Career / Career Development / Self-Care

Gaslighting in the professional space and how to deal with it

. 6 min read . Written by Vanshika Goenka
Gaslighting in the professional space and how to deal with it

“I’m sorry, but this is not what I had asked for.”

“I thought we had discussed this; the deadline was today!”

“It’s not you; it’s me.”

Sure! And it’s not you why I’ve had emotional breakdowns a lot more regularly than my meals; of course, it’s me.

I believe you.

If you’ve led yourself to believe this and have been continuously on the receiving end of the aforementioned statements, then here’s a reality check for you: Hi! You are a victim of gaslighting at work.

So What Is Gaslighting?

The term gaslighting origins from this 1944 film Gaslight, in which a husband psychology manipulates his wife to the degree that she starts to doubt her own sanity –eventually driving her insane.

It’s pretty heavy, dark stuff but the effect of gaslighting felt in the workplace or a relationship is not very different –just a mellow version of this.

As per Psychology Today, gaslighting is a “malicious and hidden form of mental and emotional abuse, designed to plant seeds of self-doubt and alter your perception of reality.”

How Do I Recognise Gaslighting In The Workplace?

Since the act in itself is something sly, covert and psychological, it certainly is challenging to put your finger on it. But here’s an instance of gaslighting that will get your suspicion juices flowing.

Your boss promises you a raise on the condition of completing a sudden significant project “that just has to be done within the week”. But once you’re done slogging for the week and hit “send” on your mail, nothing comes your way. And worse, when you do muster up the courage to confront them, they blame you.

Instead of apologising or even discussing it in a rational manner, what follows is a series of honed acts of playing the victim.

“Why are you going crazy on me? Don’t you see how hard I’m working? Don’t you see I already have too much on my plate?” they snap.

And suddenly, you’re the one apologising. You were promised this, but what can you do now? Go to HR; well, you do not want to be known as someone who stirs up an HR storm for every conflict. So you say nothing and think that maybe this was, someone, your fault.

“Everyone says things they don’t mean in the heat of the moment. And maybe  (sigh) I did overreact,” you tell yourself. These moments are subtle, but they’re a lot more harmful than you think.

So Why Do Gaslighters… Gaslight?

Gaslighters manipulate to control you. Once you’ve begun doubting your instincts, you’re more likely to believe whatever you’re told, starting a vicious cycle of manipulation, denial, and then more manipulation. And the more prolonged it is, the more complicated it gets to identify.

When we think of a typical bully, we think of someone who is outright harassing you and making life miserable in a specific and often public way. We think of them as people who thrive on humiliating others.

However, when it comes to gaslighting at work, the person doing the gaslighting is often witty or likeable and charming. They tend to have a perception of being the star-employee in the office, networking skills that can put any ms. congeniality to shame and a sense of humour that attracts co-workers like a moth to a flame. But the undertone that can easily get lost in this perceived camaraderie is that of a passive-aggressive nature.

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 have them doubt their perceptions of reality and sanity.

Not unlike brainwashing in that regard.

So if you find yourself feeling guilty for doubting a person that you have come to trust –don’t. Question where this doubt is stemming from and think about this as a pattern of their behaviour.

Signs You Are Being Gaslit

Gaslighting at work can come from bosses, colleagues, or even direct reports concerning control, infidelity and money. Gaslighting in the workplace can have severe impacts on the work environment –such as creating a culture of discomfort and distrust. It also hurts your self-confidence, as well as your trust in your perceived reality and yourself.

Gaslighting can also be considered verbal abuse, and it’s often accompanied by intimidation, discrimination and overall manipulation.

Your Interactions With The Gaslighter Leave You Confused

If you find yourself continually second-guessing everything you do because a co-worker or a boss continually counters your thoughts, ideas or beliefs, you may be dealing with a case of gaslighting.

Another sign – if your co-worker makes you feel confused about your thoughts and whether your ideas are good enough. You are now constantly questioning yourself, and that leads to immense confusion.

They Give You Backhanded Compliments:

Gaslighters, more often than not, manage to create a perception of an all-star employee around themselves by providing an endless stream of backhanded compliments. “Wow, I’d never thought you would be able to pull that off –congratulations!” or “Oh I’m glad they took my advice and assigned you to this project instead, I have so much on my plate already.”

Statements like these can land some pretty serious burns and hurt progressively more as you think about it. And this once again leads to confusion in your self-assessment of your performance.

They Have A Severe Lack Of Empathy And Refuse To Provide Validation To Others:

Validation is a much-needed communication tool in the workplace – it fosters a healthy and more favourable work environment. In the process of gaslighting, validation and empathy are the first things to go out the window.

A gaslighter has no regard for your feelings, or your performance and is unable to express appreciation for your work even when that should be the most obvious response.

You Start Questioning Your Self-worth:

The most evident consequence that follows the characteristic confusion that defines gaslighting is a significant plunge in your self-esteem. If a co-worker is always making you believe you’re doing a terrible job at work, and if certain boundaries are not put in places where you can protect yourself, these feelings of low self-esteem can bleed into your personal life and taint perceptions of who you are and what you’re capable of outside the office.

So How Do I Deal With Gaslighting?

Identify The Gaslighter’s Behaviour Patterns:

Look out for the patterns of behaviour that leave you confused. If a boss, co-worker, or someone else is consistently confusing you and making you doubt yourself and facilitating a skewed perception of your reality, consider that they may be gaslighting you.

It can certainly be difficult not to take insults personally. But you need to make peace and internalise the fact that this is not your problem -but the gaslighter’s. Their backhanded compliments and confusing directions come from a place of their insecurities and their need to gain control –not your shortcomings.

Trust Your Gut:

Gaslighting clouds your perception of the situation. Factor this intrinsic manipulation when you’re analysing yourself as a victim of gaslighting.

Confide in your close friends and family to gain a more objective reading of what is going on. But more importantly, to recover from gaslighting, you need to trust and stand up for yourself. If you doubt that you are gaslit – you are.

Don’t Confront Them Directly:

When gaslighters are accused directly they more often than not will respond with vicious personal attacks. They feel threatened. And retaliate with a direct challenge. They may even accuse you of gaslighting them instead. So as much as you can, try to avoid contact. Consult the HR for strategies on minimising your time with them.

Write Everything Down:

Whenever you do interact with a gaslighter directly, write everything down exactly the way it happened. Describe what happened, how, when, why, and how did it make you feel.

By putting it down on paper, you’re giving yourself the time and the space to process what happened – to decide how it makes you feel and how to help avoid this in the future.

Remember that no job or person is worth sacrificing the quality of your mental health. So, create boundaries, both mental and behavioural. Building healthy boundaries can preserve your sense of self-worth and shield you from feeling the toxic effects of gaslighting at work (and everywhere else too).

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