Have you ever been in an exchange with an angry friend or relative who kept twisting everything you said until you begin to wonder if you are out of your mind? And I don’t mean over a conversation or two, but over years berating you with angry accusations that don’t make any sense or seem wildly out of proportion. And the more you try to reach out to understand what they are saying, the more convoluted their stories become.
There’s a term for it—gaslighting. According to Wikipedia, gaslighting is “a tactic in which a person or entity, to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality… It is a common technique of abusers, dictators, narcissists, and cult leaders. It is done slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize how much they’ve been brainwashed.” It is a form of abuse, even though it isn’t always done intentionally. It can result from jealousy or unresolved trauma in someone’s past that seeks to control others as a coping mechanism for their fears and insecurity. They can be quite persuasive, especially when drawing others into their story to validate their anger. Their gossip is a dark cancerous mass that can metastasize through a family, workplace, or even congregation and destroy longstanding relationships.
Here’s how one friend recently described such a person he had to deal with:
They take absolutely no ownership for the harm and chaos they create. They are always the victim with the emotional maturity of a five-year old. Repentance is for everyone else who wronged them; they never need it. And forgiveness is out of the question since they perceive every wrong as fresh every day.
Imagined wrongs are the landscape of their souls. They collect grievances like a miser stacking a hoard of coins which they polish and caress every day. They have a Groundhog Day existence, but unlike Bill Murray in the movie, they do not grow or gain insight. They fester and fling anger and rage with considerable skill.
It is a miserable way to live. They can only be helped when their desire for a better life outweighs their sense of victimhood. That is rare because they only seek out people who will justify their sense of injury.
Honestly, my heart goes out to people like that, even when I’m the victim and especially when they can’t see it in themselves. Blaming others, even falsely, medicates their fear and anger—the source of which they may no longer even remember. Many are destructive by default, not by choice, and delude themselves into thinking they have all the facts. Unfortunately, since most others are reticent to challenge their delusions for fear they might become the next target, the emotionally broken person often ends taking control of a group and leave destroyed relationships in their wake.
How do you know if someone around you has turned toxic? Anyone can be misinformed, jump to the wrong conclusions, or need to work out an offense with some honest and tender conversation. Good relationships are hard work. Who hasn’t had a misunderstanding or made a mistake that needed to be talked out so the relationship could heal? Toxicity, however, is measured over a long period of time with unfair expectations or unrelenting accusations and no desire to seek a solution.
Toxic people are always on the attack or act offended. Their complaints, however, are often petty and ignore the possibility that some of them may be simple misunderstandings or a lack of sensitivity on the other’s part. They have no interest in listening to another point of view. They’ve already made up their mind and prefer to be offended rather than resolve their conflict. They think they know you better than you know yourself, and if you disagree with them, they won’t believe you. Eventually, they will make up stories to justify their unsatisfied anger as their contempt grows. When confronted with the truth, they get angrier, make more often-contradictory accusations, and cut you off entirely until they launch their next assault. They won’t seek out a gracious environment to discover what’s true. Apologies fall on deaf ears, and they never offer any of their own.
If you’re currently in the crosshairs of someone else’s rage, I’m so sorry. The enemy loves dividing relationships. In these polarized political times, toxic relationships seem to be spreading along with the virus. I get emails every week from those suffering torturous behaviors from parents, siblings, friends, co-workers, and even brothers and sisters in the faith. One man wrote me last week, “I find myself often identifying with a fictitious character that is Bathsheeba’s older brother and Uriah’s closest friend who has been invited to celebrate the wedding of my sister and King David. How?” (For those that don’t remember, Bathsheeba was the woman David had an affair with, and Uriah was her husband he had killed in battle when his wife got pregnant.) That is a mess!
I’ve been going through some of this for a while with some people I deeply love, and it’s painful. But I’ve been here before, and here’s some of what I’ve learned that may help you navigate these waters:
First, invite God into this journey with you. You cannot stand up to relentless assault alone, and he has unlimited ways for you to negotiate their hostility and keep it from destroying your heart. Jesus can let you know how to engage in redemptive ways when possible and when to withdraw when it’s not. Believe whatever insights he gives you, and have a close brother or sister along to help you see the difference between the wisdom of his Spirit and your own fleshy reactions.
Second, recognize toxic people for who they are, and don’t take on their anger in reaction. I know that’s easier said than done, but bitterness will only destroy you. Pray for them, realizing they are broken people who don’t have the tools to deal with disappointments or disagreements in conventional ways. Jealousy often drives their need to punish you, so give up trying to fix them until their hearts soften. It will help to see them as victims of their own pain and repeatedly pray, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” They truly don’t. Love, especially when you’re unfairly treated, is where the kingdom unfurls her glory. But learn what his love looks like; it rarely means becoming a doormat for your abuser.
Third, don’t drink their toxic brew. Even though none of us are perfect, and most people will look for ways they might have been insensitive, miscommunicated, or contributed to someone else’s pain, toxic people are not doing the same. They don’t want reconciliation, only capitulation. They can only accuse, never reflect. Avoid angry, accusing voices, not only for yourself but also when they are doing it about others. Remember who the accuser is, and when he uses their voice, don’t let his blows land in your heart. Even accusations built on half-truths are still lies at the end of the day, as Adam and Eve found out in a Garden. While Jesus invited us to be peace-makers, he also warned of the hostility his followers would garner, especially from the self-righteous.
Fourth, avoid the desire to argue with them or to justify yourself in their eyes. They will only twist your words into another set of accusations anyway. They are not listening because they don’t care about the relationship, only their need to feel validated. Your desire for their approval and your concern about what others think of you are the levers they will use to attempt to control you. When you care what other people think of you, you are owned by anyone willing to lie about you. When you are secure enough in God’s view of you, none of it will work. Even if all the world believes something false about you, it still doesn’t define you. Jesus gets the last word on everything. It may not come until the end of the age, but you still don’t have to defend yourself. Learn the joy of not having to have the last word or trying to prove you’re right. It’s a marvelous freedom!
Fifth, give toxic people a wide berth. You don’t have to be with people who yell at you with rage, especially when you know what they are saying is untrue. You don’t have to hang out in the orbit of people who gossip about others. That may even mean taking a break from close family who get caught in destructive patterns of relationship. Just because you are related to them doesn’t mean you have to give them repeated access to your heart. Sometimes you honor people by letting them live without you in the consequences of their false reality. Let them know you love them and will be overjoyed when more grace-filled days appear.
Sixth, love them however you can, and sometimes you have to do it from a distance, just as the father does in the parable of the prodigal. Chasing people trapped in lies will only prolong their pain because they’ll only get more defensive. Sometimes you have to love someone enough to let them go until they are ready for a change in their own heart. Jesus made room for the fact that you can extend your peace to someone, and they can reject it. (Matthew 10) He told his followers when that happens, they are free to move on and invest their hearts where grace, peace, and truth reign.
Seventh, keep your heart tender for reconciliation. I know this isn’t easy, and I am not talking about ‘forgive and forget.’ Real reconciliation involves a reckoning for the past in an environment of honesty, humility, mutual forgiveness, and tenderness. When toxic people have a change of heart, it will be obvious. Waiting for that moment with an open heart is not something we can do on our own; it is a work of his Spirit. So, ask him to show you.
Of course, this is made more complicated if the toxic person is a parent you still live with or even your spouse. If you have a toxic parent, talk to another trusted adult about your struggle and let them help you see how to deal with it. Young people shouldn’t have to grow up in that kind of fear or abuse. If it’s your spouse, you have to make clear that their behavior is a threat to the future of your relationship and seek out the help of a counselor or more experienced couple.
