Gaslighting at work: Examples, signs, and how to deal with it
Last updated on: May 9, 2023
Have you ever felt that someone is deliberately trying to make you question your own version of events by presenting a completely different one?
Maybe they even called you “too sensitive” or accused you of overreacting?
If this sounds familiar to you, maybe you’ve fallen victim to gaslighting. However, it might comfort you to know you’re not the only one.
Did you know that “gaslighting” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the year 2022?
Aside from that, “gaslighting” saw an amazing 1,740% increase in lookups in 2022 compared with 2021. This is evidence of our society’s increasing awareness and interest in this topic.
But, why the sudden explosion of global interest in this word?
It soothes us when we can name the phenomenon that’s bugging us. It also makes it easier for us to battle it and find other people who went through something similar.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss all of that, and more, including:
- What gaslighting (at work) is,
- Examples of gaslighting,
- Common gaslighting phrases (and how to respond to them),
- How to recognize whether you’re being gasligthed,
- Effects of gaslighting,
- What the end goal of a gaslighter is, and
- How to shut down gaslighting.
Let’s get to it!
What is gaslighting?
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation when someone is deliberately twisting reality to make you doubt your own perception of events, as well as your sanity. In other words, a gaslighter is trying to make you feel like you’re going crazy.
The very term comes from a 1938 play called Gas Light by Patrick Hamilton. It was later made into a film of the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. In both the play and the movie, the husband is, unbeknownst to his wife, dimming the gas lights in their house and convincing her that she’s imagining that. Consequently, he’s making her question her sanity.
This psychological phenomenon, although not yet officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, causes serious problems to a “gaslightee” and is usually connected to common disorders, such as narcissistic personality disorder.
The gaslighter can be your romantic partner, a friend, a family member, a boss, or anyone in a position of power.
So, let’s see what gaslighting at work means and looks like.
What is gaslighting at work?
As we mentioned, gaslighting is not restricted to personal relationships — it happens at work as well. When it does, the perpetrator can be a coworker or a manager. Usually, the gaslighter abuses their power in an attempt to control someone or a situation.
Although the method and the result are the same — the gaslighter convinces us our version of reality is neither true nor objective, which leads us to question whether we’re going crazy — the consequences of gaslighting in our private lives and in the workplace differ.
Namely, when speaking about gaslighting in a romantic relationship, our relationship with our partner is at risk.
However, in the workplace, aside from the person being gaslighted, there is another victim of this sort of psychological manipulation — the organization and the business itself.
When speaking about people who can gaslight us at work, anyone can do it, including:
- A toxic manager,
- A scheming colleague,
- A discriminatory workgroup,
- A dissatisfied client, or
- A business rival.
Now that we’ve covered this main distinction, one question arises: Is gaslighting at work considered harassment?
Is gaslighting at work harassment?
Although gaslighting is not explicitly covered in harassment policies, it is a type of workplace bullying, and there are laws that protect you against a hostile work environment.
Your company probably has an internal policy available to you, with detailed instructions on what to do in case you’re being harassed.
The laws differ from country to country, but wherever you are, there’s sure to be some sort of protection against this kind of toxic workplace practices.
For instance, in her book Gaslighting: Recognize Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free, Stephanie Sarkis states the following:
“In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects you from workplace discrimination based on:
- Culture, and
- National origin.”
It’s paramount that you know your rights, so you can protect yourself from all sorts of bullying in the workplace. If the worst comes to the worst, you’ll be relieved to know there is a legal remedy for your situation. After you press charges against the gaslighter, it’s on them to prove their innocence.
However, Stephanie Sarkis adds:
“Gaslighters can be very subtle in their harassment — just enough to get to you but not quite enough to prove. Many harassment cases end up coming down to a ‘he said, she said’ situation, one person’s word against the other. For that reason, and concerns about retaliation, many cases of harassment are never even filed, let alone resolved.”
In other words, in this case, justice might be more elusive than usually.
5 Examples of gaslighting at work
Now that we know what gaslighting — both at work and in private life — is, it’s time we give you some examples, to avoid any confusion.
Example #1: Lying about what happened
This might be the most common gaslighting example in the workplace — and the one that hits hard. It really makes you question your sanity.
In the Pumble example below, Nora is faced with her boss Katie gaslighting her.
