NARCISSISM NOTES #11–Systems and Narcissism, Ch. 7: “The Gaslight Is On: Spiritual and Emotional Abuse.”


Narcissism Notes share my interactions with material Chuck DeGroat presents in When Narcissism Comes To Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Here are six things that came out of my thinking about the two chapters in which Chuck dealt with dynamics in systems dominated by narcissism–the first three items from Chapter 6 and the last three from Chapter 7.

  1. The whole system gets poisoned/tainted.
  2. Systemic narcissism manifests with two different “faces.”
  3. We can composite deeper insight from viewing sick systems from different angles.
  4. People in self-serving systems try to make you think you’re the sane ones by joining and staying, but the crazy ones if you won’t stay compliant and want to leave.
  5. What we’ve called “gaslighting” is actually a range of toxic tactics.
  6. Important reasons for understanding narcissistic/toxic systems before attempting to start up or transition to a healthy system.

Let’s dive in and see what’s what …

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4. Narcissistic Systems Can Flip the Script on Victims Because

Inconsistency is Consistent with Their Crazy-Making Methods

4. POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE TOXIC TACTICS. People in self-serving systems try to make you think you’re the sane ones by joining and staying, but the crazy ones if you won’t stay compliant and want to leave.

In toxic systems, leaders and their followers/enablers tend to use a range of both positive and negative tactics for social control. The “good cop” positive tactics make insiders feel they are the only sane ones, and the “bad cop” negative ones make them feel they are going crazy. Abusers flip the script on their victims as needed.

I’ve lost track of how many articles and books I’ve read on issues related to abuse and recovery, how many conversations with how many people. Over time, a few key thoughts about tactics have distilled themselves out from all of that input. In no particular order, here’s what comes to mind:

Bullies seem to absorb by osmosis oh so many ways to get under other people’s skin — irritate and agitate them — and to positively draw them in as accomplices.

Although they may settle in on a specific combination of tactics as their “signature moves” on those who are susceptible, abusive people probably become practiced in a large arsenal of methods.

Any given method may seem innocuous, but in the bigger picture of things, they are all insidious, because they are slanted to serve a bigger purposes: keep the bully in power.

Part of the what’s “behind the curtain” in having such an assortment of tactics to select from is that different potential victims have different susceptibilities. So, tactics targeted at what a specific person wants most, needs most, fears most, is most anxious or angry or self-defeated about, calls forth a context-sensitive way to co-opt that person.

Every book on spiritual abuse and recovery seems to have a list of tactics. But any given victim likely has not experienced all of them, and some — perhaps many — tactics don’t work on them because they don’t connect with their susceptibilities.

So, the larger the list of tactics we can compile and sort through, the better equipped we will be to identify them when we see them.

A “Do-It-Yourself” Exercise. There are numerous ways to organize lists of tactics. Perhaps you’ve got a schema that you particularly like. Whether you have something in mind already or not, take a look at this page of Top 100 Traits & Behaviors of Personality-Disordered Individuals at the Out of the FOG site, and experiment with some different ways of analyzing and categorizing them.

  • What kinds of unique or critical features pop out at you for certain tactics/behaviors?
  • Why do you think that might be?
  • What commonalities do you see that tie many/all traits and tactics together?
  • What distinctive differences?
  • Which traits and/or behaviors have you personally experienced?

My “Taxonomy of Toxic Tactics.” Here are three “slides” that capture some of my own preliminary work on categorizing the mega-list of toxic tactics that I’ve experienced, observed, heard about, and read about.

Some of the categories are more negative/put-down in nature, others seek to be more positive/build-up in nature. This distinction is important because it leads into the discussion on “gaslighting” — which originally had an almost exclusively negative cast to it. However, since language changes over time, we find it used more frequently for positive or negative ways of manipulating people emotionally, propaganda to mess people up mentally.

Let’s take a brief  look at what goes for gaslighting these days.

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5. “Gaslighting” is Meant to Break Us Down,

But There’s More to It that We Need to Break Down

5. IMPLANTING AND IMPLYING MENTAL ILLNESS. What we’ve called “gaslighting” is actually a range of toxic tactics.

Gaslighting and related forms of mental and emotional manipulation are core to the arsenal of tactics available in narcissistic systems. These intentional, “crazy-making” tactics are meant to entice people into the system, keep them there by whatever means necessary, and make life intensely difficult for people–or ultimately expel them–if they rebel and won’t conform to the required norms.

Language is fluid and the meanings of words often shift over time. This happens in abuse survivor communities, just as in other populations. It’s been my observation that, in the last 10 years, the term gaslighting has become used more widely and frequently — not just by abuse survivors — and also more loosely, applied to forms of manipulation beyond what it originally meant.

It found its origins in the 1938 play Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton, and the movie adaptations in 1940 and 1944. The DVD case back cover of the 1940 version summarizes the plot:

“Insane criminal tries to drive his wife crazy in order to find hidden jewels in her Victorian mansion. Highly atmospheric and charged with underlying evil.”

Paula Alquist’s husband, Gregory, attempts to get his wife (played by Ingrid Bergman in the more famous 1944 version) to doubt her powers of observation and her memory. He moves objects or removes them, lowers the fuel to the gas lamps to make them flicker, plays other mind tricks on her, then acts as nothing has happened and lies constantly to convince Paula she is going mad. So, the original meaning of gaslighting was to inflict mental confusion and implant deep self-doubt in the victim.

However, now gaslighting is used for many kinds of manipulations on a wider range of target audiences. This may involve direct psychological terrorizing of victims to convince them they are mentally ill or even evil. That keeps the original flavor of the term, gaslighting. But these efforts also aim at the others in the social context: family members, acquaintances, potential enablers of the victimizer, maybe even the general public. The goal with this outer circle is to convince them that the victim is a liar, abusive, mentally ill — and as they adopt the abuser’s view, they tend to exert social control over the victim to silence him/her. The technical term for this is controversializing. Here are some descriptions of these concepts, from my blog post on When Abusers “Controversialize” and “Gaslight” Victims to Deflect from Their Own Responsibility.

Controversializing is a form of social control accomplished through deflecting attention from the factual issue at hand by shifting the focus to the messenger who made people aware of the problem. This is done by shunning, eliminating, erasing opponents. It can include propaganda elements such as disinformation, PR spin, and outright lies.

Controversializing shows similarities to gaslighting, but — at least the way I currently see it — controversializing is aimed more at convincing the public that the messenger is mentally off, while gaslighting involves actions to convince the messengers themselves that they are mentally off balance.

Intriguingly, the term controversializing also comes from a movie: Kill the Messenger. This drama was based on the true story of investigative reporter Gary Webb. He wrote about a 1980s “dark alliance” involving drugs, gangs, the Contras, and the CIA. For details, see The Killing Game: Selected Writings by the Author of Dark Alliance, by Gary Webb (2011; Seven Stories Press). The book’s “Publisher’s Note” by Dan Simon states that Webb’s investigative series:

might have vanished without a trace had the [Mercury News] not chosen this story to create a splash for its website, complete with graphics and links to a treasure trove of original source documents. It became the first big internet news story, with as many as 1.3 million hits in a single day.

But then, major newspapers covered Gary Webb AS the story – “controversializing” him – instead of dealing with the content of his article or conducting their own investigation. Eventual fact-checking apparently turned up nothing wrong with his facts, but that didn’t change the attack on the messenger.

Here are some of the gaslighting and controversializing statements I’ve heard in person from toxic leaders:

  • You’re the most self-centered person I’ve ever known.
  • You want to get a Christian counselor? No, I don’t recommend your doing that. You’ll only depend on the counselor and not on Jesus. [Meaning, You need to keep depending on me as your Pastor/Shepherd.]
  • They’re mentally unstable.
  • They’re quite “ill,” if you catch my drift.
  • There was a “personality conflict.” [Meaning, I’m the calm, sane, rational one — they’re not.]

