The power games started subtly. Emily’s co-worker frequently withheld key information about their shared clients and projects. When confronted, her colleague asserted that he’d sent her the reports. But each time Emily double (and triple) checked her inbox, she came up empty.

Emily* found herself constantly apologizing to upper management. She feared being perceived as disorganized. She felt as if she was going crazy. “You need to get it together,” her colleague would say, followed by, “And get your emotions under control. You’re making us all look bad.” When Emily pushed back, her colleague told her to stop being so sensitive. The denials, lies, and passive-aggressive manipulation mounted. Soon, Emily lost all confidence in herself.

Emily was experiencing gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse that causes a person to question their self-worth and sanity. The term comes from the 1930s play Gas Light. In it, a husband tries to steal his wife’s savings by having her committed to a psychiatric hospital. He convinces his wife she’s insane by flickering their gas lights, then denying anything is afoul. The wife soon doubts her perception of reality.

What Is Gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a control tactic used by narcissists and reemerged into public consciousness when Trump entered office. Narcissists skillfully turn tables, avoid blame, and invalidate others. And victims? They become confused, anxious, and isolated. They increasingly rely on the narcissist to dictate what’s good for them.

Psychologist George Simon explains why gaslighting is so nefarious:

A common element among all the tactics manipulators use is that they cause the person being targeted to doubt their gut instincts about what’s going on. Their gut tells them they’re under attack or that someone is trying to get the better of them, and they intuitively go on the defensive. But because they often can’t find any clear, direct, objective evidence that the other person is merely trying to disadvantage them, they start doubting and questioning themselves. This is the real secret of effective manipulation…getting the other person to back down or give in.

Although gaslighting is well-known in the mental health field, it’s eye-opening to consider how incredibly common it is in today’s workplaces. Women are accused of being overly emotional, out of hand, or overbearing, for example. Because we’re socialized to be deferential and accommodating, we may hold back and worry about speaking up. People with low self-esteem are even more at risk.

I’ve encountered gaslighting at the hands of a boss who vacillated from supportive to cold. One day he would assure me I was his most trusted ally and on track for “big things.” The next, I’d be openly mocked in meetings for my age and educational background (“Who goes to Columbia and gets a social work degree — what a waste!”) and commanded to suddenly redo a project that was already approved days before.

Signs of Gaslighting in the Workplace

Outside of intimate relationships, gaslighters may come in many forms. They could be a boss, manager, client, or condescending co-worker. They could also be a workplace frenemy who is jealous of your success, or even an HR rep in disbelief that bad behavior could occur on their watch.

Gaslighting tactics aren’t as straightforward as physical abuse, but they are no less real. You may not realize what’s happening at first, though you may experience the effects. Low motivation, lack of confidence, and burnout are common.

Some signs you may be being gaslighted include:

  • You feel incompetent and unhappy, despite your achievements and other good things in your life. You miss feeling confident and self-assured.
  • You overwork to “prove yourself,” though it seems like you can’t do anything right.
  • You try to improve the situation with your boss or co-worker, but your efforts are blocked.
  • You make excuses to family and friends about why you can’t find a better job. You’ve stopped telling them about what’s going on at work.
  • You start turning down new opportunities and interactions to avoid put-downs.
  • You procrastinate because you have trouble making decisions and focusing.
  • You’re told to adhere to one set priorities on Monday, then find yourself chasing new directives by the end of the week. You don’t understand what’s expected of you.
  • Your team members privately express sympathy for you, yet fail to step up during confrontations.

While growing awareness for gaslighting is a good thing, we need to be mindful not to conflate it with healthy conflict, poor communication, or simple stubborn behavior (on one or both sides).

Red Flags to Watch For

Gaslighters use a number of covert techniques to make you feel like you’re the person with the problem—that you’re the one going crazy. While no situation is the same, there are some common red flags:


The person refuses to listen to you. They may pretend they don’t understand what you’re saying or give you the silent treatment. (“I’ve heard this before. Come back when you won’t waste my time”). Gaslighters often give a small amount of praise after criticism—just enough to keep you hooked.


The person questions your memory of events: “That’s not what happened.” Or, “We were clearly in two different meetings if that’s how you remember it.”


Gaslighters change the subject to focus on your so-called irrational thoughts and emotions. (“Is everything okay at home? You’re seem on edge”)


You’re led to believe your ideas and opinions aren’t important. If you react to their tactics, gaslighters undermine you by saying you’re “too sensitive.”


Gaslighters may steal your ideas and claim them as their own. They’ll exclude you from important conversations. They may fail to fulfill the promises they make, like giving you a raise or more responsibility.

Taking Back Control

Recognizing manipulative behavior is the first step toward disempowering it. Emily learned to identify the power plays happening around her. Although she couldn’t quit or change her co-worker, she could change her own behavior.

On a practical level, Emily kept meticulous notes. She documented each interaction with her co-worker. She started emailing her entire team after meetings so that responsibilities were clear and impossible to dispute. She mastered the art of solution-focused talk: Instead of apologizing or arguing with her colleague (which would be futile), she took to asking, “How can we move forward?”

On the inside, Emily relearned how to trust her gut and regained her confidence as a result. She became more comfortable taking risks and making decisions independently, even if it meant she made mistakes sometimes. She worked on her emotional intelligence skills, honing her ability to articulate and regulate her reactions so she could be more in control when gaslighting occurred.

In my case, I created stronger internal boundaries to fortify my self-esteem. I worked to decouple my identity from my job. I learned how to communicate assertively in response to passive-aggressive people. Most important, I defined my nonnegotiables. I got clear on what I wanted out of a career, which helped me kindly say goodbye and transition out of a toxic work environment.

No job is worth sacrificing your sanity for. Don’t let anyone let you believe that it is.

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.