But what exactly is gaslighting, how can you spot it, and what do you do if you feel as though someone is gaslighting you at work?
What Is Gaslighting?
The term "gaslighting" actually comes from a play of the same title that exemplifies it. Gaslighting, according to Psychology Today, is a "malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality."
Gaslighting is based on the need for power, control or concealment — it refers to a deliberate pattern of manipulation that's been calculated to make the victim trust the gaslighter and actually doubt his or her own perceptions of reality or sanity. It's not unlike brainwashing in that regard.
"When the gaslighting starts, you might even feel guilty for doubting a person you’ve come to trust," according to Psychology Today. "To further play with your mind, an abuser might offer evidence to show that you’re wrong or question your memory or senses. More justification and explanation, including expressions of love and flattery, are concocted to confuse you and reason away any discrepancies in the liar’s story. You get temporary reassurance, but you increasingly doubt your own senses, ignore your gut and become more confused."
Gaslighting can and often does take place at work — from bosses, colleagues and even direct reports often concerning control, infidelity or money. While gaslighting has obvious negative impacts in a workplace, such as creating a culture of discomfort and distrust, it can also have even more serious effects.
For one, gaslighting can hurt our self-confidence, as well as our trust in ourselves and our perceived reality. And if we can't trust ourselves, we can't advocate for ourselves in the workplace. Gaslighting can also be considered verbal abuse, and it's often accompanied with intimidation, discrimination and overall manipulation.
"Covert manipulation can easily turn into overt abuse, with accusations that you’re distrustful, ungrateful, unkind, overly sensitive, dishonest, stupid, insecure, crazy or abusive," according to Psychology Today. "Abuse might escalate to anger and intimidation with punishment, threats or bullying if you don’t accept the false version of reality."
What Are Some Signs of Gaslighting at Work?
Gaslighting happens at work more often than you might think. Gaslighters at work are often narcissists, addicts and even sociopaths, especially when the gaslighting has been premeditated or used to cover up workplace misdemeanors.
"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," according to writer Melody Wilding's post on Medium. "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."
Because these types of people can be so skilled at gaslighting, gaslighting can be incredibly insidious the more it happens — and you might not even notice it's happening until you're in too deep. This can be damaging for workplace cultures, which should aim to have trust and support.
Here are some signs that you might be a victim of gaslighting at work:
Some signs you may be being gaslighted include:
- You overwork yourself just to "prove yourself"
- You feel incompetent
- You don't understand what's expected of you
- You turn down opportunities to avoid put-downs
- You try to improve situations with unknown gaslighters to no avail
Here are three examples of gaslighting at work:
1. Work Coworker Tells Blatant Lies
Your coworker outright lies to you, straight to your face. Maybe they're lying about why they missed a deadline or why they're late to the office. Then they make you feel bad for assuming that they were lazy or being irresponsible.
2. Your Boss Denies Ever Saying Something
Perhaps your toxic boss promised you a raise over lunch one day a few months ago. He or she said you could revisit the conversation in six months, and those six months have passed. You ask him or her about the raise again and he or she totally denies ever proposing that. They let you know that they've heard you, however, and are willing to consider a raise in another six months.
3. Your Direct Report's Actions Do Not Match Their Words
When your direct report gaslights you, they may be telling you that their report is almost finished and they'll turn it on right on time. But their actions might speak differently; perhaps they're so far behind that there's no way they'll be able to finish the report on time, but they make you feel bad for doubting their efficiency.
What Should You Do if Someone is Gaslighting You at Work?
If you feel as though someone is gaslighting you at work, there are several steps you can take to maintain your sanity while handling the situation.
1. Identify the Perpetrator's Behavior Patterns
Look out for patterns that confuse you. If a boss, coworker, direct report or someone else in the workplace is consistently confusing you and making you question your own trust in yourself and your perceptions of reality, consider the fact that they might be gaslighting you.
After you understand what's going on, also realize that this might be because of their own shame over something they've done wrong (and refuse to accept blame for) or their own insecurities at work, and do not take on their shame or insecurities as your own. Stand your ground by trusting yourself.
3. Put Your Foot Down
Don't let the gaslighter's words or actions affect you or your work. If you're really questioning your sanity, ask another coworker to vouch for you or step in so they can give you their input, as well. If a coworker was there, for example, when your boss promised a raise, talk to your coworker to provide some level of proof that you're not as crazy as your boss has made you feel.
4. Write it all Down
If you have to, write down what you believe to be true. Write down situations as they happen, so when you feel as though you're a victim of gaslighting, you can refer back to your own real-time accounts of the situation.
5. Consciously Affirm Your Self Beliefs
Remind yourself that your work is valuable and you are valued. Remember that you are worthy and professional, that there was a reason this company had hired you in the first place, and that there's a reason you haven't been fired.
6. Talk to the Perpetrator
Let your gaslighter know that you're aware of what's going on — let them know that you have proof that they're spreading falsehoods or instilling false beliefs into your head, and let it be known that you're not affected by it. Talk to them to help them come out of denial.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.