“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself.”
– Harvey Fierstein
I’m uncertain as to when exactly ‘gaslighting’ hit our cultural linguistics and became a more commonly known term amongst my peers and colleagues.
I’ve always found it interesting to observe how these words emerge and transform within our dialogues with one another. From being a newly introduced concept, where we’ll explain to others who are uncertain, to becoming something we joke about.
The popularity of the term is likely linked to our current political climate, where ‘Fake News’ is rife and we’re continually left questioning the reality around us.
A manager recently joked she was ‘gaslighting’ a colleague at a work function, which made my colleague and me feel all kinds of uncomfortable. Not least because the same manager had actually been gaslighting a few of us in the team for some months.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a psychological tactic used by individuals in order to gain control over another person. It is an incredibly pervasive and toxic set of behaviors that usually makes the victim question their reality. Like many such behaviors, it can occur to varying degrees.
The term itself was first introduced in the movie of the same name, Gaslight (1944), where a man manipulates his wife to the point where she believes she is going insane.
In my experience of gaslighting in relationships, it usually starts off small. You are convinced by your other half that they didn’t really say that terrible thing, or it wasn’t really that bad, or that it is your ‘overly emotional’ reaction to the behavior that is actually terrible, not the behavior itself.
I consider myself to be a relatively mentally capable and strong individual but have fallen victim to gaslighting in relationships a couple of times. It works much better than you might think because the behavior tends to creep in gradually and escalate over time. I’ve also found that abusers of this caliber genuinely don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and the more they get away with, the more justified they feel in exercising their power over their victim.
It’s only once you manage to exit the relationships that you realize in hindsight just how damaging and toxic it was.
Gaslighting at Work
In a relationship context, it’s easy to see how someone might get away with gaslighting behavior. We’re probably all familiar with how the concept of love can confuse and diffuse us, especially when our abuser is also someone we love and who claims to love us.
But at work?
I honestly didn’t think gaslighting could be a thing in the workplace. My experience had taught me that gaslighting was predominantly used by men to exert power over their female partners, which although terrible, fit logically into broader cultural narratives I was familiar with around toxic power-dynamics in romantic relationships.
Enter Scene: One Manager, with a disposition for Gaslighting.
Gaslighting in the workplace can manifest in different ways. In my case, this was a new job for me and, initially, I found my manager professional, respectful and encouraging. A couple of my colleagues would make comments about her behavior which puzzled me, it wasn’t something I had witnessed or experienced and I frequently found myself attempting to dim or question their negative comments.
It didn’t take too long before I began to see the bigger picture at play.
What Does Gaslighting at Work Look Like?
Again, it can vary considerably in terms of the actual behaviors presented and their severity. Generally speaking, gaslighting at work involves some (or all) of the following:
- Listening long enough to collect information from you, but not fully engaged in the listening process to show signs they authentically care about what you are saying.
- Asking personal questions in a friendly way ‘to get to know you’ and then using the information against you at a later date.
- Telling lies and then making you feel it was your fault that they had to lie.
- Taking zero accountability for behaviors that are toxic.
- Gossiping with you about other team members or bosses, and then using your comments as ammunition to place blame onto you for their poor behavior.
- Asking for your ‘honest’ opinion with you on different projects/clients and ideas for how to overcome challenges, agreeing with you, and then turning against you or ‘throwing you under the bus’ in meetings.
- Appearing confident and in control externally, but usually letting small behaviors demonstrate they lack control or authority in how they’re acting at work.
- Leaving you feeling you are not enough or incompetent in the workplace.
In my workplace, a number of these gradually began to show up over time. I recall having a small dispute with a colleague that could have been dealt with easily by us on our own (two professional adults) but was escalated by my manager gossiping, stirring things up, and making false claims about what one of us had said about the other.
She would praise me for my hard work, good ideas, and tell me privately how much of an asset I was to the team and then undermine me in meetings. One colleague told me she had said in a meeting to everyone else on a day I wasn’t there how useless I was and she would likely terminate my contract on probation.
One of the most destructive behaviors she demonstrated daily was not listening. She’d ask the team for updates and ask questions about different stages of our various projects. Then a day later she would forget everything we had told her, going into small meltdowns about not having the ‘information she needed’, attempting to take over our projects, and interfering with clients. It left all us on edge and continually having to smooth things over with external clients.
The really sad thing was that despite how awful I found some of her interactions with me, I know a couple of my colleagues — particularly our administrator — had it far worse.
Surviving Gaslighting at Work
Gaslighting at work is a form of harassment, and it should be taken as seriously as any other form of harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, HR policies haven’t quite caught up with this one yet, and it can be very difficult to articulate gaslighting behaviors, let alone prove them.
A few things you can put into place if you find yourself in this situation:
- Document every and any experience that feels like you are being gaslit. This will be helpful if at any point you do need to speak with HR, but it will also help to keep you sane.
- Try to avoid any informal meetings, discussing personal matters, or any form of gossiping (probably good to practice that last one across the board) with the person.
- When you do need to have a meeting, try to include at least one other colleague with you. This can help minimize gaslighting behaviors but also give you someone to back you up if something does happen.
- Keep the majority of your communication in written formats. Again, this will be helpful for your personal future reference if you end up in a tangle of misinformation with this person and helpful for discussions with HR.
- Don’t forget your self-worth. Find regular ways to reaffirm your skills, competence, and capacity to do a great job.
- Support your team! A gaslighter in the workplace is probably doing it to a few people, so check in with each other and show the support, respect, and trust you might be missing elsewhere.
And my biggest tip?
If you don’t have strong boundaries with others you regularly engage with, especially at work, it will be really difficult to know when they’re been overstepped.
Gaslighting is intensely problematic when it comes to crushing boundaries so make sure you know what yours are, and work to maintain them as much as you can.
If you found this article helpful, you might also enjoy a previous piece I wrote about handling toxic bosses: