Gaslighting is a term used to describe the act of causing a person to doubt his or her sanity by means of psychological manipulation. There are three core facets of gaslighting: 1. making the victim believe they're personally at fault for any abuse they suffer; 2. making the victim believe they imagined their experiences (positive or negative); 3. isolating the victim from a trustworthy, supportive community.
The term "gaslighting" comes from the 1944 film, Gaslight and the 1938 play of the same name. The story follows a woman's slow spiral into isolation and paranoia as her husband repeatedly denies the validity of the strange things she witnesses, including the unexplained dimming of the gas-powered lamps. He either blames her for these happenings or makes her believe she imagined them. In the end, her husband's nefarious purposes are exposed and he's revealed as the source of the odd occurrences.
They begin to distrust their own rationale, instead leaning on the abuser to tell them what's real and not real. As the abuser continues to define a false reality for them, the victim has more and more trouble living independently from the abuser. They've unknowingly learned to trust the abuser instead of their own mental capacity and judgment.
Gaslighting has been around a whole lot longer than a 1930s stage play. In Genesis 3, Satan uses this manipulation technique to confuse and deceive Eve in the Garden of Eden. Instead of outright telling Eve that God was a liar, he instead asked, "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'" (Genesis 3:1). This is the first example of gaslighting in history.
Not every gaslighter realizes what they're doing. Some gaslighters will unintentionally abuse others out of fear or desperation for control. Some gaslighters may have convinced themselves so thoroughly of their own false reality that they don't realize they're projecting a lie onto a healthy person. Others use gaslighting to purposely control and dominate people. Gaslighting has even been normalized in some places, such as the dating world.
Regardless of motive, method, or intentionality, gaslighting is rooted to a need to control another person. This is sinful and abusive behavior, and not the attitude of love we are called to exercise as Christians (Romans 12:10).
"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
Relationships are messy. Sometimes one person does remember something differently than another person. It happens to everyone! But in resolving a misunderstanding or misremembering, the goal shouldn't be proving who's right and who's wrong; it should be showing respect and seeking mutual understanding. A gaslighter manipulates the truth to their benefit, controls information, and misdirects the victim into submission.
If your boyfriend or girlfriend consistently and immediately assumes you're remembering something incorrectly, perceiving incorrectly, or overreacting to a negative situation—especially with no willingness to listen to your frustrations or confusion about where you may have miscommunicated/misremembered—you may be experiencing gaslighting and should likely end the relationship.
Another concerning trend in the dating world that mimics gaslighting is "negging," where Person A tears down Person B with putdowns and insults until Person B is compelled to prove themselves to Person A in an effort to change their negative opinion of them. This is a direct, disrespectful attack on a person's basic dignity. NOT OK. (See 1 Thessalonians 5:11; Philippians 2:3-4.)
We'd all like to trust that our families have our best interests at heart. But even when they do, gaslighting can occur. Gaslighting in families often stems from a narcissistic family member who assumes they're always right (even when the facts prove otherwise). Familial gaslighting can be very confusing for the victim, as someone they've known their entire life forces them to question their ability to make logical conclusions. This type of manipulation can be detrimental to someone's mental health long term.
Gaslighting can also stem from fear. Sometimes gaslighters are honest-to-goodness deeply afraid for the welfare of the victim. In this case, the gaslighter may foster an environment of fear and consequence/pain avoidance. Maybe a "concerned" parent tells their teenager, "If you work at that store, you'll surely be influenced by bad people and leave God." Or, "If you go to that college, you'll be saddled with debt for the rest of your life." In both cases, while the intent is to protect, it's a fear-driven means of protection, which will lead to more fear and crippled discernment capability in the future.
If someone is truly concerned for the safety of their loved one, they should discuss it with the person using love and wisdom instead. Romans 12:10 tells us, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves."
Another place where gaslighting is common is in churches or religious communities. Survivors of spiritual abuse later realize they stayed in the abusive group for so long because they'd been taught not to question the church leadership. Questioning the church leadership was questioning God's decision to put those leaders in charge. But that is a gross misinterpretation of Hebrews 13:17.
If a victim challenges church leadership, members of the abusive community may confront them with "concerns" about their spiritual health, flawed thought patterns, and misunderstandings of Christian "truth"—even though the community may be the ones in the wrong! This kind of spiritual manipulation isolates the victim and causes them to question the whole situation.
Religious communities that perpetuate gaslighting techniques (whether intentionally or unintentionally) may have learned this method of "damage control" by a subversive leadership. This kind of leadership shows a desire for control and domination or may lead through fear tactics. Neither of these are healthy or biblical examples of spiritual leadership (Romans 12:3; Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3-4).
If these behaviors sound like something you've done, please hear us out. It's easy to believe you're trying to keep people "safer" or that if people would just follow your methods of perfect protection and heed your warnings, then everyone would be happier. But this isn't biblical love.
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love." —1 John 4:18
"Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." —James 1:19-20
If you fear you have a pattern of gaslighting those around you, seek counseling. Sometimes the need for control (or motives of fear) reflect a deeper problem or pain we need help identifying. Talk to God about your behavior and ask for clarity of heart and wisdom (Philippians 4:6).
Recovering from gaslighting is hard. Victims of long-term gaslighting have been conditioned to doubt their very ability to understand reality, to make decisions, and may no longer trust others. But that mental and emotional harm isn't the end of the story. God offers healing even for the heart (Isaiah 41:10; Jeremiah 33:6).
"Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy..." —Psalm 103:2-4
God never endorses gaslighting—or any type of abuse. If you're trying to figure out if you've been gaslighted, we'd love to direct you to our article on signs of spiritual abuse. Gaslighting is a violation of the mind and is very similar to spiritual abuse's violation of the soul. We hope we can equip you with some tools for healing. Remember, your story isn't over.
Gaslighting is a term used to describe the act of causing a person to doubt their sanity through the use of psychological manipulation. There are three core facets of gaslighting: 1. making the victim believe they're at fault for any abuse they suffer; 2. making the victim believe they've imagined their experiences; 3. isolating the victim from a trustworthy, supportive community. Whether you're the gaslighter or a victim of gaslighting, your story isn't over. God redeems and renews us (Ephesians 4:17-32). Whether you're fighting the battle to love deeper and more biblically or you're recovering from years of abuse, God's passion and love for you cannot be overstated (Romans 8:37-39).
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.