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I used to be a staunch churchgoer until the preaching left an unsettling feeling. A lot of what was being fed to me from the pulpit did not sit well with my core beliefs and common sense.
Things felt “off” and weren’t adding up with reasoning and logic. I eventually stopped attending church. I suspect I was a victim of spiritual gaslighting, and it’s not much different from gaslighting in relationships.
Did you have a similar experience in a church, mosque, mandir, convent, or another type of religious group? The insidious practice of gaslighting people in any setting has negative emotional and psychological effects, which I’ve covered below.
The larger goal is to illustrate what gaslighting by spiritual authorities looks like and how to deal with it.
What Is Spiritual Gaslighting?
Spiritual gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation by anyone who uses spiritual or religious information, beliefs, or doctrines, such as the scriptures, to invalidate your perception or spiritual experience.
Usually, it’s an authority figure who employs this manipulation tactic to take control of your mind, thoughts, or feelings. Eventually, it leads to self-doubt and causes you to question your understanding of your beliefs.
The practice is regarded as a form of spiritual abuse because of what it does to your mind and emotions. You’re made to question your own intuition, judgment, reality, or sanity, as is the case with other forms of gaslighting.
Christian psychologist, Dr. Diane Langberg, addressed spiritual abuse in her book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church.
Signs of Spiritual Gaslighting or Spiritual Abuse
You may be the victim of spiritual abuse through gaslighting methods if your faith leader, partner, or friend does the following:
- Guilt trips you into submitting to their spiritual beliefs
- Twists the truth to influence a change in beliefs
- Refuses accountability for giving you incorrect spiritual guidance
- Shames and isolates you by sharing your personal experiences with fellow leaders or followers
- Tells you your duty is to serve them
- Expels you from the organization or group when they can no longer exploit you (similar to narcissist discard)
- Tells you if you love them, you’ll do as they say (Remember the cult leader Jim Jones? He used his charisma to gain the trust of his followers. He tested their loyalty by asking them to drink poison and kill themselves, which many did.)
Where Does the Term Gaslighting Come From?
The term ‘gaslight’ dates back to the 1938 stage play, Gaslight. The concept later played out on screen in the 1944 movie, Gaslight.
In a nutshell, the husband effectively used a manipulative tactic to cause his wife to believe she was going crazy. She kept seeing the gas light in the house dim. He told her that wasn’t what she saw.
He was essentially gaslighting her by denying her experience and causing her to question her memory. He wanted to convince her she was crazy, get her committed to a psychiatric ward, and then steal her possessions.
In the end, the husband influenced how his wife saw herself, created doubt and confusion, and was subsequently able to take control of her property.
Why Do People Gaslight Others?
Gaslighters use manipulation and coercive control for personal gain, whether they do so knowingly or unknowingly, subtly or openly.
People who tend to engage in gaslighting include those with personality disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. Incidentally, these individuals lack empathy for others. They use special gaslighting phrases or statements for these reasons:
Psychologists concluded that those who gaslight others learned the behavior in childhood. In many cases, their primary caregiver engaged in manipulation to get them to behave or do something.
Manipulation takes the form of threats, coercion, or withholding something the child wants or needs. The child later uses these mind-control tactics in adult relationships and interactions.
How Gaslighting Affects You
Like other forms of gaslighting, faith-based gaslighting typically occurs as a persistent pattern of statements that causes you to become insecure about yourself and your beliefs.
You also begin to lose trust in the person or organization the more you realize they are manipulating your intelligence, logic, or understanding of your spirituality. The practice can cause these other mental or emotional effects:
9 Hidden Signs or Examples of Spiritual Gaslighting Used to Manipulate
“Gaslighters are master manipulators,” Psychotherapist, Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D., LMHC, told Psycom. Sarkis is also the author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free.
My view of gaslighting is basically someone trying to feed you bullshit–things that don’t make sense when you stop to think of it. But it can be subtle and difficult to spot if you’re dealing with a clever narcissistic gaslighter. Sometimes gaslighters may not even be aware they’re practicing manipulation, but the negative effects are still the same.
Familiarizing yourself with the following examples can protect you from someone who uses spiritual teachings to control your mind and behavior.
#1. You’re Not Healing Because You’re Not Spiritual Enough
The person is essentially blaming you for your own illness. Their view causes you to try harder to be more spiritual or involve them more in your life.
For example, asking them to pray for you so you can overcome your illness. By seeking their help, they feel validated and empowered.
Narcissistic gaslighters feel empty unless people ‘see’ them and provide attention and other types of narcissistic fuel to boost their fragile egos.
Don’t you think the above spiritual gaslighting example sounds farfetched? People get sick and have trouble recovering for different reasons. Even so-called very spiritual people get ill and even die without recovering. Consider this as evidence that contradicts what they’re telling you.
#2. You’re Not Getting Spiritual Breakthroughs Due to Unforgiveness
Many spiritual entities and teachings tell you that forgiveness is a door to healing. If you believe something other than this and you’re being told to believe your misery is due to unforgiveness, chances are you’re being gaslighted.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the concept of forgiveness. I depart from the teachings when spiritual guides want me to believe I have to keep on forgiving the same people who do me wrong over and over again. Otherwise, I am doomed or my spirituality will suffer.
I still like the simple Hawaiian Ho’oponono forgiveness prayer. It lets me forgive others and myself quickly by saying “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.” You don’t even need to confront the person who did you wrong, as some spiritual leaders promote. What if you’re unable to contact them? Right.