Namely, Nora has given Katie a project proposal on Monday and is looking forward to Katie’s feedback.
However, Katie is denying getting anything from Nora, which leads Nora to feel perplexed and doubt her own reality.
Example #2: Accusing you of mistakes you didn’t make
Another example of gaslighting is when your gaslighter accuses you of something you didn’t do. This can also be stressful and nerve-wracking, because you, and hopefully the rest of the team, know that what your gaslighter is accusing you of isn’t true.
In the Pumble example below, Nora is accusing Alice that she forgot to invite a business partner of theirs to their annual company party.
Luckily, Alice has the courage to advocate for herself and say how things really are.
Example #3: Saying one thing and doing another
Rose is a manager in a digital marketing agency. She’s reminding her coworkers that tardiness is unacceptable. No excuses!
So, where’s the problem here?
This is all nice and well, but the trouble is, Rose herself is so often late.
When her coworkers confronted her about that, she got offended and responded: “Can’t you see how hard I work?! I think I deserve a little break! So what if I’m late every now and then? I more than make up for it with my tough grind!”
Again, this type of behavior and double standards leave Rose’s colleagues questioning their perception.
Example #4: Pretending to be helpful
Another example of gaslighting at work is when the gaslighter is pretending to be helpful, as we can see in this Pumble example.
Namely, Alice is curious about when Nora will review her latest report. Every time she asks about it, Nora tells her she’s working on it and it’s almost done.
The annoying truth is that Nora is just pretending to be helpful, when in reality she’s not doing anything with the report itself.
In other words, she’s gaslighting Alice, leaving her doubting her perception of reality.
Example #5: Refusing to listen to any concerns
If you have ever felt like your colleague is discarding your concerns by telling you you’re too sensitive, maybe you’ve experienced gaslighting firsthand.
Let’s take a look at our Pumble example.
Katie is voicing her concerns about inappropriate jokes in the workplace. Instead of acknowledging them, Nora dismisses Katie’s concerns and accuses Katie of being too sensitive about them.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
Inappropriate language can hurt your coworkers, so think twice before you say something. If you’re not familiar with microaggressions, now is the perfect time to read our blog post on that topic and learn something new:
What are common gaslighting phrases (and how to respond to them)?
Gaslighters use phrases that invalidate your feelings and make you question your sense of reality. Although these statements may sound discouraging, there are ways to respond to them and stand up for yourself.
So, if you’re still unsure whether you can recognize gaslighting, we bring you some common gaslighting phrases that you’re bound to hear from a gaslighter, as well as some useful phrases for responding to a gaslighter.
|Common gaslighting phrases||Useful phrases for responding to a gaslighter|
|“I didn’t mean anything by it. Stop making such a big deal out of it. You’re being dramatic!”||“I am allowed to explore these topics and conversations with you. Do not tell me I am being dramatic.”|
|“You’re too sensitive.”||“My feelings and reality are valid. I don’t appreciate you telling me that I am being too sensitive.”|
|“You’re imagining things. That’s not how it happened.”||“I know what I saw. Don’t try to convince me of something I know it’s not true.”|
|“Your memory seems to be slipping.”||“My memory is perfectly fine, thank you. I know you’re trying to make me question my sanity, but it’s not going to work.”|
|“I never said that! You’re misinterpreting everything.”||“I know what you said. Don’t try to convince me of something I know it’s not true.”|
|“You’re reading too much into this. It’s not that big of a deal. You’re overreacting.”||“I will not continue this conversation if you continue to minimize what I am feeling.”|
|“You need to calm down. There’s no reason to get so upset about this.”||“Don’t tell me how to feel. This is how I feel.”|
|“I was only joking.”||“I know what I saw. Stop pretending you were only joking.”|
Still, just because someone uses these phrases, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are gaslighting you. Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out where innocent remarks end and gaslighting begins.
So, to make double sure whether you’re being gaslighted, in the following paragraphs, we bring you the most common signs of gaslighting.
How do I know if I’m being gaslighted?
Gaslighting is a subtle process, usually developing gradually. That’s why it’s so hard to realize whether you’re being gaslighted or not.
So, to help you recognize gaslighting in the workplace, we bring you the most common signs that point to it.
