Gaslighting is a type of psychological abuse that aims to make victims feel crazy or appear insane by creating a surreal interpersonal environment. Despite being widely used, sociologists have mostly overlooked gaslighting, leaving psychologists to explore and analyze it.
The term was popularized by the British drama Gas Light, written by Patrick Hamilton in 1938. The play was highly successful, with over 1,300 performances, and was later adapted into a film featuring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. The story follows a manipulative husband who slowly drives his wife insane by altering her environment and making her doubt her thoughts, memories, and perceptions. He also inflicts emotional abuse and isolates her from family and friends.
Gaslighting causes the victim to question themselves and feel neurotic, hypersensitive, and out-of-control. This emotional abuse aims to make the target feel uncertain about what is true and what isn't. The term gaslighting was coined by psychologists and counselors to describe this manipulative and destructive behavior.
According to James Durr of We Buy Any Homes in the UK (Property Solvers), gaslighting is often driven by a fear of losing one's position, promotion, or job entirely. It is therefore essential for companies to provide training on recognizing and preventing gaslighting behavior, and managers should be prepared to intervene if necessary. By creating a supportive and respectful work environment, everyone can feel valued and appreciated, without fear of manipulation or abuse.
Bottom line: Gaslighting is a harmful behavior that can take many forms. It's often associated with abusive personalities, narcissists, and even cult leaders, according to Psychology Today. In the workplace, gaslighting can be used as a tactic to exert power over someone, leaving them feeling confused, helpless, and powerless.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and abuse that is built on social imbalances, particularly those related to gender, and is often found in power dynamics within interpersonal relationships. In this context, gaslighting happens when abusers use stereotypes, structural vulnerabilities based on race, nationality, and sexuality, as well as institutional injustices to distort their victim's reality. By using domestic violence as a case study, we can identify the mechanisms behind how gaslighting works. Gaslighting is a type of psychological manipulation that can have serious consequences for those who experience it.
What Is Gaslighting and How Does It Work?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that causes self-doubt. According to Paige Sweet, a University of Michigan assistant professor of sociology who studies gaslighting in relationships and the workplace, gaslighting is like labeling someone as "crazy." The victim's experience is made to seem fake and unstable, leading them to feel untrustworthy and isolated. Gaslighting is most common in abusive relationships.
The term "gaslighting" is derived from the 1938 play and subsequent films titled Gas Light. These stories featured a male protagonist who convinced his wife that she was imagining things. This type of subtle deception can damage a victim's confidence and leave them feeling vulnerable, sometimes leading them to quit their job. Gaslighting can be difficult to recognize since it's often subtle, and people may not realize it's happening until they reflect on it. Gaslighting in the workplace can include actions such as taking credit for others' work, teasing in front of co-workers, setting unreasonable deadlines, withholding information, and doubting past conversations.
Gaslighting often happens in abusive relationships and workplaces where power struggles occur, and managers may lack the necessary training to recognize and handle it. In some cases, individuals use lies, denials, and manipulation to gain power in organizational politics, which is known as political gaslighting.
Common Examples of gaslighting:
1. Gaslighting by Manipulating Performance Feedback
One example of gaslighting in the workplace is when an employee reports harassment or abuse by a supervisor or co-worker to HR, and the accused denies the allegations and turns the tables on the employee, accusing them of lying or being overly sensitive. This type of gaslighting can make the victim doubt their own perception of events, feel isolated, and even question their own sanity. The accused may also use their power or influence to discredit the victim or retaliate against them, which can further exacerbate the emotional and psychological harm caused by gaslighting.
2. Blaming the victim
Gaslighters often engage in victim blaming to manipulate and control their target. They make the victim doubt their own perceptions, emotions, and memories by suggesting that they are overreacting or misunderstanding the situation. In the workplace, this can manifest as a gaslighter blaming the victim for their own mistakes or shortcomings, such as not meeting a deadline or failing to complete a task correctly. They may also accuse the victim of being too sensitive, overly emotional, or lacking in competence, which can be damaging to the victim's self-esteem and professional reputation. By shifting the blame onto the victim, gaslighters can avoid taking responsibility for their own behavior and maintain their position of power and control in the workplace.
