No one can get under your skin quite like a gaslighter. Their behavior is sneaky, maddening, and when it happens in a professional context, it’s tough to respond in a way that doesn’t undermine your credibility or jeopardize your career.
Before you think you’re alone in all of this, realize that gaslighting at work is a prevalent problem. About 58% of people say they've experienced it, according to an MHR Twitter poll. As powerless as gaslighting can make you feel, there are some things you can do to take back control of the situation.
But first, let’s go over the definition of gaslighting and some signs it may be happening to you.
The American Psychological Association defines the verb "gaslight" as “to manipulate another person into doubting his or her perceptions, experiences, or understanding of events.”
To understand this relatively new term, it can help to go back to its origin: the 1938 play “Gas Light,” in which a scheming man convinces his wife that she’s going insane. In a bid to steal a woman’s jewels, the husband sneaks around upstairs, which causes the gaslights in the rest of the building to lower. However, he manages to make his wife think she is merely imagining the sound of his footsteps and the dimming of the gaslights.
Gaslighting at work may take the form of coworkers invalidating something you’ve just said, questioning the veracity of your statements, sabotaging your efforts and finding supposed flaws in your work.
Need an example? A gaslighting boss might do sneaky things to ensure you fail at work, but it will be almost impossible to prove it’s intentional. He might “forget” to send you a notice about a major meeting, and when you fail to show up, he might say, “But didn’t you get the memo? I sent it to you a week ago. You’ve been really forgetful lately.” You did not get the memo. Maybe you did, and you just forgot? Maybe it got marked as spam? You rack your brain, search your inbox and check your junk folder-but there is no memo (because he never sent one to you). Or maybe he did, and the email just didn’t come through? Tech mishaps happen sometimes. Or maybe he mistyped your email address? We all make mistakes.
This is the nature of gaslighting: the constant wondering, the second-guessing. But you’ll know it’s gaslighting when situations like this happen frequently, not just once or twice.
Handling gaslighting at work can be particularly pernicious and difficult to prove because, by its very nature, it will have you doubting that what’s happening to you is true.
So are you being gaslighted at work? Many victims of gaslighting tactics fail to recognize it because they’re being manipulated to be full of self-doubt. But here are some signs that you may be a target of psychological manipulation:
“This is the most apparent sign of gaslighting,” says licensed psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo. “If you're overwhelmed with self-doubt after a meeting with a coworker and find yourself second-guessing your version of events, you're probably being gaslighted.”
You're competent. You’re good at your job. So why is that, lately, you’re being told that you’ve made multiple errors-when you’re pretty sure you haven’t? That could be the gaslighter’s manipulation tactic, especially if they’re envious of your success.
Rolf Bax, chief human resources officer at Resume.io, has witnessed this himself. “I have seen a situation in which a new manager comes in, feels threatened by a star team member and sets about convincing the employee that they are making more errors than they actually are and shooting down and poking holes in all of their contributions,” he says.
This is a common gaslighting behavior: They’ll deny saying something that they definitely said. In fact, they’ll say “I never said that” so vehemently that you’ll start believing them and doubting yourself.
Remember, the gaslighter is trying to make you doubt your perception of reality, so they will twist things so that you never know which version to believe. They can do this by being two-faced:
The goal is to create confusion so you question what's true.
This is another major sign of gaslighting at work: The gaslighter will leave you out of important meetings, conversations and projects, without ever giving a clear reason why. When you try to find out why you weren’t included, they’ll make you think you’re overreacting or that you were mistaken and didn’t need to be included in that conversation. Even when something is key to the work you’re doing, they’ll convince you that it’s not.
If you find that you’re constantly being excluded, that might be a sign that you’re being gaslighted.
When you bring a concern to a gaslighter, they’ll dismiss it (especially if it’s an issue they caused). This is yet another way they can manipulate you into believing that you’re the problem.
For example, you might notice that the suspected gaslighter frequently leaves you out of email threads relevant to your work. When you ask them about it, they’ll say they didn’t mean to do it or that you’re being too hard on them for what was an honest mistake.
