Are You Being Gaslighted at Work? Here's What to Do About This Dangerous Form of Abuse
Gaslighters create their own reality. Within this twisted world, they’re always right, and their opponent—anyone they decide they want to dominate, basically—is wrong, misguided, and uninformed. The goal of a gaslighter is to deceive and obfuscate to gain power over you. Dating a gaslighter is challenging. But so too is having one as your supervisor or coworker.
This form of workplace harassment may be more common than you think. “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,” says Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, author of Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People—and Break Free.
Gaslighters are often very smart, concurs Connecticut-based psychotherapist Dori Gatter, PsyD. Their intellect, combined with their inability to handle negative feedback, means they often assume positions of authority in the workplace. “More often than not, they’ll either be an entrepreneur or in some position of power—that’s where they’re much more comfortable,” says Gatter.
Working for a boss with gaslighting tendencies or having a gaslighting coworker with authority over you can diminish your confidence and leave you feeling paranoid and off-kilter—not just during work hours but around the clock, so the abuse cuts into your personal life. Getting a new job is an option, but it’s not your only recourse. Here’s what the experts we spoke with recommend.
Make sure it really is gaslighting
A tough manager who is hard to please is one thing; they might quibble with a report you turned in but then give you the feedback and time to get it right. A manager who is a gaslighter is another, and there's a way to tell the difference.
Sarkis says a gaslighter doesn't really want you to succeed at all and will sabotage your efforts. They might change due dates and deadlines in the middle of a project, leaving you pulling all nighters to get it done. They might undermine your efforts with comments about how you don't know what your doing...making you doubt your own expertise.
Extreme gaslighters might even say disparaging things or touch you inappropriately, then deny it happened, claim it was an accident, or call you a liar when you confront them, says Sarkis. Remember, gaslighters try to bend reality to make their version of events the only true one. They cross lines most of us wouldn't, which is how they get away with their harassment.
“Gaslighters are going to communicate that they know more, that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and that you’re confused and uninformed,” she says.
Once you're sure it really is gaslighting, start documenting every email, memo, and other evidence proving what's going on. Don’t trust your memory. Keep a record of every interaction where gaslighting occurs, including dates and times, says Sarkis. “Do not keep this information on a work-issued device, as your company may have access to that information and will take the device upon you quitting,” she advises.
Tracking the gaslighting accomplishes two important goals. First, it helps you confirm to yourself the severity of the situation. In some cases, you may be able to live with your supervisor's behavior or develop workarounds that allow you to still do your job. If not, documentation is also invaluable if you decide to get higher ups or human resources involved.
A verbal account isn’t compelling to HR folks and high-level supervisors, and it also tends to give your boss an advantage, says Gatter. “Gaslighters will talk their way out of a bag,” she explains. Digital or paper proof, however, lays out your case.
Ask colleagues if it's happening to them, too
Sometimes a gaslighter at work will focus their abuse on one employee. But often they see many people in their path to power, and they gaslight them as well. So do a little intel. How does your boss interact with the other people on your team? If coworkers say that they also receive similar treatment, ask them if they’re willing to document the gaslighting behavior they have to deal with, suggests Gatter. That way, it won’t be just you making a complaint. Remember, there's strength in numbers.
RELATED: How to Break Up With a Gaslighter
Schedule a one-on-one with the gaslighter
After reviewing all your evidence, schedule time to meet with your boss. Be direct and firm, sharing how you feel and asking how you two can form a better working relationship. Try to avoid accusations and a confrontational tone, because if there's one thing that sets of a gaslighter, it's critical, negative feedback.
“If they truly have gaslighting tendencies, they’re probably not going to hear you and will throw that back at you that whatever you tell them is really your fault,” warns Gatter.
Document your conversation as well, even via handwritten notes. It’s possible, although unlikely, that your conversation will lead to changed behavior. Mostly, this interaction is necessary office politics, says Gatter. When you meet with the gaslighter’s supervisor or human resources, you’ll be able to show that you tried to address the problem on your own.
Go to HR or other higher-ups
Check your employee manual to see if your office has a policy on handling complaints about a manager, recommends Sarkis. If there is no official policy, reach out to HR or the gaslighter’s supervisor to share your experience.
You can’t necessarily predict how the company will respond. A best-case scenario would result in your manager backing off, and you resume doing your job the way you always did (and regain your mental health as well). The company could opt to transfer you so you have a different manager. Unfortunately, it’s also possible that the company won’t support you.
In that case, says Gatter, it may make the most sense to seek out another job rather than return to the same situation and endure the anxiety, depression, and other mental anguish caused by a gaslighter. “It’s not fair that you need to leave, but what is it costing you to stay?” asks Sarkis. If you find yourself in this position, weigh your options carefully. The toll a gaslighter takes on your health may justify handing in your resignation.