#3. You Lack Financial Wealth Because You’re Not Sowing Your ‘seed’
Certain religious authorities manipulate the meaning of bible doctrines to make a case for why you need to pour all of your earnings into the church offering basket.
They say things like, you must ‘sow seeds’ if you want to reap financial blessings. In other words, bring your tithes and offerings to the church so you can grow in wealth.
They dupe unsuspecting churchgoers and members into believing that they are poor because they’re not giving at least 10% of their income.
Using the following scripture, some leaders may go as far as to say “Give all you have, and have faith that God will provide the rest!” Malachi 3:8-12. A lot of tithers are still living in poverty today.
#4. If You Were Spiritual Enough, You’d Understand
Spiritual gurus and influencers like to present themselves as all-knowing. Owing to their arrogance, fragile egos, and sometimes low self-esteem, they tend to dismiss the opinions of others without listening. To them, the thoughts or reasoning of the congregation or spiritual group don’t matter in their minds.
The relationship is sort of one-way. It’s like saying, “You listen to what I say and do as you’re told.” I’ve experienced this type of gaslighting in church, where the members were treated as unbelievers for questioning the leader’s interpretation of the scriptures.
Such leaders may tell you, when you get baptized, you’ll understand the Bible better. They often tell you the Almighty or Allah only reveals the true meaning of scriptures or the Quran to those who are chosen.
#5. You Must Forget the “self” to Grow Spiritually
Seriously? Your self is you. It’s everything that makes you human. Yet, spiritual mentors want you to believe it’s your ‘self’ that’s in the way. Give it up and you’ll gain exponential spiritual growth. Sounds like grandiosity, a trait seen in grandiose narcissists.
The self is an individual identified as your reflective consciousness. Some call it the ego, and it represents your mindset, personality traits, thoughts, emotions, and self-esteem.
It’s part of you and you it. There’s no way to separate yourself from your self , even though some spiritual healers believe so.
Saying, to grow spiritually, you must abandon yourself, is asking you to deny your humanity. You’re being spiritually gaslighted if you’re unable to reconcile this with your sense of reasoning.
#6. You’re Experiencing Bad Karma
“Karma” is a concept linked to Hinduism and Buddhism. The idea behind the belief is that you’ll get rewarded for good deeds (good karma), and pain and suffering for bad deeds (bad karma).
A spiritual mentor may try to make you feel responsible, guilty, or ashamed for all negatives occurring in your life. For example, illness, poverty, or the inability to bear children. You’re left fearful of the consequences of making mistakes, which is ‘bad’ karma.
You know you’re a good, empathetic person. You want to believe what your spiritual leader is telling you. At the same time, you notice crooked, cruel, and dishonest people succeeding in life. This contradiction leaves you feeling confused and doubtful about what to believe.
#7. Life Will Get Better Once You Align Yourself with the Universe
Here, you’re getting blamed for having a difficult or unsuccessful life because you’re not at one with the energy of the universe. You’re left questioning where you went wrong. Feelings of guilt or inadequacy creep in as the gaslighting statement contradicts what you thought about your life all along.
This leaves you worrying about how to adjust your life to find your purpose or reach your true destiny. You may question many of your life decisions or beat up on yourself for taking a certain pathway.
If you’re an adult past 40, you might conclude that you’re running out of time to fix things. The fear can lead to anxiety or depression caused by a sense of failure to live in sync with the universe.
#8. It’s Your Attachment to the World that’s Holding You Back
Buddhists and other spiritual gurus may say relationships, ideas, emotions, and material possessions, literally everything that makes up your existence, are causing your downfall.
The statement is grounded in the “attachment” belief, meaning, attaching yourself to these things creates spiritual blockages in your life.
In Buddhism, they encourage you to practice non-attachment to experience a peaceful and prosperous life. This flies in the face of the basic human need for love and affection and to be seen and validated by other humans. The teaching also goes against attachment to ideas and outcomes such as setting and achieving positive goals.
Practicing non-attachment might rob you of enjoying the fullness of life. Perhaps you’ll grow bitter and resentful in the end from believing you had to let go of your human needs to access personal growth.
#9. You’re Responsible for Everything That Happens to You
No, you’re not. The accusatory statement is similar to the “bad karma” gaslighting phrase, but a little different in some sense. Not only is it a reckless and misleading statement, but it suggests that you’re to be blamed for your experiences.
Therefore, if someone was sexually assaulted or they got laid off from their job, no one but them is to be blamed. The belief doesn’t take into account external factors in your environment and the universe as a whole that influence your day-to-day experiences.
For example, a company may decide to lay off an employee because it’s losing money. When someone gets raped, it’s someone else who makes that decision to commit the crime. How are these events the individual’s fault when they practically had no control over those decisions?
Final Thoughts on Signs of Spiritual Gaslighting
Spiritual manipulation amounts to spiritual abuse. When our religious and spiritual beliefs are manipulated against us, we end up becoming fearful. We begin to believe we aren’t holy or righteous or faithful enough.
We start putting spiritual development over being human. We dismiss our reasoning, convictions. emotions, intuition, and truth.
What’s important is trusting your instinct and judgment if you suspect you’re a victim of gaslighting. Distance yourself from the harmful environment.
You can also seek support from trusted family members, friends, or a mental health professional. Learn about 5 Types of Gaslighting You Might Encounter throughout life.
And if you're looking for more resources on gaslighting, be sure to check out these blog posts:
- 15 Ways to Turn the Tables on a Gaslighter in Your Life
- 37 Gaslighting Examples & Phrases That Manipulative People Use
- 11 Signs of Unintentional or Unconscious Gaslighting