Guarding Against Gaslighting

Photo by Guilia Bertelli on Unsplash

Being 5 foot 2 has meant ruling out a whole host of occupations. All my dreams of being a basketball player were over by the time I turned 10 years old. And forget about being a stewardess…I need someone to help ME get my bag into the overhead compartment! It would be pretty hard for me to be a security guard when even being on my tippy toes gets me to most peoples armpit. So it’s safe to say that the idea of ‘guarding my heart’ (Proverbs 4:23) has been difficult to comprehend: nobody in their right mind would have me guard anything. But I guess we all know that this isn’t exactly what that verse is talking about. 

In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about gaslighting. I don’t love that it can be used to judge and condemn. But it does seem to be valid in identifying some unhealthy behaviours that have a tendency to cause significant damage. I wouldn’t be the best person to detail exactly what gaslighting is if you are hearing it for the first time. I would suggest doing a google search.  

Unfortunately, I have found myself at the hands of gaslighting a few times in my life. Well before I realised what it was. And the effect was significant enough to never want to be caught up in that web again. It’s definitely caused me to ask some serious questions of myself: what is it about gaslighting that makes me susceptible to its vices? After all, I want to guard my heart.

So here are the things I’ve learnt to help me guard my heart against gaslighting:

  1. Acknowledge the promptings

The number of times I’ve had a prompting of the Holy Spirit that I’ve ignored is embarrassing. And then I find myself in an unfavourable situation and recall that little Holy Spirit heart tug an eon ago. Of course, these days I am trying really hard to acknowledge that Holy Spirit prompting and so far so good. Ultimately we ignore the prompting because we don’t want to believe it. Because let’s face it…it usually happens when you’re having a lot of fun developing a great new relationship! But the Holy Spirit is our guide and even when it doesn’t make sense to me at the time, the prompting is there for a reason. 

  1. Don’t always assume it’s you

See this is one of those traits in me that I find makes me susceptible. It can be a great sign of humility to take a moment and consider whether someone’s feedback about you is accurate. On the other hand, if you are the type who tends to think yourself unworthy this can be an opportunity for someone who has a tendency to blame others to circumvent responsibility. You are not always responsible! You can’t be. It would be statistically impossible for something to be your fault all the time. So when someone tells you that something is your fault, don’t assume it is. Ask yourself questions like: is it reasonable for someone in my situation to take responsibility for this? Did I even have the power to do anything about that thing? Could this person stand to gain from this being my fault?

  1. Don’t ignore lies

Because I tend to remember a lot of what people say to me, I find that I do pick up on inconsistencies in a story. Sometimes there is a good reason for it, but sometimes it is just an outright lie. But because I always want to believe the best of people I have often dismissed it, and just kept going. These days, I have come to realise that lying is not the behaviour of someone who really cares about me. It’s a trait of someone who cares about themselves and whatever agenda they are pedalling. So whilst I don’t necessarily confront a lie, I simply let it be a signpost either to be on the watch out for other signs or that this person is probably not ready to carry anything valuable that I might want to share (including my heart).

  1. Steer clear of anyone who doesn’t confront with love & gentleness

Communication is an interesting thing. When I’m just frustrated, my communication (ie. venting) is focused on the process and not the result. Whereas, if I care about the result, I am more cautious about the delivery. It’s the reason Pastors take 10 hours to write a sermon: they care about the outcome.

If someone who really cares about me is wanting to give me an opportunity to grow and change, they will care about the result. Which means the delivery of the message has been thought through. They won’t say it in a fit of rage, or when I’m confronting them about something. They will tell me when I’m in the best possible atmosphere to listen (preferably with a coffee in front of me), with love, gentleness and probably in the context of a loving and caring relationship.

And by the way, people do make mistakes. Sometimes I do get feedback from someone when they are frustrated. My way of giving them benefit of the doubt is to say to myself “if this actually is a real problem, they’ll tell it to me again when they aren’t upset”. 

  1. Beware of confusion

This is probably the best sign for me. It’s not uncommon that I walk away from a conversation annoyed, frustrated, or hurt. But it’s rare that I’ve walked away from a conversation completely confused. Think about it…in general, most conversation (particularly intentional ones) should lead to more clarity. Is this not the reason we ultimately communicate? To understand each other? When I am eventually able to work out that I am confused, I try to reflect on the conversational process to understand at what point confusion set in. This can help me to identify if there is some gaslighting going on so that I can be more prepared in the future.

  1. Beware of people who can’t handle conflict and are proud

So in general, there is a lot of conflict avoidant people out there. And not every person who is conflict-avoidant is a gas-lighter. So this isn’t a foolproof sign for me. But I’ve come to believe that the majority of gaslighting behaviour is unintentional. I do think there are some genuinely maniacal people out there that are intent on bringing harm to others. But for the most part, I think a lot of people simply develop survival mechanisms. For someone who gaslights, they may have learnt that they can’t handle criticism and therefore they avoid it at every cost. And without practice, inappropriate methods have arisen. Or alternatively, their conflict avoidance makes it hard for them to get their needs met and so they have resorted, out of survival, to these manipulative methods. There is one additional ingredient to this in the gaslighting recipe: pride. I think this is the major part of gaslighting that makes it so damaging. So imagine if you are proud and you have poor skills in a conflict situation? You bet you would be blaming/judging others, controlling, confuse…does that justify it? Of course not. I’m simply saying that these are the signs I look for.

  1. Be friends but don’t entrust my heart

When I’ve figured out that maybe someone has some gaslighting qualities, I am careful to give them full access to my heart. See, I started this article by asking a question: what is it about gaslighting that makes me susceptible to its vices? As much as I want to believe that I can be friends with everyone, the fact is that not all relationships are healthy for me. I know that if I was friends with Christian Bale, it would probably be unhealthy for my relationship with God. I mean he’s batman y’all! So guarding my heart, is about ensuring that my relationship with God continues to take primacy in my life. And not every relationship encourages that (and that’s not necessarily the other persons’ fault either). 

So I’ve learnt that I can be friends with anyone, but that doesn’t mean I have to divulge every part of my heart to everyone. I can be vulnerable with everyone, but I don’t have to share every detail. Because divulging everything is an act of vulnerability, and that is reserved for those who can handle that level of vulnerability.

The final thing that I do for a person who might have gaslighting behaviours is to pray for them. They aren’t the enemy, even if they have hurt me. Guarding my heart also means that I am willing to forgive and reconcile, even if I know I can’t have an intimate friendship with them. There may come a day that I am not so influenced by people who gaslight, but I can’t be certain (I am a super easy going person and I don’t necessarily want that to change). Until then, the best thing I can do is offer them to God. For whatever reason, they have gotten their security from being right and in control. That’s something that only God can deal with.