How are things going for you at work? I hope all is great, though sometimes it’s not because of issues that can arise which are not related to our performance. We’ve already talked about one of those: Impostor Syndrome. Today, let’s continue the conversation by covering another unhealthy workplace phenomenon: gaslighting.
It’s kind of a weird word, but definitely a real thing. Here, I’ll talk about what it is, how to identify it, and how to deal with it. Let’s go!
How to Stop Gaslighting in the Workplace
What is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is the term used for a type of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another by forcing them to second guess their thoughts, actions, memories, or behaviors. The victim often feels confused and unsure of themselves–often to the point of questioning their own sanity.
The term was coined from a movie named Gaslight in which the husband, played by Charles Boyer, emotionally tortures his wife (Ingrid Bergman) until she thinks she is losing her mind.
For example, in the film, the husband hides his wife’s belongings and makes them reappear in unusual places. He berates and manipulates her, driving her to the brink of desperation.
While the nefarious husband in the film was aware of his gaslighting tactics and carried them out with intention, gaslighting isn’t always fully intentional.
It can be the result of a mental illness or of a personality disorder like narcissism. In some cases, it is the result of trauma that the gaslighter may have experienced themselves, such as a particularly nasty divorce, after which they use gaslighting to manipulate others to be “on their side.”
Also, gaslighting can also occur in the workplace. For example, if a manager feels insecure or threatened by their own manager, they may use manipulation to redirect insecurity and blame to their team.
Intentional or not, gaslighting is manipulation and abuse–pure and simple. The context of the relationship doesn’t make it any less damaging to the victim. Whether it’s a husband and wife, parent and child, or an employee and their coworker, gaslighting is inexcusable behavior.
Is It real?
Nearly everyone has manipulated someone else at some point in their lives.
Marketing and PR firms manipulate their audiences to buy products and services; kids manipulate their parents by getting one to say “yes” after the other has already said “no.” These are normal activities and on the low end of the manipulation spectrum.
Gaslighting, by contrast, involves much more than the simple act of influencing or pressuring someone to get something. Many victims of gaslighting feel as if the problem is all in their heads. They are so consumed by the impact of the manipulative behavior that they can’t see what is happening and instead assume all of the blame.
How Does Gaslighting Work?
Gaslighters, whether they are aware of it or not, are expert button-pushers. They understand what makes you feel most vulnerable and use it against you. By pushing the buttons that trigger unpleasant thoughts in your mind, they can make you question your judgment, your ability to make decisions, and even your own memories.
Gaslighting might include these tactics:
Making you feel paranoid that others are talking about you behind your back
“Your manager is really worried about your job performance. He told me that he has noticed that you are forgetting things lately and he’s afraid you aren’t able to keep up with the demands of your job any longer.”
Denying statements that they made to you previously
“I never said I was going to run that meeting with the client. Thanks to you, we just lost the biggest deal of the year”.
Hiding objects or information from you
“You’ve lost your keys three times this week. You really ought to be more responsible.”
Insisting that your memories are inaccurate
“We’ve never been to that restaurant together. I would remember if you had eaten there with me.”
Imparting guilt on you for feeling a certain way
“You didn’t get the bonus you were promised? So what? Lots of people don’t ever get a bonus. You have no right to be upset. Don’t be so selfish.”
These are only a few of the ways a gaslighter can insert a seed of doubt where they know you are most insecure. Tactics vary widely from individual to individual and how well they know their victims.
Here’s an explainer video on gaslighting:
What are the Signs of Gaslighting?
You may be reading this and thinking, “I could never fall for anything that obvious.”
You would be surprised at how easy it is to succumb to the manipulation of gaslighting before you even realize it is happening. If you or someone you know may be the victim of gaslighting, there are some key signs to look for to help identify a gaslighter and their tactics.
The use of “emotional ammunition.”
Skilled gaslighters know what is most important to you. They also know how to use it against you.
If your worst fear is something happening to your children, for example, a gaslighter may suggest that a certain action or behavior of yours (that may or may not be real) has put your children in jeopardy. They may further imply that you shouldn’t be allowed to have responsibility for your children.
Gaslighting in the workplace may take the form of a coworker who knows that you are living paycheck to paycheck insinuating that you might be in danger of getting laid off because of an “overheard” conversation that was never really heard.
Watch for people who consistently attempt to solicit an emotional reaction from you. Can they validate that what they say is true? Can you? If the answer is “no,” consider the possibility that you are being gaslighted before you start to question your own judgment or worth.
Relentless and persistent manipulation
Much like the analogy of the frog who doesn’t realize he is being boiled because it happens gradually, gaslighters work slowly, over time, to wear you down and make you numb to their tactics. It may start with an offhand comment or a white lie, but before you know it, they are making you question everything about yourself.
“Hot and cold” behavior
One of the most confusing, but most effective tactics in a gaslighter’s arsenal is their ability to cut you down one minute and praise you the next.
Just as you start to catch on to their strategy and recognize them for what they are, they’ll suddenly shower you with praise or compliment you in front of others.
Pretend you have a boss who constantly made you second-guess every project you worked on or choice you made at work. You become increasingly discouraged and insecure. You start to think about looking for another job because you fear you’re about to get fired.
Suddenly, your boss praises your work in a team meeting, and you think, “I must have imagined how bad things are.” Even that bit of praise is a form of gaslighting–making you think that the problem is in your head. Be wary of people who are critical and cutting one moment and highly complimentary the next.
An attempt to turn people against you
Gaslighters want you to feel isolated and alone. After all, if you have a strong support network, you’ll soon validate with other people that you are not the problem and you’re being gaslighted.
Watch out for people who recruit others to agree with them in their false statements or manipulation of you. It’s also helpful to remember that just because a gaslighter says someone has turned against you, it doesn’t mean they have. Gaslighters lie to get what they want and keep you in a constant state of turmoil. Don’t let them isolate you.
Claims that you are “crazy”
This is a go-to for gaslighters. Why? Because if they can get enough people to doubt your sanity (including you), it will make it harder for anyone to believe you when you make claims against your abuser.
Much like the various tactics a gaslighter will use against their victim, the warning signs take many shapes and forms. Take note if anyone in your personal or professional life suddenly becomes excessively negative toward you or speaks negatively about you to others. Disagreements happen, and relationships come and go, but consistent verbal bombardment extends beyond the bounds of normal conflict.
How do you Defend Against Gaslighting?
Recognizing gaslighting is half the battle, but the work is far from finished once you identify that you are being targeted.
The first step is to affirm to yourself that your worth and your reality do not require validation from anyone else. Be confident in your ability to make decisions, to remember what you heard (and didn’t hear) and in your relationships with other people in your life.
It’s especially difficult to break free from a gaslighter if you’ve experienced other forms of abuse during your life or your self-esteem is low. It’s tempting to believe that the ugly things your tormentor says about you are true.
It is no small feat to change your mindset from one of guilt and shame into positivity. A licensed counselor can help you manage the feelings of doubt as they creep in and fight back against your gaslighter’s underhanded attacks. Above all, remember that you are the victim and it’s not your fault.
Here are some more things you can do right now to defend against gaslighting:
Don’t ignore the problem
If you ignore it in the hope it will go away…it won’t.
You also run the risk of becoming blind to the manipulation over time, making it harder to escape the abuse. State the problem out loud. Tell a friend you can trust. Call a counselor to affirm that you aren’t imagining things. Confront the person who is gaslighting you. It’s almost certain that they will deny that they are trying to manipulate you, but by getting the issue out into the open, you’ve taken the first (big) step in addressing it.
Separate truth from fiction
After a confusing or intimidating conversation with a suspected gaslighter, write down a summary of what was said, when it was said, and your feelings surrounding the conversation.
By keeping a journal, you have a record of your interactions and will know with certainty when and how you are being lied to.
Change your mindset
Of course, this is easier said than done, but you can do it, and you must if you want to defeat your gaslighter.
If you can’t physically remove the offender from your personal or professional life, practice self-validation to affirm to yourself that you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to define your own reality. You know who you are and what you stand for. Refuse to believe otherwise.
Cut yourself some slack
You may recognize that you are the victim of gaslighting but still feel powerless to escape it. It’s not unusual–especially for victims of prior emotional abuse or trauma.
Treat yourself with patience and love. If you berate yourself for being “weak,” you’ll subconsciously validate the negativity being hurled at you by your gaslighter. You will overcome this obstacle with support, determination, and love. It begins with you.
Remember that you can’t control anyone but yourself
While you may wish you could change the behavior of your gaslighter, you can’t.
This is especially frustrating if you used to have a positive relationship or if you have to interact with the person as part of your job or in a close relationship. While you can feel frustration at the gaslighter’s actions, you can’t change them. You can only control how you react to and defend against them.
Don’t try to do it alone
When someone is making you feel like you’ve gone crazy and can’t trust your own memories or thoughts, it can be hard to know who to trust.
Instead of isolating yourself, as you might be tempted to do, it’s critical that you surround yourself with a dependable support network. That starts with a counselor who can help you change your mindset and the way you respond to your gaslighter.
Summing It Up
You’re working 40+ hours a week, so workplace gaslighting can absolutely make you miserable. That’s why it’s crucial to address it if it’s happening to you.
It won’t be easy, but your life will become much better (in and out of work) as you weaken its hold on you.
Have you experienced workplace gaslighting?
Sources and Credits: