“Gaslighting” is a suddenly popular term on Mormonish social media and out there in the wider world. So when I came across Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free (DeCapo Press, 2018) by Stephanie Moulton Sarkis (a mental health counselor with a PhD) at my local library, I decided to give it a quick read. I’ll hit the highlights of a couple of relevant chapters in the book. But first, a disclaimer.
Most Relationships are Manipulative
Call it manipulation or persuasion or just trying to get things done, but before pointing the finger at the Church or LDS leaders, first think about relevant comparisons. In the workplace, most bosses try to manipulate their employees to do things like getting to work on time and completing projects. Employees, in return, try to manipulate bosses to get a raise and adopt Casual Fridays. Your church (any church) manipulates you into putting a $20 bill into the tray on Sunday. Netflix manipulates you into watching the next episode. Parents manipulate kids into doing their homework. Kids manipulate parents into staying up late to watch a movie. The list is endless.
The challenge, I think, is to have a sense of when persuasion or manipulation crosses the line. Telling flat-out lies to get people to do things. Persuading or manipulating in order to take someone’s money in something like a fraud scheme. Getting people to do things that places them at risk of harm in order to further one’s own plans or wishes. These seem like red flags. I’m sure you can come up with other indicators. So if we talk about gaslighting and the LDS Church (either at the general level or at your own particular local level) we have to distinguish between run of the mill persuasion and stuff that crosses the line.
With that caveat in place, let’s talk. In the book, the chapters on gaslighting in politics and the workplace are almost more applicable to the Church than the religion chapter (which talks about “cults” and seems more focused on small religious groups). So let’s start there.
Welcome to the Machine
Any large organization is going to feel uncaring and impersonal much of the time, and modern life is full of large corporations. You probably work for one, most of the products you buy were made by one, your country is run by several governmental ones, and so forth. Here are some things that gaslighters do as part of a corporate or organizational setting (from p. 64):
- Take credit for your hard work
- Give backhanded compliments
- Blame everything on you
- Know your weaknesses and exploit them
- Spread gossip about you (and deny it if confronted)
- Pressures you to do something unethical
- Bullies and threatens you and others
Here are some behaviors noted in the politics chapter, from a long list of characteristics of gaslighters in the public sphere (p. 96-106):
- They behave as if they are all-powerful
- They show little empathy
- They retaliate
- They detest intellectuals
- They’re obsessed with optics
- Their allegiance is to money, not citizens
- Their words don’t match their actions
- They turn citizens against marginal groups
- They seem to act irrationally
- They make people dependent on them
- They use propaganda (that is, they employ non-credible info to convince others to further their goals)
- They try to rewrite history
- They give themselves titles
- They repeat outrageous lies
- They are obsessed with symbols
- They use distraction
And finally, here are a few points from the religion chapter, subtitled “false messiahs, extremist groups, closed communities, cults, and gaslighting,” in a section that contrasts “cults” with “healthy belief systems.” In cults:
- You are not supposed to ask questions or to question authority
- You are told your group is superior to other groups and people
- They’ll sabotage and undermine family relationships
- Your spouse is chosen for you, from within the group
- There is no clear accounting of funds
- You are pressured to give them large or regular sums of money
- Science is seen as wrong
- There is a series of strict rules or “laws”
- There is a strict dress code
- Demeaning names are given to those who are “outsiders”
- Mental health treatment is shunned
- You are stalked and harassed if you leave
That’s from a list of about 30 characteristics, so I’m paring things down a bit. Some of the items in the above lists might ring a bell for you, others not so much. I’m just going to pick three or four items and give a paragraph to each of them, with a suggestion for improvement (that is, changes that could make the Church less culty and less manipulative).
