There might be affiliate links on this page, which means we get a small commission of anything you buy. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. Please do your own research before making any online purchase.
Ever trust a colleague, only to have them mislead you and leave you wondering whether your mind is playing tricks on you? I’ve been there. One of my bosses promised me a position, had me do all the extra work to get the promotion, only to be called to his office in a group meeting and told (in front of everyone) that I didn’t have the qualifications for the job.
I was left heartbroken, ashamed, and confused. He’d known what my qualifications were, so why did he then “groom” me for the promotion when he knew I couldn’t get it? Had I misunderstood? Was I just not good enough, or did he perhaps change his mind due to some other reason I just didn’t know?
I was gaslighted. It hurts, leaves you questioning your sanity, and can cause you to lose all faith in your colleagues and boss. Do you know what the signs are to watch out for that you’re being gaslighted by a colleague or boss?
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting is when someone uses events, clever phrasing, and manipulation to turn your memory and mental faculties against you. The gaslighter leaves you questioning yourself, your sanity, and your value as a human being.
The term “gaslighted” was first coined after the classic play by Patrick Hamilton in the late 1930s. The play was made into a black and white film thriller, where the husband (Gregory) convinces his wife (Paula) that she’s losing her mind by turning on the gas light of the oven behind her back (among other devious things).
Today, psychologists use “gaslighting” to describe someone who is manipulative and uses words, actions, and situations to convince their victim they are less than they believe, that they are losing their mind, and can’t trust themselves.
The payoff to the gaslighting person is that they gain power and control over the person they are manipulating.
It’s quite easy to realize then that gaslighting is a method that appeals to narcissists (and psychopaths) who thrive on manipulating and degrading their victims. But gaslighting is not always a planned methodical journey by a nefarious villain against an innocent victim.
It can also happen subconsciously, when someone tries to outshine their rival in the pecking order of careers or on the rungs of society by gaslighting them.
The Cost of Gaslighting to Your Psyche
Aside from the fact that I didn’t get the promotion I had worked so hard for, and was then made to feel like it was my fault for not getting it and that I’d somehow misunderstood the boss, I hit a serious depression.
Suffering gaslighting at work is one of the worst ways to be manipulated. It turns your mind against you, leaving you filled with self-doubt, and defenseless against other outside attacks.
Following my gaslighting experience, my confidence hit zero. I struggled to do basic tasks at work, and every colleague who mentioned that I was so talented left me filled with doubt and suspicion.
I became bitter and angry. Resenting the treatment from my boss, feeling like a fool, and no longer wanting to even go to work in the morning, I decided to resign. Fortunately, I was able to create a different career path for myself.
However, the damage has been extensive, and to this day, I still doubt it when someone offers to help me. Can I trust them? Is my mind playing tricks on me (again?)?
Other effects of gaslighting on your psyche include:
Being gaslighted can leave you jumpy in social settings and in the work environment. You become nervous and anxious in new situations, while familiar situations also leave you feeling unsettled.
Filled with anxiety, you begin to experience serious symptoms such as being triggered by sudden sounds, movements, facial expressions, sudden laughter, and paranoia sets in. Paranoia makes you doubt everyone around you, and you doubt yourself and your ability to handle situations.
No longer able to count on yourself, you question everything and feel lacking and not up to even simple tasks. With continued manipulation, you start to develop a low self-esteem and withdraw from anything that challenges you even slightly.
You will begin to doubt yourself in all aspects of your life when you’ve been the victim of gaslighting. Since gaslighting is rarely a single incident, you will feel mentally unsettled, worthless, and weak. Not really understanding what happened or why, you are filled with doubt that eats at your psyche.
When your idea of who you are and what you’re capable of is challenged and broken down, you will feel totally lost. Which way now? If I can’t even do this, then what’s the point of anything? If you look in the mirror, you have a sense of not knowing yourself anymore.
The unease that is left behind after being gaslighted is perhaps one of the most lasting effects. You don’t feel safe with other people, and you also don’t feel safe with yourself. Who do you trust now?
Why Do People Become Gaslighters?
Gaslighting appeals to those who naturally want to be better than others. It’s a communication method that breaks down competition at work, and it takes power from others and gives it to the gaslighter.
Personality types like narcissists and psychopaths tend to naturally use gaslighting methods to achieve their plans.
Reasons for Gaslighting
The reasons why someone may turn to gaslighting in life and at work all boils down to two main causes. First, the gaslighter is possibly trying to get control of someone or a situation.
It could be that the person they are gaslighting is a professional threat to them or competition for a promotion at work.
The second reason that someone turns to gaslighting as their problem-solving method can also be because they were themselves raised by narcissists or gaslighters, so manipulation comes as second nature to them.