One of the resources that has helped shape my heart in dealing with these kinds of people is M. Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie, which was also the title of a book he published in 1983. The book makes a case for how evil distorts humanity and suggests ways to help people be liberated from it. While I don’t agree his remedy is the only way to deal with it, he identifies a certain kind of person who can never seem to have an open, honest discussion to resolve differences. Instead, they have to control every conversation no matter how much they have to diminish others. I’ve met half a dozen of these over my lifetime, and his insights have helped me recognize their behaviors and learn how to respond to their attempts to take control.
Dr. Peck came to recognize the dilemma by working with deeply dysfunctional families where chaos reigns. So often, the people he was seeing seemed normal, though under a lot of stress. After some investigating, he often found one person—a parent or sibling—who was the common denominator for all the pain. Interestingly enough, they would refuse to come to counseling, or if they did, they were certain they were not a part of the problem. These were often religious people, who could present themselves outwardly as gracious and caring, but who controlled everyone else in their orbit by punishing those who didn’t do what they wanted. Everyone else was wrong; they were always right.
He called them ‘people of the lie’ because they thrive in dishonesty and making up stories to fit the narrative they want to be true to justify their actions. When their lies are confronted, they respond in anger to keep others from daring to be the focus of the wrath. These are not people making mistakes in moments of weakness, but a consistent and oppressive way they navigate life to the destruction of others.
Dr. Peck credits some of that to evil motives that intend to get their own way no matter who they have to destroy. Those people do exist. I’ve met a few of them. But in my life, these people have been less motivated by a desire to destroy as they are by deep insecurity and fear that demands they control every outcome to survive their day. Most of the time, I don’t think they even know how much they lie to others because they are so dishonest with themselves. They can’t bear to be wrong about anything, “Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection.”
They have little regard for the feelings of others and rarely allow for the possibility of misunderstanding what someone else said or meant. The more you try to reason with them, the more you are caught up in their “lies and twisted motives and distorted communication.” They will exhaust you with their need to be right. “They attack others instead of facing their own failures.” They continually act hurt, and yet their stories make little sense. If anyone dares to confront their dishonesty, they will scorch the battlefield to protect their own image. They are dismissive of any apology that does not capitulate completely to their conclusions. You can’t reconcile with such people because there’s no room for honesty, tenderness, and vulnerability that lets the truth be revealed.
If you know someone like this, give up the need to earn their love. Until something fundamentally changes inside them, they are incapable of a real, honest relationship. You have to take some distance from their control, especially if they are in your family. Keep interactions calm and cordial when you’re together, but refuse to be swept up in their need to gossip about others to make themselves feel better. If they are gossiping to you now, they will soon be gossiping about you to someone else. Excuse yourself by simply saying, “I’m sorry, this is not a conversation I want to be in. Can we talk about something else?”
And, if in reading this, you realize that you may be one of those leaking toxicity into the world, these words from Charles K. Robinson may open a doorway for you to find a Father whose capable of setting you free:
I know you. I have created you. I have loved you from your mother’s womb. You have fled—as you know—from my love, but I love you nevertheless and not-the-less however far you flee. It is I who sustains your very power of fleeing, And I will never finally let you go.
I accept you as you are. You are forgiven. I know all your sufferings. I have always known them! Far beyond your understanding, when you suffer, I suffer. I also know all the little tricks by which you try to hide the ugliness you have made of your life from yourself and others. But you are beautiful. You are beautiful more deeply within than you can see.
You are beautiful because you yourself, in the unique person that only you are, reflect already something of the beauty of my holiness in a way which shall never end. You are beautiful also because I, and I alone see the beauty you shall become. Through the transforming power of my love which is made perfect in weakness you shall become perfectly beautiful. You shall become perfectly beautiful in a uniquely irreplaceable way, which neither you nor I will work on alone, for we shall work it out together.”
All Jesus asked us to do was receive his love and share it with others. Everything else plays into our enemy’s hand.