Beyond the Interpersonal: When Gaslighting Invades Our Cultural, Medical, and Professional Worlds

Robin Stern, PhD
8 min readApr 4, 2023
Photo by Tiago Bandeira on Unsplash

By Robin Stern

co-authored with Krista Smith, M.A.T. is a PhD Social Work student with research interests in education, equity, and emotional intelligence.

It’s all around us — the term that many love to use but don’t always understand: gaslighting. It’s become so popular that Merriam-Webster named it the 2022 word of the year. And the topic is still going strong.

The phrase “to gaslight” refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts, the environment around them, or their feelings. Targets of gaslighting are manipulated into turning against their cognition, their emotions, and who they fundamentally are as people.

Most people think of gaslighting as a form of emotional abuse that occurs in a romantic relationship, inflicted by the man on the woman. In my clinical practice over 30 years, I have seen mostly women wanting help with their gaslighting husbands. That said, I have also worked with many men who are being gaslighted and many women who recognize that they may be gaslighting their men. Power, not sex, is the common denominator that determines which party is the gaslighter.

In fact, this notion of power is what explains why gaslighting has been taking root in the broader cultural and systemic levels of our society. The unfortunate truth is that today people in positions of power are wielding their authority to manipulate others into questioning their reality. Professional gaslighting, medical gaslighting, and cultural gaslighting are three nontraditional forms that many people are beginning to identify in their own lived experiences.

Professional gaslighting. “I can’t believe my boss just threw me under the bus like that ! He’s the one who made the decision to push the project deadline; it had nothing to do with my missing the due date. He always does that — but now in front of everyone ?! And now I look like the weak link on the team ! Worse than that, I beginning to wonder if maybe I did misunderstand….” Anonymous.

Gaslighting is not isolated to the home or romantic relationships. Many people experience it at work, too. For example, a boss retells details about a group effort to make himself look like the hero, or a colleague denies her part in a less-than-favorable team project to ensure you take the blame.

In these situations, many people stay quiet for fear of being perceived as overly sensitive, or even losing their jobs. In certain scenarios gaslighting at work is illegal. There are also supervisors and bosses that cultivate toxicity but are not actually gaslighting. Below are measures employees can take to determine the existence of gaslighting and protect themselves from it. First, ask yourself:

  • Does your boss or colleague often distort or deny the truth?
  • Does your boss or colleauge become defensive when questioned and attempt to shame you or blame you or use humiliation as a weapon?
  • Do your interactions with your boss or colleague leave you feeling belittled, confused or even crazy, unsure of what happened or who you should believe, you or them?

If these red flags sound familiar, you may be a victim of gaslighting. It is important to remember that you have a right to work in an environment that makes you feel physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe, where you are free from emtional bullying or psychological manipulation of any kind.

  • Document! Keep a written record of your interactions with your boss or colleague including dates and details. Send a note to your colleague or boss after a meeting — whether you met in person or virtually — to confirm what you talked about and what you agreed on. This will help you spot gaslighting pivots in the coversations and track behaviors and patterns over time. It also can be important if you decide to report the gaslighting at any time.
  • Check in with your feelings regularly — and especially after interactions with the possible gaslighter. Tracking your emotions will give you important emotional data.
  • When possible ask a colleague to join in person or virtual meetings — or, if not possible, talk your confusing interactions through with a trusted colleague and ask their opinion, when you are shaky about yours.
  • Use your judgement and past experiences with your boss or colleague possible. Consider whether you feel safe to talk with them about your interactions. You may want to seek help from a colleague organization or talk directly with Human Resources about what to do.
  • Confide in a trusted colleague, friend or family member outside of the organization to help you sort through confusion. This social support can help with anxiety or depression that come with gaslighting as well as bring a neutral perspective to your experiences.

Medical gaslighting.My doctor said the symptoms I was experiencing couldn’t be real because it’s not normal for these things to be happening so long after an operation. He told me that I am overly sensitive to bodily sensations, have an unusually low tolerance for discomfort and I should try to relax more. At first I was outraged at his insensitivity and dismissiveness, but after months of his certainty, I began to think that maybe he was right.” Anonymous.

Sadly, too many people have heard these words from their trusted medical professionals. Medical gaslighting occurs when doctors deny patients are sick, blame symptoms on psychological factors, minimize an illness, or misdiagnose. This New York Times article suggests the following are indicators that medical gaslighting is occurring.

  • Your doctor continually interrupts you, doesn’t allow you to elaborate and doesn’t appear to be an engaged listener, doesn’t appear to have empathy.
  • Your doctor minimizes or downplays your symptoms, for example questioning whether you have pain. You feel minimized when you are with them.
  • Your doctore accuses you of being pre-occupied with your symptoms and they don’t want to talk about them.
  • Your doctor will not order key imaging or lab work to rule out or confirm a diagnosis. Of course, your insurance won’t pay if the tests are not ordered by a doctor.
  • You constantly feel put down and your doctor is being rude, condescending or belittling.

What can you do to step away from the gaslighting?

  • Bring a family member or friend to your appointments. Talk through any confusing or uncomfortable interaction with your doctor to get their perspective.
  • Write down — even record — your time with the doctors.
  • Ask for a copy of your medical records and be sure they reflect what you know.
  • Put your complaint or concern in writing to your doctor and keep a copy for yourself.
  • Send an email after your appointment to confirm and summarize what you talked about and ask the doctor to confirm receiving your email.
  • Before, during and after meeting with your doctor, check in with your emotions. Ask yourself, do I feel confident that I will be listened to by my doctor? Am I comfortable saying what I think and feel with this person? Do I feel safe, heard, and listened to?
  • Listen to your body. If your doctor says you are fine and you don’t feel fine, ask for another appointment, additional tests or a referral to a specialist.
  • If you don’t feel heard and respected and/or you are still experiencing symptoms, seek another opinion.

Cultural gaslighting.Look, I’m not trying to be the bad guy here but this ‘equal rights’ thing with women has gotten out of control. There are just certain things men can do that women can’t… What’s wrong with that? So what if a guy regularly get paid more that a woman ? There are times when they deserve it! Suddenly we have a woman as Vice President of the United States and you all still think the whole world is out to get you? C’mon, I’m not buying it. Overreacting is what it’s called — just listen to yourself — definitely not ‘inequality’.” Anonymous

This is an outrageous reflection of cultural gaslighting. As Dr. Paige Sweet, a colleague at the University of Michigan wrote, “Although we tend to think of gaslighting as a problem between two people in a relationship, it also unfolds as part of an unequal social context. Gaslighting feeds off social vulnerabilities and stereotypes. It entrenches existing power imbalances while fostering new ones. The term is also increasingly used to describe structural racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.”

I know I am not alone in believing that the #MeToo outcry was a way for women whose emotions and reality were squashed, belittled, silenced and dismissed for years, to stand together and reclaim their reality — to declare that they in fact were mistreated, abused, and undermined by powerful men in their lives telling them “you wanted it to,” “that did not happen,” “it was no big deal,” or “you are a drama queen.” I have worked with many brave women in my practice, now ready to speak out about the pain of being gaslighted for years — many having identified gaslighting in conversations with other women.

How To Name Gaslighting In Your Own Life

It’s one thing to understand gaslighting conceptually. It’s much more difficult to identify when gaslighting is happening in your own life, especially if it’s taking place at work, in the doctor’s office, or on Twitter.

Most people who are being gaslighted don’t know it’s happening to them until they’re immersed in it. Look at the following list of gaslighting red flags. If any of these resonate with you, you might be experiencing gaslighting.

  • You ask yourself, “Am I too sensitive?” many times per day.
  • You often feel confused and even crazy.
  • You’re always apologizing.
  • You can’t understand why you aren’t happier.
  • You know something is wrong, but you just don’t know what.
  • You start lying to avoid put-downs and reality twists.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You feel isolated and alone much of the time.
  • You are not the same strong or confident self you used to be.
  • You wonder if you are good enough.

Having a gaslighting experience does not make you a gaslighting victim. With greater awareness of what gaslighting is and understanding of how it might show up in your life beyond a romantic relationship, you can harness and maintain your power to stop it before it becomes a pattern. You can make the choice to speak up at work, report your doctor’s gaslighting behavior, or become an ally. Transform this new knowledge into newfound power.

Learn more about gaslighting in its many forms from The Gaslight Effect Podcast and my website.

You can also identify if you are a part of a pattern of emotional or relationship abuse involving gaslighting and pull yourself out of that dynamic with the help of The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide, an interactive workbook that will help you reclaim your reality.

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Robin Stern, PhD

Co-founder and Associate Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, psychoanalyst and author of The Gaslight Effect [robinstern.com]