3. Downplaying and dismissing concerns
Gaslighters often downplay and dismiss the concerns of their victims, making them doubt their own perceptions and reality. For example, if an employee reports discrimination or harassment to their supervisor or HR, the gaslighter may dismiss it as a misunderstanding or tell the employee they are overreacting. This can make the victim feel ashamed or embarrassed for speaking up and make them hesitant to report future incidents. Additionally, gaslighters may use phrases like "it's not a big deal" or "you're being too sensitive" to downplay and dismiss the concerns of their victims, making them doubt the validity of their experiences.
4. Denial of Wrongdoing
Denial of wrongdoing is a common form of gaslighting in the workplace where the gaslighter denies their responsibility or involvement in a harmful action or event. They may refuse to acknowledge their wrongdoing even in the face of evidence, deflect blame onto others, or minimize the harm caused by their actions. This can leave the victim feeling confused, powerless, and doubting their own perception of events. For example, a manager who makes a sexist comment may deny having said it when confronted by a female employee, causing her to question her memory and sanity. Alternatively, a co-worker may steal credit for a project and then deny having done so when confronted by the rightful owner, leaving them feeling powerless and helpless to address the injustice.
5. Sabotage and Gaslighting
This type of gaslighting occurs when a coworker intentionally undermines or sabotages another coworker's work to make themselves look better or to prevent the other person from succeeding. The saboteur may then use gaslighting tactics to deny any wrongdoing or to shift blame onto the other person. This can include lying about never making a promise, blaming the victim for not completing their work on time, or accusing the victim of trying to get others in trouble. This type of gaslighting can have severe consequences for the victim, including damaging their reputation and causing them to lose their job.
6. Blaming the victim
Blaming the victim is another form of gaslighting in the workplace where the perpetrator tries to shift the blame onto the victim. This can involve making accusations that the victim is incompetent, lazy, or simply not good enough. The perpetrator may try to make it seem like the victim is the problem, rather than taking responsibility for their own actions. This can be extremely damaging to the victim's self-esteem and confidence, and can also make it more difficult for them to speak up in the future. Blaming the victim can also create a toxic work environment where employees feel like they are constantly under attack and can never do anything right.
7. Withholding Information and Resources
Withholding information and resources is a tactic often used by gaslighters to create a sense of confusion and disorientation in their victims. They may intentionally withhold important information or resources needed to complete tasks, and then deny having ever promised to provide them. This can be especially damaging in a work setting, where access to information and resources is essential for productivity and success. Gaslighters may also selectively provide information, leaving out key details that would change the interpretation of a situation. This can make it difficult for the victim to make informed decisions and can ultimately impact their work performance.
8. Intentional exclusion and isolation
In some cases, gaslighters may intentionally exclude and isolate their target from important meetings, conversations, or projects. They may make excuses for not inviting the target or deny that the meeting or conversation even took place. This can make the target feel excluded and unimportant, and can lead to doubts about their own abilities and value to the team. Gaslighters may also try to isolate their target from other coworkers, spreading rumors or lies about them in order to turn others against them and create a hostile work environment. This can make it difficult for the target to get support from others and can further damage their self-esteem and confidence.
9. Denial of Promotions or Opportunities
Gaslighting can also occur in situations where an employee is denied a promotion or opportunity based on their performance or qualifications, but the supervisor or employer denies that this is the case. The gaslighter may use tactics such as twisting words, making false accusations, or manipulating the situation to make the employee question their own abilities and worthiness for the promotion or opportunity. This can lead to feelings of self-doubt and confusion for the employee, and can be damaging to their career growth and development.