This is a big one: When gaslighting goes on long enough, your colleagues will probably notice that you’re being treated differently. Now, they may or may not say anything or help you. It’s up to you to find a trusted colleague who will be honest with you about what they’re noticing.
More than just being excluded, you might find that you’re being given “busy work,” those meaningless projects that keep you occupied but have no real impact. This could be an effort to undermine your authority and sabotage your productivity so that when performance reviews come around, you have no results to show-because you were never given any meaningful work.
For example, the gaslighter might intentionally “forget” to email you about a meeting, so naturally, you don’t show up because you didn’t know about it. Then, they will reprimand you for missing the meeting.
As mentioned earlier, the gaslighter will find errors, even when they aren’t there. But they also will act unimpressed, or even disappointed, in even your best work. They do this to try to erode your self-esteem and make you doubt your ability to do your job.
Gaslighters use vocabulary that invalidates your feelings and concerns to make you feel small and ineffective. They might use phrases such as:
Not all gaslighting is intentional. Sometimes, the gaslighter might not realize what they’re doing. If you suspect that their behavior is unintentional, and you trust this person, you can have a one-on-one conversation on what you’ve been noticing. Do not accuse. Simply share what you think has been happening, how it’s been negatively affecting you and what you’d like to see going forward. Give them a chance to explain themselves and amend their ways.
Whether the gaslighting was intentional or not, impact is what matters here. Even if they didn’t mean to frequently exclude you from meetings or invalidate your feelings, it’s still harming you, and it still needs to be addressed so you can perform your best at work.
When communicating with a gaslighter, the preferred method is email-you want written documentation. That way, when they undoubtedly question your memory of their words, you have concrete evidence to show them that your memory is just fine.
You also might need this documentation to prove your case to HR so they can take action.
The key piece here is that you must find someone you can trust, someone who is not on the side of the gaslighter. This may be difficult, particularly if your entire workplace is toxic.
Is the gaslighter frequently finding “flaws” in your work? Ask someone else to review these supposed errors.
Is the gaslighter denying excluding you from important meetings? Ask someone who was at these meetings if you were included in the email invitations.
Is the gaslighter denying ever criticizing you in front of the team? Ask someone who witnessed this criticism when you weren’t around.
There are many articles about gaslighting at work that encourage you to confront the potential gaslighter, but I don’t think that’s wise (unless you truly think the behavior is unintentional) because it’s unlikely a gaslighter will admit to the behavior.
Take these words of wisdom from therapist Alyssa Mancao, a licensed clinical social worker:
“The best way to outsmart a gaslighter is to disengage,” she writes for mindbodygreen. “You can show up to the discussion with a mountain of evidence, videos, recordings, and more, and a gaslighting person will still find a way to deflect, minimize, or deny. It is more worth it to walk away with your perception intact.”
Your manager (as long as your manager isn’t the gaslighter) and HR will best know how to handle a gaslighter. Bring the evidence that you’ve gathered and let them serve as the third party between you and your gaslighter to ensure this issue gets resolved.
Sometimes, complete avoidance is impossible, such as in the case of a gaslighting boss. Definitely avoid alone time with the gaslighter, as any retelling after that will just be your word against theirs. Try to involve at least one reliable witness each time you meet with the gaslighter in person.
Also, avoid taking on projects where you will have to work with them, and don’t fall for any of their attempts to develop a more personal relationship with you.
Gaslighting makes you question your sanity and your abilities. It can make you feel powerless and incompetent. To stand up to a gaslighter, you need to remember that you are capable.
Tap into your personal power with our free online coaching program so you can gain the confidence and assertiveness to stand firm when the gaslighter tries to undermine your authority.
Gaslighting is psychological warfare, and as such, it can wreck your mental health by lowering your self-esteem and self-confidence. It’s crucial to take time away from the gaslighting saga to recharge yourself and keep your mind sharp.
Gaslighting can be the symptom of a toxic workplace-and that’s not something you’re going to fix on your own. This kind of environment will wear you down, so if you can, get out and move on to a workplace that values your well-being.
Dealing with gaslighting at work is understandably frustrating. But by following the tips in this article, you can take control back from your workplace gaslighter and prevent them from gaining the satisfaction of seeing you suffer any longer.
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