What’s the Difference Between Being Gaslighted and Triggered?

By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota

First and foremost, we shouldn’t rationalize and justify our own abuses of others. We should turn to God, seek protection, and remember Him often.


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When I was young, our home burned down. Afterwards, every time I saw a firetruck or heard of a fire, it would trigger memories of that difficult event. Over time, I was no longer triggered, although I still remembered it clearly. A trigger is anything stored in a person’s memory that brings back a whole, traumatic event. For a long time, if I saw or heard a firetruck, I would smell smoke, feel myself choking on it, and feel the panic I felt during the fire.

What of the person who triggered you or is being triggered?

Sometimes, the person who has triggered you has done something wrong. Perhaps you are triggered when you feel demeaned, and it brings up experiences of being humiliated. Those experiences can be from society such as racism, sexism, xenophobia or childhood experiences from school or family members.

First, you should manage your trigger by calming yourself down. Later, you can address the demeaning comment as itself, and not for all the feelings it’s brought up inside you.  I try to do this with Islamophobes.

To be gaslighted is much different. Gaslighting is a tactic whereby a person or people attempt to gain power by making someone question their reality past or present. Triggering is generally incidental and accidental—the firefighters who turned on the siren didn’t mean to harm anyone. But gaslighting is purposeful and intentional: the abuser tells someone, over and over, that an event did not happen, in order to gain or secure power. It is a way of undermining a person’s confidence in themselves and their perceptions of the world.

Anyone can be susceptible to gaslighting. The term first became popular after it appeared in a 1938 play, “Gaslight,” by Patrick Hamilton, where a husband dimmed the lights and told his wife she was imagining it. But it’s a common technique of abusers at all levels of society, from family members to dictators. It’s also used as a tool by particular groups. Islamophobes, for instance, use it against Muslims. Some use it against those with whom they disagree.

For example, sending people to harass you in various ways, then denying it or if you react, accusing you of being triggered or being crazy.  With gaslighting – the victim does not recall a past event, but rather is having trouble processing the present event, given the actions and the denial of those actions by the abuser.  Another example is creating a fake facebook profile or using shade to attack someone, when questioned – the abuser denies it.

Triggers are about trauma or unprocessed events in one’s life.  Gaslighting is about power and control like hegelian dialectic.

Brad Thor explained this tool in the following: “Hegelian dialectic—a psychological tool used to manipulate the masses. In this case, you create a problem, wait for the reaction, and then offer the solution. What people historically fail to realize, though, is that those offering the solution are the same people who caused the problem in the first place. They also fail to realize that no matter what the solution is, it always ends up providing its creators with more power.”

The gaslighter, likewise, engages in mental abuse, wearing an individual down until they can completely depend on the reality and perception of the gaslighter.

Sometimes, those who gaslight others can seem well-mannered and virtuous. The abuser might turn down the lights on their victim and tell them that they’re mistaken about the dimness in a very civil way. As Syed Muhammad Naquib Al Attas has warned, we shouldn’t view the concept of good manners in a simplistic way, by confusing virtue with social etiquette. A person can certainly be civil-sounding and gentle-sounding and also be an abuser. Many use social etiquette as a false cloak of softness.

However, an abuser cannot be virtuous. Prof. Al-Attas explains that values and social etiquette are human-created. Yet virtue—like hope—is from God.

But just as being virtuous shouldn’t be confused with civility, it shouldn’t be confused with perfection, either. The famous jurist and scholar Ibn ʿAṭā Allāh al-Iskandarī said: “If you were to be united with Him only after the extinction of your vices and the effacement of your pretensions, you would never be united with Him. 

Instead, when God wants to unite you to Himself, He covers your attributes with his own, uniting you to Himself “by virtue of what comes from Him to you, not by virtue of what goes from you to Him.” 

In other words, faith means turning to God and seeking the virtues we learn from the Prophets and those near to them. Just as Mary inspired Zakariya to turn to God with true hope, the Prophets and those near to God encourage us to seek virtues and hope from Him.

It’s perfectly okay to lose hope or feel angry, especially when you are facing hardship! That is just the right moment to turn to God and seek hope from Him. When we do, we might use these prayers by Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings:

“O, God! I beseech You for guidance, piety, chastity, and contentment.”

“O, God! Forgive me, have mercy on me, guide me, guard me against harm and provide me with sustenance and salvation.”

“O, God! The controller of the hearts, direct our hearts to Your obedience.”

“O God, make my religion easy for me by virtue of which my affairs are protected, set right for me my world where my life exists, make good for me my Hereafter which is my resort to which I have to return, and make my life prone to perform all types of good, and make death a comfort for me from every evil”

“O, God! I have considerably wronged myself. There is none to forgive the sins but You. So grant me pardon and have mercy on me. You are the Most Forgiving, the Most Compassionate.”

