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Gaslighting and Religious Trauma

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We want religious organizations and communities to be safe, but when they are riddled with toxic emotional dynamics, those spaces become unsafe. One of the common unhealthy manipulation tactics that can be used in rigid and traumatizing religious communities is gaslighting.  

Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic used to make someone second guess themselves or believe themselves to be losing touch with reality.  In romantic relationships, gaslighting might look like one partner denying that they said a particular thing or behaved in a particular way, leaving the accuser second-guessing their memory or perception of events. It can also play out with a partner saying “You are crazy!” every time the other partner expresses a feeling, perception, or experience. That teaches us to keep our mouths shut and worry very deeply about our own emotional experiences. 

We’ve talked a lot about emotional manipulation in a blog here.

So, how does gaslighting happen in religious communities? 

Gaslighting is built into the teachings. 

One way that gaslighting shows up in religious or cult communities is by embedding it deeply within the beliefs or teachings of the group.  I remember a specific sermon I heard growing up where the pastor yelled from the pulpit about a woman being “crazy” for being suspicious of the church leader’s intentions. The pastor used this as evidence that she was “far from the heart of God” and misread the “Godly intentions” of the pastor.  She was called crazy, unhinged, and deeply in need of “God’s wisdom”.  This was all done from the powerful role of a leader in the church.  Most of us looked around at those sitting in the pews with us wondering who had been so “crazy” as to deny or question the intentions of our “benevolent” leader.  This gaslighting of a woman being seen as crazy for her perception was done as a warning to the rest of us of what would happen if we also questioned the leadership of that church. 

Human experiences such as emotions are taught to mean an evil presence is in a person’s life. 

One of the most powerful ways to emotionally manipulate members of a group is to cause them to question their instincts or gut reactions.  You do this by equating the normal human experiences of anxiety or upset with some sort of evil presence in the life of a community member.  It is common for folks in highly restrictive groups to grow up questioning their emotional experience and viewing it as evidence that they are being tempted or stalked by some evil force. Now emotions are not helpful reminders of your needs, but horrifying evidence that you’ve lost your way or lost contact with god. They are evidence that you have lost touch with the “reality” that is shared with your faith community. 

Gaslighting and denying the presence or impact of abuse going on with leadership or other community members. 

We’ve all likely heard the grizzly stories of abuse actively happening within spiritual communities. When this is brought up or challenged by members of the community, they are often told that they are crazy or lying about the abuse that transpired.  There is often a big effort to cover up evidence and most churches or cults will refrain from reporting illegal and abusive behavior to law enforcement.  The impact? Without law enforcement involvement, the victims of the abuse have very little evidence that can be used in legal proceedings. The church or cult leaders can use this as “evidence” to continue denying the experience of the abuse survivor.  It’s an ugly cycle that leaves vulnerable members of the community without much legal or mental recourse after a major injustice has occurred. 

I’m on a mission to help folks find safe groups.  If there’s gaslighting in your cult or religious community, you are not alone. You are being manipulated and that’s never a healthy way to endear members to the cause of your group.  A group’s beliefs and mission should stand without the need to manipulate or scare members.  

If you’ve been in a culty group and you’re ready to make sense of that experience, you can join us at A Year of Non-Magical Thinking here. This is a group curated for religious trauma and cult abuse survivors that is aimed at helping you gain clarity on your experience and empower you in your recovery.

If you are looking for a to learn skills for helping your clients recover after religious trauma, we have a curated education experience for you! Join us for A Year of Non-Magical Thinking for Therapists and learn how to support your clients after they've experienced serious gaslighting and emotional abuse. 

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