You may be familiar with the word gaslighting, although it’s not a mainstream topic of conversation.
It’s a term that was introduced in the 1944 movie “Gaslight,” and refers to a manipulative tactic used to gain control over another person. In the movie, a man manipulates his wife to the point that she believes she’s going insane.
How could this happen? It starts off small — and then escalates over time. In close relationships, for example, one partner may convince the other that they’re overreacting. The more the first partner gets away with this, the more things go into a downward spiral.
Gaslighting is a common technique of narcissists, abusers, dictators and cult leaders. It begins slowly, so the victim doesn’t realize he or she is being brainwashed.
According to psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, there are patterns of behaviors used by gaslighters, as outlined in the examples below. Sarkis is the author of the book “Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People — and Break Free.”
- They deny they ever said something, even though you have proof. “You know you heard them say they would do something,” Sarkis explains. “But they out and out deny it — and point the finger at you. It makes you start to question situations. Maybe they didn’t say that. The more they do this, the more you question yourself.”
- Their actions don’t match their words. Look at what they’re doing, rather than what they’re saying. Talk is cheap, and words don’t matter to them.
- They use what is near and dear to you as ammunition. Going after your kids, your relatives, your friends and your career — it’s all fair game to them, says Sarkis. The more they can push your buttons, the better.
- They know confusion weakens people. “Gaslighters know that people like a sense of stability and normalcy,” explains Sarkis. “Their goal is to uproot this — and make you constantly question everything.”
They throw in positive reinforcement to confuse you. This person who is cutting you down — and telling you that you don’t have value — is now praising you. And you may think, “Well maybe they aren’t so bad.” Yes they are, Sarkis warns. This is a calculated attempt to keep you off-kilter.
- They try to turn people against you. “Gaslighters are masters at finding people they know will stand by them no matter what — and they use these people against you,” says Sarkis. “You may hear that ‘this person knows you’re not right,’ or ‘this person knows you’re useless, too.’” Isolation gives the gaslighter more control. You start to wonder who you can turn to. By slowly convincing you everyone else (your family, friends and coworkers) can’t be trusted, it again makes you question your reality. “You’ve never known someone with the audacity to do this,” says Sarkis, “so they must be telling the truth, right? No. It’s a manipulation technique that causes people to turn to the gaslighter for the ‘correct’ information.”
They tell you and others you are crazy. “This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter,” continues Sarkis. “The gaslighter knows if they question your sanity, others won’t believe you when you say the gaslighter is out of control. It’s a master technique.”
- They wear you down over time. A lie here, a snide comment every so often
- and then it starts ramping up. “Even the brightest, most self-aware people can get sucked into gaslighting,” says Sarkis. “It’s the ‘frog in the frying pan’ analogy. The heat is turned up slowly, so the frog never realizes what’s happening to it.”
As you can see, a gaslit web can be spun convincingly. The more one is aware of these techniques, the quicker they can be identified. And the greater the chances of breaking free from the dangerous web.
Gaslighting at work
“In a relationship context, it’s easy to see how someone might get away with gaslighting behavior,” says career coach and writer Elaine in her Medium magazine article, “I Didn’t Think Gaslighting at Work Was A Thing Until It Happened to Me.” “We’re probably all familiar with how the concept of love can confuse and diffuse us, especially when our abuser is also someone we love — and who claims to love us.”
So, what does gaslighting at work look like? Here are some behaviors that raise red flags, as identified by career coach Elaine:
- Asking personal questions in a friendly way to get to know you — and then using the information against you at a later time.
- Gossiping with you about other team members or bosses, and then using your comments as ammunition.
- Taking zero accountability.
- Telling lies and then making you feel it was your fault they had to lie.
- Asking for your “honest” opinion on projects and agreeing with you, and then turning around and throwing you under the bus at a meeting.
- Leaving you feeling that you’re incompetent.
How can you survive gaslighting at work?
While gaslighting is a form of harassment, career coach Elaine explains that HR policies haven’t quite caught up with this one yet. And it can be difficult to prove. She recommends the following tactics for dealing with gaslighting in the workplace:
- Document every experience.
- Avoid informal meetings. Include at least one other colleague if you can.
- Don’t gossip or discuss personal matters.
- Establish — and keep — strong boundaries.
- Keep your communications in writing, for the most part.
Who knew a movie that came out in 1944 would still be relevant with today’s personal and professional relationships? Let’s keep shining the spotlight on gaslighting.