Anyone who is interested in psychology might have heard of the term ‘gaslighting’ in regards to a romantic relationship. But gaslighting at work is a relatively new phenomenon. So what are the signs and how can you tell if you’re being gaslighted at work?
What Is Gaslighting and What Are the Origins of This Term?
The term ‘gaslighting’ comes from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband gradually convinces his wife that she’s going mad. We call this form of manipulation gaslighting because in the film the murderous husband attempts to drive his wife insane by convincing her she’s imagined the dimming gaslights in their apartment.
In fact, the lights dimmed because the husband was searching for her aunt’s jewellery. Whenever the wife tries to talk to her husband and discuss the dimming gaslights, her husband denies it ever happened.
He manipulates her into thinking she’s imagined it. He also manipulates the environment they both live in. For example, he denies there are noises coming from the attic (a result of his frantic searching). He consistently misdirects, confuses, flatly denies, and forcibly insists on certain details. In the end, the wife cannot resolve her version of reality to that of her husband.
So gaslighting is a term that describes abusive behaviour that manipulates the environment to make a person doubt his or her sanity.
Why Do People Use Gaslighting?
People gaslight for several different reasons:
- A need for power
- Wanting to control the other person
- Having to conceal something
- Feeling insecure
- Jealous of your success
- Want to get ahead of you
Examples of Gaslighting at Work:
- Questioning your version of events
- Rearranging schedules without informing you
- Taking credit for the work you’ve done
- Spreading malicious gossip and then denying it
- Blaming you when things go wrong
- Pretending they cannot understand you
- Bullying you in front of colleagues
- Going into a rage with you but being all smiles to others
Anyone can use gaslighting at work, from your immediate boss to a co-worker or even a client.
Here Are Some More Specific Examples of Gaslighting at Work:
We all tend to judge people by our own standards. On the whole, we believe that people are honest. As a result, it’s really confusing to be confronted with someone who consistently gaslights you. At work, it’s not just confusing but can affect your career, not to mention your mental wellbeing.
Examples of gaslighting at work:
Your boss told you that you had until the end of the month to complete a report, but today, she swears she told you it was due by this lunchtime.
You are always left off important email threads by a colleague who insists they sent it to you. When you question their actions they accuse you of over-reacting and being a drama queen.
Your manager takes credit for your idea and then manages to convince you that he had to do a lot of work to get it presentable.
Your co-worker is talking about you behind your back, but when you confront them, they deny it, saying it’s all in your mind.
So, how can you tell if someone is gaslighting you at work? Look out for the following signs.
3 Signs of Gaslighting at Work
You feel as if something is off with a particular person whenever you interact with them
Do you come away from meetings with this person feeling undermined, confused, or disorientated? Normally, you are a confident member of society, with no issues, you’re no shrinking violet in the workplace. But there’s just something about this new boss or co-worker that tilts you off-balance.
You come away from interactions with them thinking something’s off, but you can’t put your finger on it. Trust your gut. Step back from the situation. Ask a colleague or a family member about your concerns. Try and put the situation into perspective.
You’ve started to second guess and doubt yourself
Have you gone from a confident worker to someone that now constantly double-checks their work? Do you feel as if your memory is worsening? For example, you don’t trust yourself to remember important dates, deadlines, or meetings.
Do you feel as if you’re losing the plot sometimes? Like you’re going mad and can’t rely on your own judgement anymore? Are you doubting your capability to do the job? Do you feel depressed about the thought of encountering this person on a daily basis? Remember, it’s not you, it’s them.
You are constantly accused of being too sensitive
Have you always prided yourself on your ability to take it on the chin? That you have broad shoulders and can take a joke? Have you always been self-deprecating, but now, you’re always being told you are too sensitive or that you’re a drama queen?
Do bosses tell you to man-up and get with the programme? Are you always feeling overwhelmed? Are you afraid of being accused of over-reacting, so you keep quiet? Do you feel isolated and helpless?
My Experience of Gaslighting at Work
I have an example of a gaslighting co-worker from an old job I had on the railways. A co-worker (let’s call her BS Sue) told me that she suffered from narcoleptic epilepsy and that her mother had died from brain cancer. Of course, I was immediately sympathetic. But BS Sue would start contradicting herself. One minute, her mother was 6 stone on her deathbed, the next week, she was 4 stone. One week, she’d died of brain cancer, the next month, it was breast cancer.
Things started to not add up. Then a fellow co-worker asked me out and we started dating. By this time, I’d moved in with BS Sue. The three of us kind of became an item in that we all went out together and would go out for meals together.
Then, something strange began to happen. My then-boyfriend from work started going off me. I would come home and find him and BS Sue sat together on the sofa, all cosy. When I arrived home, they’d stop talking.
Eventually, I moved out and ended the relationship with both of them. I found out later that she was spreading rumours that I slept around, I was cheating and that I was horrible to my boyfriend. I confronted her and she had a breakdown, screaming at me, ‘Everybody leaves me in the end!’
4 Ways to Deal with Gaslighting at Work
- Make notes of every incident so you have a record of the abuse when you go to HR and report it.
- Avoid one-on-ones with the perpetrator. Try and get any meetings or discussions in public where others are present.
- Write everything down, for instance, dates of meetings or deadlines for reports. Get the gaslighter to sign off on it.
- Set clear boundaries as to what you are expected to do as part of your job and what’s not expected.
We spend an awful lot of time at work, so gaslighting is particularly damaging. Call it out when you see it and remember, you’re not going mad.
- Image courtesy Wikimedia Scene from the 1944 movie Gaslight with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman
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