Sign #1: You hear constant negative accounts of your work performance
Receiving constructive feedback is one thing, but it’s completely another thing when your boss constantly bombs you with negative performance reviews. This lack of healthy feedback could be a sign your boss is gaslighting you.
A contributor of ours, Michael Dadashi, a Therapist, Psychologist & CEO of Infinite Recovery, told us constant negative performance reviews and belittling may be signs of gaslighting:
“It can be difficult to identify [gaslighting in the workplace], but some signs may include:
- Feeling overwhelmed and confused,
- Being constantly criticized or undermined by others, or
- Feeling as though you’re always wrong or bad.”
However, keep in mind that negative feedback can be objective, so try to gauge whether it’s valid. You may even ask your colleagues for a second opinion, just to be sure.
Sign #2: You begin to doubt your own abilities or opinions
Another unpleasant sign you’re being gaslighted is when you start doubting your capabilities and opinions, as Angela Ficken, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker, pointed out:
“Signs [of gaslighting] may include:
- Being consistently made to doubt your own abilities or opinions,
- Having your accomplishments minimized or dismissed,
- Being blamed for problems that are not your fault,
- Feeling like you are constantly on edge, or
- Walking on eggshells around a particular person or group.”
This type of workplace atmosphere creates a sense of uneasiness and confusion among the gaslighted employees.
Sign #3: You find yourself continually doubting your perception of reality
Maybe the most devastating sign that you’re being gaslighted is when you realize you’re constantly doubting your perception of reality.
During our research, we contacted Dr. Robin Stern, a Licensed Psychoanalyst, the Co-founder and Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and the Author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life. She told us about the red flags that might suggest you’re being gaslighted:
“You’re constantly second-guessing yourself. You’re asking yourself a dozen times a day: ‘Am I too sensitive?’ or ‘Am I too critical?’ or ‘Am I too paranoid?’ You often feel confused and crazy in interactions with your boss or your colleague. You feel like you don’t know what’s going on.”
This feeling of self-doubt can be particularly challenging, as it leads to social isolation, as Dr. Stern points out:
“You may feel suddenly socially isolated from the groups that you felt like you used to belong to. Suddenly, you’re always apologizing. You can’t understand why you aren’t happier when in fact you have a good job. You feel burned out, exhausted, depleted. You feel less than the person who took that job to begin with. You don’t recognize yourself in certain situations.”
Another contributor of ours, John Sovec, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, agrees that our uncertainty about our reality is a sure sign we’re being gaslighted:
“We will sense that we are being gaslighted when we begin to feel uncertainty about our reality and begin to believe that there is something wrong with us because a person in power is telling us so. Other symptoms include:
- Feeling dazed and confused,
- Second-guessing oneself, and
- Extreme doubt regarding topics one is usually familiar with.”
This sense of uncertainty is an unmistakable sign we’re being gaslighted.
Sign #4: Your gaslighter belittles your efforts, emotions, or perceptions
If you constantly feel like your employer is playing down your efforts at work, you might be a victim of gaslighting.
Additionally, if your colleague is minimizing your emotions and accusing you of overreacting, this can also be a sign you’re being gaslighted.
Our contributor Craig Miller, a Psychologist and Co-Founder of Academia Labs LLC, stated that a feeling of incompetence, despite the fact that you’re doing a great job, is a potential sign you’re a victim of a gaslighter:
“Being burned out even if you’ve been completing your tasks excellently but still feel incompetent is a good sign [you’re being gaslighted]. It is possible that another coworker is feeding you lies that whatever you are achieving is still lower than expected or that whatever you do, you will not amount to so much in the company. These are some symptoms of being gaslighted at work.”
To put it in another way, your coworkers are likely using manipulative tactics to make you feel you can’t trust your emotions or perceptions.
Sign #5: You’re being excluded from professional activities relevant to or required for your job
Are your colleagues having regular meetings without you? Is that affecting your work? Maybe you feel left out and not in the loop about everything?
If your answer is “Yes”, maybe you should consider who exactly is excluding you from the meetings. If it’s the same person, that might be your gaslighter.
However, you should double-check whether your attendance is needed. Maybe your colleagues are actually saving your time by not inviting you to the meetings your presence is not essential for.
