If your job is causing undue stress, in-office manipulation may be the cause
Even a great job can be stressful. If you’re the victim of workplace gaslighting, your dream job can quickly turn into a nightmare.
Named after the film “Gaslight,” where a man attempts to steal from his wife by making her believe she’s insane, gaslighting involves manipulating someone to make them question their perception of reality. Gaslighters may deny or refuse to hear a person’s concerns or trivialize their feelings.
Gaslighting is a hallmark of abusive relationships, but it can show up in the office, too. In an article for Healthline, Dr. Stephanie Sarkis, author of “Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free,” noted that, “Gaslighting and other forms of harassment are underreported in the workplace, because gaslighters who are particularly adept at manipulation may make the victim feel as if it was all his or her fault.”
Brandon Smith, executive coach and author of “The Workplace Therapist” blog, says office gaslighters engage in such negative behavior because, “At the core of it they don’t believe they’re enough. …
So they try and get everyone else to start to feel and believe the same thing.”
Gaslighting can occur between colleagues as well as between superior and subordinate. Smith says colleague-tocolleague gaslighting is the result of a power struggle where one party wants to feel superior, while a manager may gaslight a team member to dodge accountability.
Gaslighting can be hard to recognize, but there are telltale signs that someone may be manipulating you, including:
■ Receiving praise but being passed over for advancement opportunities
■ Being told you were included in communications (emails, meetings, etc.) even though you weren’t
■ Not being treated equally to other employees
■ Having your feelings minimized when confronting someone (being told you’re “overreacting,” “too sensitive” or “mistaken”)
■ Constantly questioning whether you’re misreading a situation
Dr. Natalie Jones, an Oakland, Calif.-based therapist specializing in narcissistic behavior, forensic therapy and issues affecting black women, says gaslighters often aren’t aware of their behavior. “It’s usually developed as a survival mechanism or something that they observed . ... And so for them it’s just like breathing,” Jones said.
Despite how oblivious a person may be to his or her actions, gaslighting can prove to be toxic to a victim’s ability to work.
“It creates high levels of anxiety,” Smith said. “That can … impact your ability to show up to the office on some days or even perform at the level that you want . ... When it really erodes your confidence you can’t … interview well for another job.”
Worse, if you manage to break through the smoke and mirrors and realize you’re being gaslit, it’s nearly impossible to expose a gaslighter so they suffer consequences or change their behavior.
“(T)hey really need therapy, frankly,” Smith said. “That skill set of creating ambiguity and clouds around them is very transferable. They can go to a new environment and do it again, and they can stick around for two, three, four years because they can’t be held accountable when they do it.”
While mild gaslighting can be problematic, Lynn Taylor, a workplace expert and author of “Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant; How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior & Thrive in
Your Job,” notes that “gaslighting in its truest sense is something that can cause severe mental harm and mental illness.”
If you suspect gaslighting on the job, it’s best that you handle things directly with your colleague, Taylor says. Higher-ups may not be able to pick up on the manipulation you’re experiencing.
“They’re going to be an expert at hiding this dark trait,” Taylor said.
Taylor says managers and supervisors can minimize the likelihood of gaslighting and other forms of harassment by reinforcing that “nobody’s job is safe,” and that bullying won’t be tolerated. “That has to happen by actions not just words,” she said.
The experts say it’s possible to remain in a job where you’re being gaslit, but you must minimize the gaslighter’s impact on you.
“Be very clear about what your end goals are,” Jones said. “Be very clear about what that job represents for you.”
But if your workplace becomes psychologically damaging, the experts recommend starting up your job search.
“(A)n ongoing diet of sorrow at the office is not good for anyone,” Taylor said. “No job is worth losing your mental and physical health over.”
How to cope
If you’re concerned that you may be a victim of office gaslighting, here are some tips to address it:
Taylor recommends stepping back to make sure you’re not overreacting or just dealing with a difficult boss. “Then I would try to look for a pattern. See if this is something that’s been occurring over a long period of time and how frequently it’s happening.”
Do a gut check:
The experts suggest finding confidantes (preferably colleagues) who can objectively assess your work conflicts and tell you if they’re seeing what you see. “You need someone to ... be your grounding source,” Smith said.
Find your work tribe: Encourage clarity:
“Gaslighters cannot gaslight if you’re driving clarity,” Smith said. Ask for instructions in writing, follow up on meetings and conversations with email recaps, and whenever possible, keep a record of what your boss or colleague says. “Over-communicate … you don’t want to sound like you’re documenting anything for legal reasons … but it’s legitimate to ask for verbal instructions by email for clarity,” Taylor said.
Pursue work-life balance:
Jones recommends having an escape from work so you can avoid becoming too emotionally invested in a toxic situation. “(Have) something outside of work … you can look forward to ... so that you can have some balance and you don’t get too caught up in that,” she said.
Check in with yourself:
Jones suggests practicing mindfulness by periodically gauging how your work situation affects you emotionally. “You do have to be able to check in with yourself … ‘Am I OK?’ ” Jones said. “‘How does this job, or this person or this space cause me to feel? What’s going on with me right now that’s causing me to feel the way that I’m feeling right now?’ ”