10. Manipulating your sense of reality
This is another common form of gaslighting in the workplace where the manipulator tries to manipulate your sense of reality by denying their actions, making up lies, or exaggerating the truth to make you question your own perceptions and memories. For instance, if you confront your coworker about their inappropriate behavior towards you, they might deny it ever happened and say that you're just being overly sensitive. Alternatively, they might try to convince you that something that did happen actually didn't happen, or that something that didn't happen actually did. This form of gaslighting can cause you to question your own sanity, and can make you feel like you can't trust your own perceptions or memories.
Related: Handling a boss who crushes on you
Typical Signs of Gaslighting
Here are some signs that may indicate gaslighting:
- You constantly doubt yourself and your perceptions.
- You feel confused, disoriented, or unsure of what's real or not.
- You find yourself apologizing frequently, even when you haven't done anything wrong.
- You feel like you're walking on eggshells around the other person, constantly trying to avoid conflict or upsetting them.
- You feel like you're constantly being criticized or told you're doing things wrong.
- The other person denies things they've said or done, or tries to make you think you're remembering things wrong.
- You feel like you can't trust your own judgment or decision-making abilities.
- You feel like you're losing your sense of self or your own identity.
- The other person is highly manipulative and controlling, trying to isolate you from friends and family or make you dependent on them.
- You feel like you're constantly walking on a tightrope, trying to avoid making mistakes or upsetting the other person.
It's important to note that these signs don't necessarily mean that you're being gaslit, but they may be indicators that something isn't right in the relationship. If you're experiencing any of these signs, it may be helpful to seek support from a therapist or trusted friend or family member.
What Does It Mean To Have A Gaslighter Personality?
Gaslighting is a behavior that some people are more susceptible to than others. It's commonly used to describe someone actively manipulating a friend, family member, or romantic partner, but not all gaslighters are aware of what they're doing. Unfortunately, this toxic behavior has become more prevalent across various interpersonal relationships over time. Gaslighters share several common traits, such as
- Being highly manipulative,
- Having low self-worth or self-esteem
- Trying to boost themselves by putting others down
- Struggling to handle a lack of power
- Often having narcissistic personality disorder
However, it's not always easy to recognize a gaslighter. Some may be enigmatic and difficult to understand, while others are so charismatic and charming that it can take a long time to realize they're gaslighting you.
Recognizing the Effects of Gas Lighting
Gaslighting is a common occurrence in the workplace, with gaslighters often being narcissists, addicts, or even sociopaths, especially when it's used to cover up workplace misdeeds or when it's premeditated. Writer Melody Wilding points out in a Medium post that gaslighters at work can take on many forms, including bosses, managers, clients, or condescending co-workers, frenemies, or even HR representatives who refuse to believe that bad behavior could happen under their watch. Gaslighting tactics can be subtle, making them difficult to detect, but the consequences can be just as damaging as physical abuse. Since gaslighters are good at what they do, the more it happens, the harder it is to notice it.
Gaslighting takes the form of activities that either establish or exploit an imbalance of power to keep the victim in their place.
- Canceling, postponing, or being consistently late to meetings while pretending to be listening.
- Looking at one a cell phone or email, or texting someone else while pretending to be listening
- Asking a question and then interrupting the answer.
- Involving an uninvolved third person in the conversation to make the victim feel outnumbered
When engaging with others, the gaslighter frequently blurs the boundary between normal professional conversation and making backhanded remarks about the victim's shortcomings, insecurities, attractiveness, education, values, religion, personality, family, etc.
Gaslighting in the workplace can have devastating effects on a person's emotional and mental well-being. From denying reality to manipulating situations, gaslighters use a range of tactics to exert control over their victims. It is important to recognize these behaviors and take action to protect yourself and others from this insidious form of abuse. By speaking out, seeking support, and holding perpetrators accountable, we can create a safer and more just workplace for everyone. Let us all strive to recognize gaslighting, stand up against it, and create a workplace culture that prioritizes honesty, integrity, and respect.
This article was written by Trish Makiwa, a consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org