I have written extensively about my experiences being gaslighted and bullied in the workplace — under a pseudonym, of course — but I wanted to share some of the information I’ve learned along the way you with, dear reader, in case yourself or someone you know is being manipulated at work. You may have heard the term gaslighting but weren’t sure what it meant, or you may be enduring something at work but not have the language with which to speak about it. If you do a search for “gaslighting,” you’ll see a lot of resources around domestic abuse but very few about the workplace, which is a shame, really, because it happens there too.
We spend 40+ hours at work each week, so we have a right to be happy — not paranoid, apologetic, afraid, or anxious.
In short, to Gaslight is to “manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.” Sounds dark, right? It happens all the time whether the abuser — or the victim, for that matter — is even consciously aware of it. The term originated from the 1944 film Gaslight, a noir tale of a man who attempts to drive his wife crazy, gradually, by making her doubt her own judgment and sanity.
According to Psychology Today, a few of the signs include being made to constantly second-guess yourself by a coworker or boss, asking yourself if you’re too sensitive, feeling consistently confused at work, finding yourself apologizing for situations that aren’t your fault, and feeling as though you can’t do anything right.
According to Counselling Resource:
“Effective gaslighting can be accomplished in several different ways. Sometimes, a person can assert something with such an apparent intensity of conviction that the other person begins to doubt their own perspective. Other times, vigorous and unwavering denial coupled with a display of righteous indignation can accomplish the same task. Bringing up historical facts that seem largely accurate but contain minute, hard-to-prove distortions and using them to “prove” the correctness of one’s position is another method. Gaslighting is particularly effective when coupled with other tactics such as shaming and guilting. Anything that aids in getting another person to doubt their judgment and back down will work.”
Does it sound like someone at your job is making you feel like your doing something wrong by never being clear with you on assignments? Perhaps you feel like whenever you speak up, your thoughts on shot down? Maybe a coworker of yours reroutes the conversation from the subject at hand to something about you or something you did “wrong”?
Women in roles throughout various industries are abused by bullies; often, the classic attack on a woman is that she is “over-emotional” or “too sensitive.” Often, the abuser blames the victim. Consider the thousands of women who report sexual abuse in the military; many of them were diagnosed mentally unstable and released from duty. That’s extreme, but workplace bullying happens a lot. According to the 2020 Workplace Bullying Institute U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, 27 % of employees have been bullied, while 72 % of employers deny or rationalize the “bully” behavior.
Making matters worse, the Institute says, “women appear to be at greater risk of becoming a bullying target, as 57% of those who reported being targeted for abuse were women. Men are more likely to participate in aggressive bullying behavior (60%). However, when the bully is a woman, her target is more likely to be a woman as well (71%).”
If you feel you’ve been gaslighted at work, you probably recognize some of those situations illustrated above. It’s no fun being made to feel crazy, less-than, or constantly disappointing, even though – in your mind – you’re doing a reasonable job at work. Sometimes people are just power-hungry or have a subconscious pattern of abusing others as a way to bolster their own self-esteem. Sometimes this sort of insidious behavior is so hard to describe, it’s almost better not to talk about it all.
In some cases, you may want to leave your job. For many people, that’s just not an easy, feasible, or financially responsible option. And so, we often feel imprisoned. In situations where you can’t leave your job, but there is an HR department or an ombudsman (weirdest word ever for “unbiased party” at work), make a claim! You want to report the behavior. First, take notes on when incidents occurred and how they made you feel. If it makes sense, bring the term “gaslighting” to your superior or HR department. Show them the definition if they don’t understand your explanation, and be sure to remind yourself that you are not crazy.
There is a difference between being reprimanded at work for doing a piss-poor job and being made to always feel not quite good enough or that your opinions are worthless. Speak up. Talk to friends or a counselor; talk to the abuser directly, if you can, and remember that when they try to twist your words, that’s gaslighting, and you don’t have to take it.
While your bully may be making you feel pretty bad, just think: