Saturday, January 21, 2017

GASLIGHTING IN THE AGE OF TRUMP: TIPS FOR SURVIVAL

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade; lschade@lextheo.edu


Only one day has passed since Donald Trump has taken office, and already we are seeing outright lies being asserted as truth by him and by his press secretary.  When the world could see in real-time the size of the crowd gathered for the inauguration and compare that to pictures of crowd for Obama’s inauguration, we can obviously see the difference.  Yet they dispute the facts right in front of our eyes.  What is going on here?

In a word:  gaslighting.


Gaslighting is the attempt of one person to overwrite another person’s reality.  It is a tactic used for gaining power and control.  The term gets its name from a 1938 play and 1944 film Gaslight starring Ingrid Bergman in which her husband would secretly dim the gaslight, but when she commented on it, he insisted she must be crazy.  And he convinced others she was insane as well.  Thus gaslighting is a form of manipulation through persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying in an attempt to destabilize and delegitimize a person or group of people. The point of gaslighting (sometimes called “mind games”) is to sow seeds of doubt, with the purpose of making the person or group question their own memory, perception, and sanity.  Gaslighting is a favorite tactic used by people who exhibit narcissism. The underlying message of a gaslighter is always this:  What you know to be true is not true.
Our country has been subjected to gaslighting by Trump, fake news, internet trolls, and Trump’s White House team that is hell-bent on imposing its xenophobic, white supremacist, homophobic, misogynistic, climate-change-denying, planet-destroying authoritarian agenda on our country and the world.  Name-calling and stereotyping certain groups is another form of gaslighting, because it attempts to assign a demoralizing identity to a person or group, thus countering the reality that they are precious human beings whose lives matter.  The effects that this bullying and abuse will have on the collective psyche of our nation remain to be seen, but are certain to be felt for perhaps decades, even after this presidency ends. 

[For an excellent perspective on how this gaslighting in the form of non-sequitor is affecting both social discourse and teaching in higher ed, read this article by Nancy Lynne Westfield, Associate Professor of Religious Education, Drew Theological School & Graduate Division of Religion: http://wabashcenter.typepad.com/teaching_religion_politic/2017/02/up-tick-of-non-sequitur-speech.html.]
People of faith and goodwill need to understand what is happening and how to counter the effects of gaslighting.  Faith leaders especially are obligated to name it, shame it, and speak truth, as well as educate and pastorally support their congregants who are being subjected to this kind of psychological trauma (even if people don’t recognize it as such, or are unwittingly assenting to it).
5 Things to Know about Gaslighting:

1.      Gaslighting requires a belief that it is acceptable to overwrite another person’s reality.  Notice the way in which Trump has actually used the term “fake news” to accuse legitimate journalists and news outlets of being illegitimate.  He is attempting to turn reality upside down.  This encourages people to doubt that the institution of the media is necessary for a democracy to function.  Resist all attempts to demonically alter reality.

2.      Gaslighting has the goal of actually changing who someone is, not just their behavior.  Note how the very character of our nation seems to have become distorted by the events of the campaign, the election and its aftermath.  Be especially vigilant about practicing kindness, compassion, empathy, and active solidarity in order to counter the cruelty being normalized.

3.      Gaslighting doesn’t always involve anger or intimidation.  Often the gaslighter transforms themselves into the victim. Witness Trump’s tweets or verbal responses to criticism, the Russian hacks, anything that he believes is trying to diminish him.  This is also typical narcissistic behavior in an attempt to exercise control.  Don’t fall for it.

4.      Gaslighters accuse the victim of being the bully.  Abusers will often manipulate the story, the memory, the environment and witnesses to make it appear that they were the one who was abused by the actual victim.  The victim wracks their brain trying to remember how and when this happened – and it didn’t.  But they’re already mistrusting their memory, so they experience self-doubt.  All the while the gaslighter deflects the reality, and often does so publicly.  Witness the way Trump would call Hillary a “nasty woman,” making it seem as if she was abusing him, when, in fact, just the opposite was happening.  Also notice the way he calls the media and any public figure who attacks him abusive (“and they don’t even know me!”).  This is classic gaslighting from a narcissist that should not be fed or assented to in any way.

5.      Gaslighting engages the victim in a hamster-wheel of illogical arguing and sucks up vast amounts of emotional energy.  You argue for hours, without resolution. You argue over things that shouldn’t be up for debate. There is no resolution and you feel drained afterward with no energy left for re-constructing a healthy self.  This is a tactic for effectively shutting down resistance and allowing the gaslighter to have his or her own way.  It’s used on journalists constantly (witness Kellyanne Conway in nearly every press interview) and exhausts anyone who tries to make sense of what’s happening.


6 Ways to Respond to Gaslighting (and help others)

1.      Educate yourself with information from reliable sources.  See these documents: “Resources for Debunking Fake News,” “10 Investigative Reporting Outlets to Follow,” and this chart showing what news sources are fake or legit, politically skewed or nonpartisan.  You can share these with people in your congregation, members of your family, friends, and anyone who buys into the gaslighting rhetoric and uncritically regurgitates it.

2.      Name it, don’t normalize it.  When you see gaslighting happening, name it and shame it.  Call it what it is.  In Ten Commandments parlance, this is calling “bearing false witness” – lying – and it is opposed to God’s will.  So tell the truth.  And do not accept this behavior as normal.  It’s not.  It’s evil and it needs to be resisted.


3.      Check in with people you trust.  Who are the five people you can count on to help you figure out what’s real?  Who are the people who value you, affirm you, boost you up and infuse you with courage?  Who are the people and groups that equip you to resist the gaslighting and abuse?  Who are your go-to people who inspire you to be your best self?  Make it a point to check in with them often.  They are your psychological lifeline and safety net.

4.      Listen and believe those who are confiding in you their feelings about what’s happening in our nation, which are likely to dredge up experiences and feelings from their past, or exacerbate what they’re already subjected to.  Reassure them that they are not going insane, that they are a good person, and that they are strong enough to psychologically resist what is happening to them.  

5.      Help others to self-differentiate and resist in community. Self-differentiating means being able to separate feelings and thoughts, to base one’s responses on logical thought rather than a flood of emotions. When we do this with others, it frees us up to be able to work together to help those who are “the least of these” – the ones most at risk from this administration.  Taken together, self-differentiating and working with a trusted group to resist evil and bring about positive change helps make you stronger, clearer, more directed, more differentiated, and more compassionate.
Leah Schade at the Women's March in Lexington, KY - 5000 strong!

6.      If you are a person of faith, use every spiritual and religious resource available.  We have actions and words – rituals – that are designed to hold the vast range of feelings we are experiencing.  Rely on that pattern of worship that gathers us in and sends us out.  Pray without ceasing.  And if you are a Christian, trust that the Spirit of God through the compassion of Jesus Christ is in our midst, and already going ahead of us into this “grave new world.”  And what did Mary and the women find at the grave? . . . .

Leah Schade is the author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and an ordained minister of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


For more information:  10 Things I’ve Learned About Gaslighting As An Abuse Tactic, by Shea Emma Fett, August 27, 2015 [http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/things-wish-known-gaslighting/] accessed 1/19/17.

A gaslighting, codependent circus: The Trump train wreck is America’s dysfunctional family by Mary Elizabeth Williams, Aug. 3, 2016 [http://www.salon.com/2016/08/03/a_gaslighting_codependent_circus_the_trump_train_wreck_is_americas_dysfunctional_family/ ] Accessed 1/21/17.

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