“O, God! I seek refuge in You from hunger; surely, it is the worst companion. And I seek refuge in You from treachery; surely, it is a bad inner trait.”

“O God I ask You for good surprises, and I seek refuge in You from bad surprises.”

Gaslighting and spiritual abuse

How do we protect ourselves from spiritual abuse? First and foremost, we shouldn’t rationalize and justify our own abuses of others. We should turn to God, seek protection, and remember Him often.

During Muhammad’s time, Umar ibn al Khattab, may God be pleased with him, treated accusations of abuse seriously. If a person was suspected of abuse, al Khattab removed the suspect from their position before conducting an investigation. He made it clear who had brought the complaint and who was being investigated. These investigations were not done in the dark, amidst clouds of confusion. No one has a right to a certain position, and stopping potential future abuse outweighs other considerations.

This is true even of those who had “good intentions.” It is actions themselves that matter, and only God knows a person’s real intentions. Even the Nazis, and the architects of other large-scale atrocities, claimed good intentions. We have to judge people by their actions as the Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, taught us to do: openly and transparently, not through secret clubs, stalking, spreading rumors, conjecture, and gaslighting.

Transparency vs. Secrecy

Transparency means being honest and straightforward in one’s dealings with others. An authentic leader does not have a hidden agenda and does not Gaslight. With an authentic leader, people know where they stand, because this leader openly expresses their thoughts and feelings. There is no projection.  We hear loudly the voices seeking clarification, verification, and confirmation.

God does not tell us what Satan thinks or feels. Instead, He asks Satan, why did you not prostrate as I commanded you to? 

This is the opposite of Satan. 

“(God) said: ‘What prevented you (O Iblees) that you did not prostrate, when I commanded you?’”

[Qur’an 7:12]. 

Satan gives us his reason and projects his thoughts and feelings unto God, then tries to guilt God.

[Satan] said, “I am better than him. You created me from fire and created him from clay.” 

[God] said, “Descend from Paradise, for it is not for you to be arrogant therein. So get out; indeed, you are of the debased. 

[Satan] said, “Reprieve me until the Day they are resurrected.” 

[God] said, “Indeed, you are of those reprieved.” 

[Satan] said, “Because You have put me in error, I will surely sit in wait for them on Your straight path. Then I will come to them from before them and from behind them and on their right and on their left, and You will not find most of them grateful [to You].” 

[God] said, “Get out of Paradise, reproached and expelled. Whoever follows you among them – I will surely fill Hell with you, all together.” (Qur’an 7:12-18) 

An authentic leader has a self-regulated ethical core. They know the right thing to do and are driven by a concern for ethics and fairness executed through ethical decision making, judgment, and behavior. 

Betrayal, cheating, and deception are heinous sins. They will be a source of shame to those guilty of committing them. The Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, said that, on the Day of Judgment, every traitor will be raised, carrying the flag of his betrayal: “Every traitor will have a banner on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said: This is the betrayer of so-and-so.” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)

Sometimes, the more a person grows in their religious practice, the more they—like Satan—are able to manipulate others. This is a sign of disease lurking in the heart. Growing in religion should make us grow in truthfulness, not in manipulation or scheming. A mind that is busy scheming is born of a heart empty of God. If the heart is full with God, then that enables ethical and truthful communication, not just an outward use of social etiquette.

Not all can be fixed with words

Jesus, upon him peace, realized that not all people could be reached with words. Jesus says: “God has given me the power to give life to the dead, sight to the blind, sound to the deaf; but He did not give me the power to heal the fool of his foolishness.”

When dealing with abuse and gaslighting, remember these ten things:

  1. Do not accept stories at face value or just because the person is a public figure. Sometimes, it’s important to recognize you don’t know the truth of the matter. 
  2.  Don’t create, spread, or accept rumors. Learn to seek clarification, verification, and confirmation. 
  3. Don’t attempt to take the place of God.  
  4. Don’t give unsolicited advice or life-coaching. Focus on your spiritual state and on that of those you will be asked about.
  5. Don’t spy, eavesdrop, stalk, or make assumptions.
  6. Say what you mean. Don’t give hints or communicate vaguely in order to avoid judgment.
  7. Don’t psychoanalyze others who haven’t requested your analysis. 
  8. Do not chase after those who do not want to engage you.
  9. Don’t act like Satan and plot and plan to fool people.
  10. Live your life. Enjoy it.


Moving beyond your triggers by Britt Andreatta
11 Warning Signs of Gaslighting
Emotional Bullying and Being a ‘Winner’ in Life

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Love Is Deeper Than Words: Key Lessons From The Prophets.

Fadwa Wazwaz | \ Fəd-wə Wəz-wəz\ is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. Currently, she lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

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