Article #2: Helping the Victim of Gaslighting

In July 2021 I wrote an article on gaslighting that made the following three points:

 

  1. Definition of gaslighting: “Gaslighting,” biblically speaking, is the deception by self-lovers who use eloquent and persuasive speech to destroy the emotional and spiritual stability of their victims. The self-lover wants to control and often hide their own sinful behavior.
  2. Value of the term: Biblical counselors may choose to use the term as a subheading of the biblical term deception to highlight the particularly wicked form that this deception takes.
  3. Impact on a person’s life: Gaslit sufferers assume that events and actions are their fault, refuse to make decisions, exhibit unwillingness to trust their senses, lie to avoid conflict, and look for a trustworthy person to tell them what to do.

 

In the months since that article came out, I have continued to study and think about the subject. I concluded that my article focused almost exclusively on what I now term “active gaslighting.” I also believe that passive gaslighting is also possible. I will write another article explaining this difference. However, I believe that successful gaslighting, whether done actively or passively, tends to produce similar result. This article presents an initial explanation of how to help.

 

Before I get started, I believe every person must be cared for as an individual. Even if commonalities exist between counselees, commonality is not sameness. The Bible encourages us to listen (Prov. 18:13; James 1:19) and respond to the situation accordingly. People are dynamic and that demands an ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

 

It is also important to remember that my list below is only attempting to address the gaslighting itself. The needs of the active gaslit victim may include issues not relevant to the passive victim and vise-a-versa. In addition, there may be other life factors that require counsel.

 

Acknowledge that Life is hard

Victims may seem confusing, immature, even childish to those who have never experienced treatment like this. Children who were biblically raised (cf. Eph 6:4; Deut 6:5-9, etc.) and taught biblical courage must listen to their counselee’s experience. The constant bombardment of deception, manipulation, and cruelty should lead us to compassion.

 

Feeling compassion is not enough. We must communicate it. We must find words to express our compassion for them and for their experience. Paul often wrote about other’s suffering. The Psalms express grief as does Job and Lamentations. Building a relationship where honesty and ministry can flourish requires a little “climbing in the casket.”

 

This is especially true of active gaslighting victims because the perpetrators are like Romans 16:18 says, For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.

 

Even when the gaslighting was unintentional (i.e., passive) it does not change the reality that the person experiences many of the same symptoms. It is hard to live in a world where nothing seems clear or makes sense.

 

Remember that Gaslit victims struggle with reality

When either counseling or supervising someone counseling these persons, we must constantly remind ourselves that they struggle with reality. There are different rules. When someone tried to tell me that I did not see something I really saw (I watched him run for a touchdown), something I read (a story about hurting people), or something I heard I did not find their comments confusing – I found them irritating. Those were my rules.

 

Victims play with different rules. They have learned that our world is broken and confusing. They have learned that trust is dangerous. Gaslit victims confuse what the rest of us would take for granted.

 

Persevering is an important concept. Gaslit people might make it hard to counsel. They might question your understanding of the Bible, they might question your application, and they might look to others for confirmation. It is not because they are rebellious, it is part of how they function. Rather than be angry at them, recognize that they need more help than the average person.

 

Remind them of the security and safety in Jesus

These individuals struggle believing there is solid ground under them. The perpetrator questioned and even attempted to distort their view of reality. They might apply this distortion to their view of Jesus. Yet, believers in Jesus have a loving, kind, gracious savior. One who forgives sin and even intercedes for us (Romans 8:34). Jesus has adopted us as children. We can cast our cares on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

 

Explain the Understandability of Scripture

 

We believe that the Bible was written to be understood. I realize that are hard passages in the Bible, but much is clear. God communicated in human language because he wanted us to understand.

 

Much of the Bible is accessible to anyone with normal language abilities. That means my counselee can read their Bibles, understand what it says, and then live consistent with that belief. We do not need a mediator.

