Gaslighting is a manipulation tactic narcissists, abusers, and other aggressive people use to control others. It's devastating in that, slowly, it makes you doubt your ability to think and judge for yourself, stealing away your confidence. That low self-esteem directly affects your career, making it harder for you to push good, innovative ideas, lobby for promotions, or even network and interact well with team members. So when you experience it, you absolutely need to fight back and protect yourself.
The many stages and forms of gaslighting.
Author and expert communication coach Preston Ni asserts that there are seven stages of gaslighting:
- Lie and exaggerate--e.g., "You're so pathetic--you just blew the whole thing."
- Repeat often--Research shows this causes people to believe lies as truth.
- Escalate when challenged--e.g., "You're nuts. That didn't happen. You're just crazy."
- Wear out the victim--Stay on the offensive and make defense tiring to the victim.
- Form a co-dependent relationship--The gaslighter pulls the victim by the strings, threatening to take away the safety, comfort, security, etc., he or she can offer and that the victim wants.
- Give false hope--The gaslighter is kind to trick the victim into thinking the gaslighter isn't so bad.
- Dominate and control--The gaslighter maintains and intensifies coercions to get the victim to do what the gaslighter wants.
Clinical psychologist George Simon adds that people often gaslight by asserting something with extreme conviction, or through unwavering denial and indignation. Shaming and distortion come into play too. Other techniques include withholding or refusing to listen, countering, blocking, diverting, and trivializing.
What gaslighting looks like at work.
Even though individual situations might give manipulators different platforms on which to work, these are good examples of how gaslighters try to get the upper hand and what they sound like:
- "Come back when you're not going to waste my time."
- "You're being way too sensitive over this."
- "All you had to do was follow my instructions."
- "You have no idea what you're talking about."
- Rerouting conversations to something you did "wrong."
- Finding fault with your personality or accusing you of being paranoid, stressed, etc., when you make a complaint.
- Subtly sabotaging your work (e.g., unscheduling, "misplacing" files).
- Gossiping about you.
- Excluding you.
- Constantly telling you what you "should" do or feel while invalidating what you're experiencing.
It's common for people going through workplace gaslighting to try to work even harder to prove themselves to bosses or teammates, which can backfire by increasing anxiety and stress. You might start to feel like you're a different person outside of the office. Feelings of confusion, difficulty making decisions, and constant mental replaying of events that happened are signs of gaslighting as well. As you go through a gaslighting experience, you may transition through disbelief, defense, and depression.
How to end the abuse.
The techniques you use to combat gaslighting might need adjustment depending on the person and situation you're dealing with, but these tactics are a good starting point:
- Document as much as you can. If things are recorded or in writing, they're harder for gaslighters to manipulate, and you'll have a reference to trust even if they try.
- Tune in to your gut. That nervous, uncomfortable feeling gaslighting causes isn't your imagination. It's a warning from your brain, which senses danger on the basis of previous emotional experiences and memories. Pay attention to who makes you anxious or depressed and when.
- Find supportive people to talk to and get perspective.
- Talk to your HR representative. Explain what gaslighting is and why you believe it is happening to you.
- Find people who can act as witnesses, use CC on your emails, etc.
- Tell the gaslighter up front how he or she is making you feel. Gaslighters often don't want their efforts to be found out, so if you verbalize what's happening and make it clear you understand, they might stop.
- Avoid saying "I'm not ... " or "I didn't ... ", as this phrasing offers a platform for the gaslighter to further stress your "incompetence" or "faults." Instead, say "I refuse to argue. What do you want to happen, and how can we work together to move forward?"
- Get some space and cool off. It's easier to sort out what's happening when your emotions from the gaslighting experience are no longer hot.
Gaslighting can and does happen in the workplace, but you don't have to stand for it. Protect yourself using the strategies above, and if you can, always pay it forward for others who don't realize they're victims too.