I am going to speak honestly here, as having been a pastor, as an aspiring Biblical Scholar, as one who has Bachelor’s degree in and an ongoing interest in psychology, and as one who grew up with a mother as a psychiatrist: Christian leaders need to be real careful about spiritual gaslighting and similar forms of spiritual judgment.
Gaslighting, if you aren’t familiar with the term, gaslighting is the series of events in which a person thoughts and feelings are consistently and routinely invalidated, to the point that they feel insane and cannot trust their own thinking. It is commonly the result of people whose intentions in their actions are constantly questioned or challenged. Or, in narcissistic relationships, narcissistic people might say or do something and then later deny it ever happened, causing their victims to question themselves. But this process goes beyond a merely questioning ourselves at any one point or time or another; the person perceives their own memory, feelings, and/or thinking as unreliable and they can not trust it at all.
Now as Christians pastors, leaders, and those who identify as some sort of spiritual formation guide, we are particularly prone to being able to gaslight people for two reasons. Firstly, because we are so focused on the hidden, spiritual condition of people, we are prone to seeing things about people that they do not see. Secondly, because this knowledge of the spiritual condition is tightly intertwined with psychology, we are deeply aware of the various theories about personality and the inner-experiences of cognitive and emotion, The very type of knowledge and understanding we have are about things that we do not directly observe; then, the more we develop a mastery of spiritual and psychological knowledge, the more confident we are in our analysis of other people through them.
Now, offhand, this doesn’t lead to gaslighting. We can use this knowledge in ways where it is vastly specific to certain actions and behaviors. We may sense someone acting with narcissistic intentions, expecting to be treated better than they treat others. We may, if the honesty necessitates it, label such behaviors narcissistic. Or, we may notice a pattern of behaviors from someone who is consistently living in self-deception, and we may point this out to them. Then, sometimes we may make general observations about people, such as in blog posts, that talk about different dynamics people go through. With the exception of the few people whose have little trust in their thoughts, feelings, and memories, most people can healthily endure a specific challenge to their inner thinking processes. They may not like it; they may storm away; people don’t always appreciate having the veil torn away. But they can endure it.
Although, at the same time, people may not like it because what is being said is false. Anger is not a sign of resistance; anger can be a sign of being wrongly attacked. Sometimes, we are wrong. Spiritual and psychological reality is incredibly complex, where there can be many different causes and explanations for any specific behavior or sets of behaviors. A defensive, conflict oriented behaviors in one person can be the result of narcissistic personality, whereas in another person it can be the result of them being routinely attacked and disregarded. Or, the strong frustration of a person who can not reach their longed for goals can be the result of a perfectionist attitude, or it can be the response of someone who lost their dreams and wishes they could have them in their grasp again. And this is where our spiritual and psychological knowledge and our sense of mastery can absolutely lead us astray: no matter how much knowledge you have about these matters, even if you have read ever important spiritual classic and every groundbreaking work on psychology, you are never, ABOSLUTELY NEVER, an expert on an individual person’s life and heart. You may know their actions and have some insight into the patterns that exist in those actions and the context they occur in, but you do NOT have direct access to fullness of that person’s psychological and spiritual life. That means you can make mistakes; that means you can misunderstand them the first time through.
Now, I want you to listen to me carefully here: I am not saying that if you have made a mistake, you are an abusive person who gaslights. The difference between people who make mistakes and those who abuse is that the former are attentive enough that they can prevent it from becoming all-out abuse. So, take heart, you will make mistakes and that doesn’t make you a spiritual abuser. As I said, most people are healthy enough to endure a mistake, and so if you make a mistake, you can simply make the necessary amends and restore a sense of affirmation to the person you misunderstood. Similarly, if you can identify someone whose sense of self-reliability has been utterly questioned, you can be very judicious and careful about how you talk about inner realities.
Where we get into problems, however, is how we can use this knowledge in the midst of competitive and hostile circumstances. This sort of knowledge can be very useful and even helpful in these situations, but we are also walking a very fine line as Christian leaders when we try to use this knowledge in competitive and hostile conflicts.
Firstly, in hostility, our first instincts if for self-preservation, and there is a predilection to think anything that threatens our self-preservation is wrong, whether it be morally wrong or wrong as a matter of fact. Thus, if we are in a conflict and we feel threatened by what someone has said or done, we can be inclined ot then use our psychological and spiritual knowledge to construct an explanation of that other person that preserves our sense of preservation. Our preservation is the truth, and therefore we imagine other people to be deeply troubled figures. This preserves our sense of self-worth, validation, and esteem. As a result, we are inclined to constantly target the inner experience of the other person when we speak to them.
Secondly, when we are are acting with competitive and hostile intentions, our listening to others is very constricted and biased. What we pay attention in others is information that pertains to what might make them potential threats and what weakness or desires they have so that we can manipulate to gain mastery and control of them. As a result, we do not pay attention to them to comprehend the complexity of their own psychological and spiritual tendencies. As a result, we very easily miss information that might tell us we are wrong about them; we sometimes even intentionally ignore this information because it doesn’t fit with the way our instincts to self-preservation control our interpretations of reality. Consequently, we make repeated errors of judgment that we never pick up and correct.
Thirdly, in such hostile and competitive conflicts, we are prone to get others involved and to spread our wrong interpretations about these people in the act of triangulation. Sometimes it is with the overt intention of trying to get back at them; sometimes we can say it is with the intention fo “helping,” which we in the helping professions often use to justify our actions, without regards to our actual intentions or the effectiveness of our actions. As a consequence, we can get other people to repeat and reuse these interpretations of a person, leading to others to join in on the questioning of that person’s inner experience. AT the extremes, this can get to the point that that target cannot find people who they can talk to who will listen to them, but they only interpret them from the lens coming from a poisoned well. Then, these people, who are not experts but have relied upon the supposed “experts,” may or may not be able to question these interpretations and find the errors, so they too do not listen appropriately to correct the errors of judgment.
The end result is that with our spiritual and psychological knowledge, we as Christian leaders can spiritually gaslight people we feel we are in a competitive or hostile conflict with if you are not incredibly careful. The problem is, such a barrage on a person can be massive and unrelenting, that can lead them to entirely question themselves as a whole. Furthermore, when this attitude enters into a community, it can become incredibly destructive, as people who experience gaslighting can instinctively try to engage in the same tactics. I am speaking from experience here, as me getting gaslit lead to a defensiveness that taught me part of what this community is about is gaslighting others that I feared that I joined in on. In the end, you can see battles between people who keep thinking they can judge and know the psychology and spiritual content of the minds of others.
And the struggle is that any of us can get this way if we are not spiritually formed in our we deal with conflicts along with well-trained in how we use this spiritual and psychological knowledge in the midst of conflicts. So, from my experience and reading, here are a few pointers that we can train ourselves in how to use this knowledge so that it becomes an ingrained habit that does not simply vanish when conflict arises:
1) Always remind yourself that before you can analyze you must listen well – There is a reason trained therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists (like my mother!) who are worth their salt say that they do not diagnose people they don’t meet with. The primary rationale behind this is that they need to able to hear and listen to the person themselves; second-hand information does not provide enough information, as it filters out a lot. Similarly, we can filter out a lot when we are listening to people, plus there is a lot that is not revealed form what we see and hear of people. You must listen well, to get a sense of the patterns and context to be able to address.
2) Observe, express, and act upon the conditional nature of your interpretations – Spiritual and psychological interpretation is more of an art, rather than a science, but insofar as it tries to be more “science-like” way to explain people, we need to recognize how conditional our interpretations might be. If you are talking to a person about their own experience, don’t speak like an expert on that person’s experience but speak more as an explorer, wondering and musing about what is around the corner. Sometimes this entails saying something along the lines of: “this might be the case, but it could be this.” Sometimes, it might entail being so general that it will allow the other person to take the general idea to see how it applies to themselves (although, this can lead to some false understandings itself. Sometimes, it will entail changing your interpretation once information comes in and expressing that change of interpretation. But a hermeneutical praxis of conditionality and expressing this can keep you using your knowledge as a tool for listening, as tools for exploring the landscape of people’s inner worlds.
3) Do not blame people for resistance to your interpretations and accept this comes with the work you do – When you get into people’s inner worlds, don’t blame them if they get angry, push away, or resist. This resistance is a natural response that we can have to such actions, whether it be due to the revealing of the truth about someone or whether it be due to the fact that we made a mistake. The events of resistance should not themselves be labeled as moral failings or a failure to see the truth. These are a natural instinctive response. But, while you shouldn’t blame people for resistance, do hold them responsible for how they act based upon their anger.
4) Be as specific as the information you have – IT can be a tempted action to see someone acting in a way we perceive to be arrogant and say “he is narcissistic,” in that we see them as a narcissistic person. But a single action does not represent who a person is; their actions may be more due to the circumstances they are in rather than their default personality traits. We are often times tempted to overgeneralize only a narrow range of people’s actions into personality traits while ignoring all the rest we have either ignored, forgotten, or never seen. This is known as the fundamental attribution error. But we can only get to reliably know a person through an aggregate of all their behaviors, words, and the contexts in which these words and behaviors occur in. So be specific to what you have, and don’t overgeneralize. For instance, don’t assume that someone who has expressed anger and disappointments directed towards God is not being a faithful Christian; they may have a deep sense of devotion, commitment, love, and listening that you either ignore, miss, or do not know about.
5) Recognize that is natural that people may overgeneralize what you say – Much as we can have a tendency to (over)generalize, the people we talk to can also have the tendency to (over)generalize what we say. To suggest that someone may be acting in an avoidant manner, for instance, that person may turn around think they are “avoidant” person all the time. Recognizing this will save you a lot of heartbreak when a person has begun to label themselves. Don’t offload the responsibility onto them to get the interpretation right, but make it YOUR responsibility as the one who is acting with power and expertise to clarify Then, if you see people who begin to overgeneralize and are beginning to distort and take things out of context, you can become aware that this is not an appropriate time to try to enter explore more in the person’s inner world.
The reality is that as Christian pastors, leaders, and spiritual guides, we don’t go through a licensure process to make sure we are adept at our work, that we are the types who will use our knowledge with great care. Most of our training comes from a few classes and some reading we have done on the side, which means we are prone to misuse spiritual and psychological knowledge in ways that can have disastrous consequences. The solution is either to say 1) this information is entirely out of bounds unless you are credentialed to use it or 2) that we should only use it if we have developed habits like these that define how we use spiritual and psychological knowledge, especially when we are in heated circumstances. But without either #1 or #2, then spiritual and psychological knowledge is a very dangerous material, much like nuclear power, and can be used to destroy rather than to bring life. So, we are Christian leaders should think wisely and develop habits in how we can use this knowledge.
Because let me say this in the most clear and decisive way: If you use this knowledge to tear people down in conflicts, you are in that moment acting far from being in the kingdom of God; you are acting more like the Pharisees who used their knowledge of the Torah to judge and tear down other people, without offering to lift a finger to help except by saying “you need to do this and be this way.” You will not be fulfilling the God-chosen task for being spiritual leaders, but you will be leaving the sheep without a shepherd, leaving God to have to send His own shepherd(s).