Missionaries. The cultiest part of the Church is life as a young missionary, for dozens of reasons. It’s also a great experience for a lot of young Mormons (go figure), but add a couple of decades of life experience and we often look back on things differently. The Church has recently eased up on some of the cultier rules, so missionaries now get a lot more contact with family back home. One particular gaslighting technique that seems universal: If things aren’t going well in terms of proselyting success (about 99% of the time), it’s always the fault of the missionaries, who aren’t working hard enough or aren’t following all the rules or aren’t praying enough or aren’t listening to the Spirit or whatever. I doubt any MP or visiting GA has ever said to a conference of missionaries, “Sorry, we’ve been using a bad, ineffective program the last few years” or “Sorry, some of the features of Mormon culture we emphasize make lots of good people want to ignore your message” or “Sorry, more bad PR from Utah makes your job really tough.” The Church doesn’t apologize; it blames the missionaries.
Money. Let’s just talk about one thing: financial transparency. Publication of financial statements. Letting tithepayers know what is done with their financial contributions. Up until the early 1950s, the Church actually published financial statements. So it’s not like there is anything wrong with doing this, from the Church’s point of view. It’s just more convenient for leaders if they don’t have to answer questions. Of course, without transparency, there is a much higher risk of financial misdeeds, from outright fraud to simply pursuing private goals of leaders rather than valid public or organizational goals. The whole Ensign Peak episode (and we all know there is more to the story) is Exhibit 1 for why the membership needs access to accurate financial statements.
Ethics and Pressure. This is a broader and looser category, but probably a good one to discuss. Some examples: If you are pressured to go contact a person who doesn’t want to be contacted by their ministering person or a missionary. Another: You are pressured to participate in a political campaign (think Prop 8) or the latest stake program despite personal misgivings. Another: As a teacher, you are pressured to teach what’s in the manual, even if it’s wrong, and might be criticized for teaching other stuff, even if it is correct or accurate. Somehow there is a lot of discussion in the Church of commandments and good versus evil, but very little reflection on ethics and doing the right thing. Perhaps because sometimes conscience interferes with obedience.
Conclusion. The bottom line is that I think “gaslighting” is something any person in a big organization ought to be aware of, whether you are in the Army, government, a corporation, or a church. I also think the whole topic is a little overblown in LDS discussions, although you may disagree if you have a missionary in the family who is going crazy or a bishop who blames you for your spouse’s misdeeds or a spouse who thinks everything is your fault, mingled with religious justifications and accusations.
So what do you think? Is gaslighting a serious thing in the Church, compared to elsewhere? Are things getting better? After reading this post, does it seem like you are surrounded by people and organizations trying to manipulate you? Or, perhaps, could we be doing these sorts of things ourselves without even realizing it? Maybe we are all gaslighters, at least on a bad day.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment, often evoking in them cognitive dissonance and other changes such as low self-esteem. Using denial, misdirection, contradiction, and misinformation, gaslighting involves attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s beliefs. Instances may range from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.”
Or. Gaslighting is a term, like “cult” that gets used to characterize any group one feels like criticizing.
Which is why I have difficulty with most discussions that use the word.
It’s a word I almost never heard until the last year. Now it’s everywhere online, and I think it’s highly overused.
As I read the list, the corporation I work for actually seems to do a decent job overall, though a lot of it is still there. As was alluded to, everyone and everything does this to an extent.
The Church is no exception, but as far as it goes, I think every one of those points could be argued as to the validity, extent, or frequency the gaslighting occurs. It would also obviously depend on the individual members and leaders. As an example, I served in one of the lowest baptizing missions in the world. At no point were we ever made to feel it was our fault, unless we weren’t trying at all, in which no success was an obvious default. On the contrary, my mission sort of spotlighted the value our Heavenly Father places on agency for both those in and out of the Church, and how another’s agency will always trump our own faith. It’s left a lasting impression.
My mission president did his best to encourage us in success and was sincere in those encouragements. Despite that sincerity, years later he privately gave an even greater acknowledgement that it would take more than missionaries to achieve greater success among the people.