Effects of gaslighting on your mental health
Gaslighting can have detrimental consequences on your mental health. It can cause:
- Lowered self-esteem,
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
- A state of increased alertness — hypervigilance, and even
- Suicidal thoughts.
Our contributor Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, a Licensed Social Worker and the Clinical Director at Absolute Awakenings, confirms the potentially catastrophic effects of gaslighting:
“Gaslighting, may it be at work, in relationships, or from a family member, is a form of psychological abuse that can lead to long-term mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Therefore, it is important to recognize gaslighting at work when it occurs and take the necessary steps to protect yourself and your colleagues from this type of abuse.”
As a subtle and gradual process, gaslighting slowly erodes your self-esteem. In the end, you may even think you deserve the abuse.
What is the end goal of a gaslighter at work?
Our contributors mostly agree about the objectives of a gaslighter.
Dr. Stern stresses the manipulative aspect of gaslighting:
“The gaslighting is a manipulative act that leads the gaslightee to second guess themself. So, the goal is to undermine the reality of that person to control the moment. But, the goal can also be for the gaslighter to regain control of themself in the moment.”
Dr. Stern points out that, when you confront your gaslighter, it destabilizes them, so they need a moment to gather themself. To gain control of the moment, they try to gaslight you. As soon as they make you question your reality, they have the upper hand:
“Yes, the end goal for gaslighters is often about having power and control and keeping the gaslightee dependent. But, it also can be:
- To get themselves off the hook,
- To avoid talking about something and to avoid responsibility,
- To silence the gaslightee or confuse them and
- To ‘right’ themselves — to avoid being off balance, destabilized by a confrontation.“
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho states something similar:
“By creating confusion, doubt, and uncertainty, gaslighters can manipulate their victims into behaving in ways that are advantageous to them. This tactic is designed to make the victim feel as though they are unable or unworthy of succeeding in their workplace, and it can be incredibly damaging for everyone involved.”
Dadashi agrees that the end goal of a gaslighter is to control others by manipulating them into believing false information or feelings:
“This could mean:
- Taking credit for someone’s work,
- Increasing their own power or status at work,
- Getting people to do favors for them, or just
- Creating confusion and chaos.”
Our experts concur that gaining control and power over others is the main mission of a gaslighter at work.
How does a gaslighter react when confronted?
Let’s say you decide to respond to your gaslighter. What kind of reactions can you expect from them?
Will they get defensive or aggressive? Or, will they withdraw?
As Simo Jokic, Talent Acquisition Specialist at CAKE.com, told us, their reaction depends on many factors and the given situation:
“In some cases, a gaslighter can become sarcastic, label us paranoid, say that we are imagining things, that we are nervous, and that they don’t know what is wrong with us.
It is also possible that they withdraw from the confrontation at the moment and continue to passive-aggressively punish us later.”
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho also told us gaslighters don’t take criticism very well:
“They may become more aggressive and attempt to discredit you further in an effort to maintain their sense of power. Some gaslighters may unconsciously behave in a way that is damaging to others, but regardless of their motivations, it is never acceptable to engage in such behavior.”
On the other hand, Miller says gaslighters can even turn everything upside down and present themselves as victims:
“They will become defensive and blame you for misunderstanding them. They will turn the story so they will become the victim and you are the one bullying them. For gaslighters, this is very easy to do as they can spin lies out of the things that truly happened.“
Ficken also thinks gaslighters may try to convince you they’re not the ones to blame:
“When confronted, gaslighters may deny their behavior, deflect blame onto others, minimize the impact of their actions, or even escalate their gaslighting tactics to further undermine the person confronting them. They may also try to manipulate the situation by making the person facing them feel guilty, paranoid, or irrational.”
Not surprisingly, gaslighters are unlikely to admit to their wrongdoing.
How do you shut down gaslighting?
Although gaslighting in the workplace is a serious and sinister problem, experiencing it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. There are ways of fighting this type of manipulation.
We bring you 7 tips that will help you do just that.
Tip #1: Confirm that it actually is gaslighting
We already mentioned that it’s not so easy to recognize gaslighting — that’s exactly what makes this phenomenon so hard to battle.
So, before anything else, confirm that what you’re actually dealing with is gaslighting, and not (just) a rude colleague or manager.