Typical Gaslighting Phrases at Work
Gaslighting is a whole involved process where you are carefully manipulated into a position that leaves you vulnerable and questioning yourself until your grasp on reality slips and you’re hanging by your fingertips.
There are a few key phrases that gaslighters may turn to when they “flip the switch” on your sanity.
“What are you talking about? Stop being crazy.”
“Can’t you see how hard I’m working to ensure you have all the tools you need to succeed?”
“I didn’t insult you or your race, as I’m a firm believer in equality.”
“Can’t you understand how you are overreacting? Stop being so sensitive.”
“It never happened like that.”
“People are talking about how you’ve lost your marbles already.”
“You look so upset and worked up.”
“It’s not personal, but…”
“It’s sad that you feel that way.”
“It’s a joke! Don’t take everything so seriously all the time.”
5 Signs You’re Being Gaslighted at Work
When you know what the signs are that someone is gaslighting you at work, you can prepare for and also deal with the negative effects of being the victim of gaslighting.
Here are some of the main signs that indicate you are being targeted by a gaslighter.
1. Obvious Lies
A boss who tells lies that are easy to spot can make you feel like you are losing your grasp on reality as you will not want to believe your boss is dishonest and a liar. The result of not wanting to challenge your boss’ lies is that you will begin to feel out of place.
Example: A boss who tells you that you’re approved for the promotion on Friday, but when you rock up to work on Monday, your boss claims to know nothing about the promotion.
2. The Promises Are Missing
When your colleague or superior promises to do something, but when it comes to delivery, they claim you said you’d do it. The gaslighters will also convince you that you had first said they should do it, but then you changed your mind and said you’d do it.
Example: Your boss says he’ll bring the keys to the new boardroom to you on Monday before the meeting, but on Monday, colleagues show up for the meeting only to find the doors still locked.
When you ask him if he remembered to bring the keys, he says that he gave them to you on Friday. Only later, may he say that he actually forgot the keys at home but that you should have reminded him to bring them.
3. Ugly Comments Are Easily Denied
A gaslighting boss will use social pleasantries to hide derogatory remarks regarding gender or race. Your boss may remark that women can’t succeed in business, but then smile and wink at you as if they are trying to tease you.
Example: Your colleague remarks on another colleague’s race or ethnicity. Their remarks are not kind, but when you frown or show your disapproval, they tell you not to be so serious and not twist things out of place.
4. Challenging Them Leads to Recrimination
If you are self-aware, you may pick up on a gaslighting strategy or moment. You may even be brave enough to challenge the gaslighter about their manipulation and communication strategy.
However, the gaslighter simply throws the challenge back in your face by saying something like, “You are so sensitive. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”
Example: You call out your boss on their chauvinistic behavior, but instead of apologizing, your boss tells you that you are too sensitive, that you need to stop riding the feminist train, and that you need to rather focus on work and not chase up ghosts.
5. Mixing Praise with Criticism
A big sign of a gaslighting boss or colleague is when they praise you on some days, really slathering your day with over-the-top gratitude and lauding. On other days, you are criticized and broken down for a supposed flaw.
It’s a clever technique that helps the gaslighter control the situation and keeps their victim locked in place. If someone was mean to you, you’d walk away, right? So, by also being nice, they confuse you more and dissolve your resolve to leave.
Example: Your boss raked you over the coals for not having the client folders ready, but the next day, when you submit the folders early, he lauds you for being the most conscientious employee and tells you that others could learn from you. You are confused: Does he like and value you, or not?
Combating Gaslighting at Work
So what do you do when a colleague or your supervisor begins to gaslight you? If you are brave enough to face it head-on, what do you do to survive the manipulation?
A gaslighter is constantly trying to alienate you from others, who may turn you against the gaslighter. The only remedy is to then work on making strong connections with colleagues who are honest and will give you an outside perspective when you feel like your mind is slipping.
The problem is you may not be able to trust your own judgment on who to trust, looping back into the self-doubt that the gaslighter has created in you. What you can trust are facts.
Keep a record of everything, write down all decisions made on the date made, and keep a record of your daily experiences in a journal.
Keep copies of any important documentation that the gaslighter may magically cause to disappear or that they can throw away. With a gaslighter, it’s a case of covering your own butt at all times.
Not only do these documents and facts help you prove what really happened, but these also help you keep your mind on track and avoid the mental fog that comes from being near a gaslighter. Perhaps it’s time to leave when you realize your work environment has become toxic.
Final Thoughts on Gaslighting at Work
Gaslighting at work can be a real challenge. While competition is normal, you shouldn’t resort to breaking down your opponent and causing lasting psychological harm.
Ensure you keep track of things at work, writing down dates, and tracking decisions reached so you can verify things when your mind feels wobbly. As mentioned, the gaslighter often has nothing against you personally.
Instead, it is a narcissistic tendency within them. For more information on narcissism, read our article on narcissism in the relationship world.