 

I might even decide to teach my counselee interpretative skills as we talk about texts in the counseling room.

  • What words are repeated in the passage? Why might God choose to give us that word more than once?
  • Where are the paragraph markers in your Bible? We added those to help us keep the individual thoughts together.
  • Do you see any logic words or phrases (so … therefore … so that … in order that)? What do they indicate?
  • How do you think this passage needs to be obeyed in your life?

 

The more my counselee defines truth through the pages of Scripture the more likely they will stand their ground (on truth) and believe their opinion. This could be a struggle because gaslit victims struggle to trust anything – including the Bible. But the struggle is worth it.

 

Explain how we know anything

 

Remember that the victim struggles to believe they know anything. When questioned, they fold like a house of cards. They do not resist or stand their ground. It might be necessary to remind them how they know anything.

 

However, how does a human being experience the world? Through our senses. That is how God designed us. While we agree that our senses are not always accurate, what I see, feel, hear, taste, and smell connects me to reality. For example, when a wife sees her husband slam something on the ground in anger, she really sees it. He can say that he was not angry. But his explanation must be consistent with what she saw. He can know what she saw. Or when a husband hears his wife say that she wished she never married him; he can stand by what he heard even if she accuses him of making it up. God designed him to experience the world partly through his ears.

 

In the movie Gaslight, the lights were flickering, and she knew it. But her husband attempted to tell her that her senses could not be trusted. We must help the “victims” understand that what they see, hear, touch, and smell can be trusted because that is how God designed them to experience the world.

 

We want our counselees to stand their ground. When a person says, “I did not say that.” “I did not do that” the proper response might be, “Yes, yes you did because I heard it and I saw it.” You are not going to manipulate me into your opinion. I know what I saw, and it is how the Lord wants me to experience the world.

 

I am teaching my counselees that God has equipped you to know his truth and to experience reality correctly.

 

Help them learn a little phrase “That’s not true”

 

We often heard our coaches yell a crasser version of that statement at referees. While we should not emulate them precisely, there was an important lesson. What do you do when you believe someone is in the wrong?

 

Those who are successfully gaslit struggle to stand their ground, believe their opinion, and call out wrong. The phrase “that’s not true” can help them do all three. As they experience the challenges of life, they have confidence in the Word and in their ability to understand it, but they also know that God designed them to experience his world through their senses. Now they have the boldness to stand up when someone wants to question their opinion.

Let me play this out in the counseling room. I had counselees where the woman was a victim of deception/gaslighting. She had some gullibility, but a significant part came from her husband who often changed his story or could not remember.

 

At first, I was duped, then I was confused, and then I made a decision. I watched her question herself many times and I heard him say he did not remember. I watched him change his story and his wife look at him like he is crazy and ask, “what are you talking about?” only to cave under the pressure.

 

I said in the counseling room that from now on I am going to believe whatever she says unless you can remember. From now on her word goes. It was interesting to watch the response. Two things happened: (1) the biggest change is that it gave her courage to stand up for her opinion and (2) he started remembering more.

 

While not everything was solved in that moment, the more she learned to say “that is not true” the better it was. It means that she was no long living in the constant state of confusion. She could look at a situation, trust that she had the ability to understand it, and call out false understandings.

 

Do you see how these points empower her? Do you see how they prevent successful gaslighting? When I read my Bible, when I trust the means that God has for me to experience reality, and when I can honestly say “that is not true,” then your ability to successfully gaslight me is significantly diminished.

 

Gaslighting is a significant subject because there are so many issues involved. Some actively deceive, while others deceive not knowing they are deceived. Perpetrators have certain needs and so do victims. I hope this series helps us think about this important topic.

 

If you have questions or additional points you would like to raise, please put them in the comments.


Photo by Ashish Joshi on Unsplash

Rob Green
Pastor Rob Green oversees Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. A seasoned counselor, Rob also teaches others how to counsel--through FBCM's training conferences and Faith Bible Seminary's MABC program.