Whether or not gaslighting is a familiar expression it’s a concept with an established clinical meaning. Gaslighting is the practice of undermining or attempting to undermine a person’s trust in their own observations and experiences. In consideration of that, it strikes me as ironic to discount those who feel they’ve had their doubts and conclusions questioned and dismissed.
A person may be right or wrong to some degree in the conclusions they draw — that’s true of any one of us — but they, nevertheless, have a right to observe, reflect and draw them. The rest of us may not be compelled by their logic. We may come to diametrically opposed decisions about similar things and things we’ve experienced. We may argue the point or the way the evidence was gathered and interpreted. But we might as well admit there’s a good chance they stand an equal chance of being correct about the experiences they have had. Furthermore, continuing to discount them is less likely to change their opinions than to erode any standing we have in their estimation.
I really disagree with the way you have synonymized communicating reciprocal expectations with influence, persuasion, manipulation, and gas lighting. None of these are synonyms and it is absolutely not true that healthy relationships are manipulative.
The second part of your post, in which you list and discuss common attributes of cults, is much more substantive. I like your points about how the church could be less cult-like. To be clear, though, thus second part of the post has pretty much nothing to do with the topic of gas lighting (gas lighting is common in cults, but you actually didn’t talk about that). Thank you to Alice in the comments for bringing in a clear working definition!
Thank you for this post. The book looks fascinating. It helps to recognize techniques individuals and organizations use to manipulate us and make us doubt ourselves. How do we change the parts of church culture that are concerning? If truth is on our side we don’t have to use manipulative tactics do we?
To add to Stephen’s comment, the term “gaslighting” is most often used just to denigrate someone with whom one disagrees especially when one cannot articulate a logical response to the disagreeable comments.
1) Trying to write a whole book about just that one term is tricky. It sounds to me like they conflated it with some other adjacent topics that are actually different: other forms of manipulation (and even things that aren’t manipulative, just normal tensions when people have different agendas), cults, narcissism, etc.
2) All of these terms are in the zeitgeist right now. And sometimes they are being overused or misused, although gaslighting is less often overused in the online discussions I see. Everyone who’s a selfish a-hole is suddenly diagnosed as a narcissist. Every organization is a cult if you try to leave it and lose a relationship over it. It does feel like we’ve got some hyperbolic use of terms. But gaslighting is a very specific thing, and that’s why I don’t see it misused as often.
3) The Charles Boyer / Ingrid Bergman movie is a classic for a reason. It is well worth re-watching. He’s over-the-top nefarious in the movie. When we lie to manipulate others, it can be more subtle than his actions, though. He’s climbing up rooftops wearing dress shoes! Those shoes have no grip! Most gaslighting is going to be more effortless than that, doing things like rewriting history. The one I can think of in the workplace is a boss saying “We’ve talked about this before” when they haven’t. Is that intentional or poor memory? It could be either.
I think it’s a good topic, though.
Nicely said Alice.
Tip o’ the hat, Stephen!
Is gaslighting a serious thing in the Church, compared to elsewhere?
Based on my experience, the answer is yes. I’ve been part of other organizations such as the US Air Force and a major political party. There is dogma in those other organizations, but none that claim my salvation rides on it.
The military is an interesting case because many times its authority and chain of command is compared to the church’s. When told to jump the proper response is to ask how high on the way up. On the surface the comparison is apt. But fundamentally the comparison is flawed in notable ways. In the USAF, I’ve served under good leaders. I’ve also served under some real duds. I had one general ask me point blank if I thought he was stupid. Fortunately it was a rhetorical question because he was stupid. In fact he was the most stupid military leader I served under. But I never felt bad for thinking that – because 1) he wasn’t the Lord’s anointed, and 2) it was pretty common knowledge on the staff AND we would commiserate together. We could talk about it and not be looked at askance. The general was just someone who got promoted above his competence and he would go away either at his next assignment or mine (and in two years, that’s what happened. Problem solved). That is just not the same situation with the church.