person of faith and prayer and to be nurtured and grounded in goodness, they’re being nurtured and grounded in drama,” she said.

“People don’t want to look at their own lives,” Flemming added. “We don’t want to look inside and see what’s happening in our own life. It’s just easier to avoid and get distracted and busy with foolishness and that’s, unfortunately, what happens in the world.”

“We do live in a world where we have really lost our moral bearings and so the term is overused because the world loves to just dramatize things and make things what they aren’t,” said Flemming. This is an avoidance of the truth.

Watching our words

Flemming suggested that, as Catholics, we can “see what the culture is doing and be countercultural.” One of the practical ways to do so involves the use of language.

She explained that, though the “language around gaslighting” can be helpful for understanding and affirming those who have endured this form of manipulation, it can be counterproductive when overused.

“Overuse … can lead to overdramatization, polarization, condemnation and unforgiveness,” said Flemming.

Adobe Stock

Accordingly, for her part, Flemming only uses terms like “narcissist” or “sociopath” when “dealing with clinically diagnosed situations.” “From a Catholic perspective, we’re called to love even our enemies,” said Flemming. “So, really, what are we doing engaging in those terms unless we need to for clinical diagnostics?”

Flemming insisted that refraining from using certain terminology is not avoiding the truth. Rather, she said, Catholics can speak the truth “without using the lingo of the day” that may label and “be condemning of others.”

For example, Flemming recommended that a potential alternative to saying someone was gaslighting oneself might be, “I felt like they were denying me my perspective.”

“What I see happening is that our culture has developed these terms and they’re weaponizing these terms against people who disagree with them,” she said. “So, we have to be careful not to do that as Catholics. We don’t want to play that same game and use those terms when we’re engaging with our loved ones or our associates. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt and say what is happening, but without being condemning with that language.”

Flemming stressed that there is a place for this language, such as in “escalated circumstances” or when it might help to “identify what’s happening,” such as within a workplace investigation. However, that place is not necessarily in everyday use, such as when engaging with, or describing, others.

She maintained that it’s for when you’re dealing with legitimate circumstances of abuse with real kinds of injustices at stake, such as those involving children, spouses or those in authentically unhealthy relationships that potentially require therapeutic help or intervention.

“But only in those circumstances,” said Flemming.

Guarding ourselves

Flemming proposed that there are ways to be vigilant against being either a perpetrator or a victim of gaslighting.

“I think we can really safeguard our lives … by just being people of prayer and always searching our own hearts and being led to do what we’re called to do, which is serve other people and not ourselves,” Flemming said.

She asserted that if we’re aware of, and actively engaged in, our calling to love and to serve, then we can avoid the temptation of gaslighting.

“The cure for participation in gaslighting, either believing it or perpetrating it, or engaging in it in any fashion, is just to search our hearts and to try and enact what we know is good and true,” said Flemming.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

A wealth of resources exist for Catholics seeking professional mental help. People who are interested can find a Catholic therapist near them at CatholicTherapists.com, seek counseling from The Martin Center for Integration and Catholic Counselors or search for a diocesan-based ministry at The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers.

Validation also plays a role.

“We do need to validate one another’s perspective, and we do need to acknowledge that we don’t always agree on things and that’s okay,” said Flemming. “We can validate another person’s perspective, while disagreeing with them.”

Flemming pointed to the polarization of perspectives in contemporary society that impedes healthy discussion. “You can now no longer disagree with somebody or that’s deemed a hate crime,” she said. “You don’t have the same values and beliefs that I have, you’re hateful.”

Catholic Christians can choose another path.

“We need to be vigilant just to safeguard ourselves from falling into the societal traps that are keeping us from growing,” said Flemming. “Part of that is just refraining from doing what we see happening in society, and then also keeping ourselves rooted in prayer and rooted in our faith and our practices that help us to grow.”

This post How to navigate ‘gaslighting’ as Catholics appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

Close
Your custom text © Copyright 2024. All rights reserved.
Close