This is NOT a plea for everyone to go back to the original meaning of words, but to at least be more aware of the context a term is used in, and maybe choose another word than gaslighting. Why? Because when one term ends up in general use to cover too many meanings, we tend to lose touch with a spectrum of more specific words. And we have a whole slew of workable words that offer different nuances of intent and impact that can help us broaden our thinking and enrich our communicating. Clusters of terms like:

Disinformation, propaganda, gossip, misinformation, spin, lies.

Troll, label, victim-blame, doxing, silence, cancel.

Groom, condition, unconditional submission.

Deny, deflect, theology of “nice,” two sides to every story, lack of witnesses.

Here are some resources, in case you’d like to consider this further


Because the Gaslight movies are now in public domain, you may find rent-free copies available to watch online. Also check JustWatch for streaming sites (some free, some fee-based).

Gaslight (1940; not rated). IMDB main page. JustWatch sources for streaming.

Gaslight (1944; not rated). This is the version starring Ingrid Bergman. IMDB main page and content advisory. JustWatch sources for streaming.

Kill the Messenger (2014; rated R for “language and drug content”). IMDB main page and content advisory.


The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, by Dr. Robin Stern (2007, 2018; Harmony).

Gaslight Melodrama: From Victorian London to 1940s Hollywood, by Guy Barefoot (2001; Bloomsbury Academic).

Seven Stories Press, publisher’s bio page for Gary Webb.

Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb, by Nick Shou (Revised Edition, 2014, Nation Books).

Dark Alliance: Movie Tie-In Edition: The CIA, the Contras, and the Cocaine Explosion, by Gary Webb (Reprint Edition, 2014, Seven Stories Press). The publisher’s page on this title contains a summary of what happens in the movie, Kill the Messenger, and explains the essence of controversializing. [Image not shown.]

Webb’s own stranger-than-fiction experience is also woven into the book. His excoriation by the media—not because of any wrongdoing on his part, but by an insidious process of innuendo and suggestion that in effect blamed Webb for the implications of the story—had been all but predicted.

The Killing Game: Selected Writings by the Author of Dark Alliance, by Gary Webb (2011; Seven Stories Press). Includes “Publisher’s Note” by Dan Simon. [Image not shown.]

Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate, by Zoe Quinn (2017, PublicAffairs). Aggressive online trolling and doxing.

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6. We Need to Know How Things Can Go Wrong,

Before We Start Up Something and Hope It Goes Right

6. UNDERSTAND TOXIC SYSTEMS FIRST. There are important reasons for understanding narcissistic/toxic systems before attempting to start up or transition to a healthy system.

Chuck covered narcissistic systems in Chapter 6, and presented a clear, concise approach to two categories of toxic organizations: grandiose and vulnerable. As I was working on my “Narcissism Notes” for Chapter 7, I happened to turn back a chapter, and realized that Chuck had followed the toxicity descriptions in Chapter 6 with a section on “What Does a Healthy System Look Like?” I’ve pulled out a few key sentences for the following quote slide.

Over the last 40-plus years, I’ve helped a lot of people develop and/or implement their plans for some kind of a start-up organization. Some were non-profits, others church plants, sometimes a limited-term social change enterprise. I saw a disturbing number of them flail or fail. It took much reflection to come to conclusions about some reasons why. The main one that stuck is this:

People who want to make a positive difference in the life of others are usually the ones who instigate these kinds of social benefit enterprises. Typically, they’re so excited to get going on their vision, that they don’t get training on how things can end up going off kilter. It’s not on their radar how leaders, employees, and/or volunteers with their own self-benefiting agenda can come in and hijack the mission, traumatize the team and target audiences, infuse unethical process and procedures into the infrastructure.

So, I’ve become an advocate for professional assessments of leaders and team members, to screen out those who should not be involved. Also, it’s too easy for leaders and teams to jump right into implementation stages after initial planning. So another slow-down-and-think-preventively technique I recommend is training on organizational development that begins with the many ways that things can go wrong in a system, and concludes with strategies for constructive, collaborative, healthy teamwork.

All that to note that I appreciate Chuck did not assume that we’d know what “toxic” or “healthy” are, and that he took us through the harder stuff first, to know how things could go wrong before exploring how things should go right.

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