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho also highlights the importance of recognizing the signs of gaslighting:
“Knowing and recognizing the signs of gaslighting is a great first step in identifying and responding to this type of manipulative behavior. When you are able to recognize it, you can take action to protect yourself from further harm.”
It might be beneficial to talk to your coworkers, friends, or family members about the situations involving your gaslighter. Ask for their perspective, just to be sure you know what you’re dealing with.
Tip #2: Write everything down to sort out truth from distortion
The most surefire way to distinguish between reality and your gaslighter’s version of reality is to write everything down. That’s exactly what Dr. Stern suggests as an efficient step in “turning off the gas on your gaslighter”:
“Write everything down. Take somebody with you to the meeting if you can. Make sure you record every conversation by saying to your gaslighter upfront: ‘After the meeting, I’m gonna send you an email just confirming what we talked about.’
Make sure that you are writing everything down, and that it is in alignment with workplace protocols.”
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho also suggests speaking up and not being afraid to call out the gaslighter on their behavior:
“The best way to handle a gaslighter is to remain confident, stay firm, and be direct in your communication. You can try to document their behavior in writing to serve as a record of what happened, making it difficult for the gaslighter to deny or mischaracterize their behavior.”
After all, paper remembers better than people.
Tip #3: Ask your colleagues for a second opinion
Another useful tip Dr. Robin Stern gave us is to check with our colleagues when we’re unsure of what’s going on.
“Check it out with your friends: ‘I see it this way. I’m a little unsure. I’m trying to sort things out for myself. What do you think?’”
She also advises us to check in with our stomach, our head, and our sense of ease, to ask ourselves “Does it feel right?”.
However, she adds that the problem with this gut feeling is that we might not believe our own perceptions and emotions:
“Sometimes that can be difficult because you may be in a stage of gaslighting where you actually do begin to think you’re crazy. In this situation, it’s beneficial to connect with people outside the problematic relationship, to build a little bit of life for yourself where you’re making decisions and feeling good about them.”
In other words, checking with trusted people whether you’re remembering something wrongly can be an effective way to regain trust in yourself.
Tip #4: Get out of the conversation that is a power struggle
Dr. Stern also highlights that we should try to recognize whether the conversation is a power struggle — when two or more people compete for gaining control and influence. If it is, it’s better to opt out of it.
Namely, gaslighting can be pretty misleading, so you might not even know what the conversation is about.
Dr. Stern explains that your gaslighter might even say something truthful, just to further confuse you and make you question your reality:
“Be aware that your gaslighter may say something that has just enough truth in it to keep you going. For instance: ‘You’re so sensitive!’ Well, you are sensitive, but that doesn’t abolish your gaslighter from taking responsibility for their actions. However, it might lead to you missing the fact that they just deflected the conversation back to you. If you get stuck on the fact that is true — that you are sensitive — you’re letting your gaslighter gain power and turn the conversation into a power struggle. Again, it’s really important to not get into the power struggle.”
Tip #5: Distance yourself from the gaslighter
If you find that confronting your gaslighter is too emotionally exhausting and/or yielding no results, it’s best if you could distance yourself from your gaslighter, as Simo Jokic advises:
“My opinion is that, circumstances permitting, the best solution to this problem is to absolutely distance yourself from and ignore the gaslighter. In the long run, this solution is the most painless and effective.
However, if the circumstances in the work environment are such that we are not in a situation to immediately leave this relationship, there are several things that can serve us.
We can try to reduce the relationship with that person to a minimum and distance ourselves emotionally, so that the communication is strictly business and concise, to narrow their room for maneuver to get closer to us and influence us.”
Dr. Stern even advises what phrase we should use to end the toxic conversation with our gaslighter:
“If you have a gaslighter who is going to be contemptuous and dripping with sarcasm or criticize you or start screaming at you because you’re confronting them about something you don’t like, it’s wiser not to go further. In that case, setting limits is the way to go. You can use clear statements, such as: ‘I’m not gonna continue the conversation until you decide to talk without being sarcastic.’”
Setting healthy boundaries and saying “No” to your gaslighter helps you regain your ground and save yourself from a toxic interaction.
💡 Pumble Pro Tip
If you need help communicating with difficult people at work, we have just the blog post for you:
Tip #6: Go to the HR department
Sometimes, when you can’t find the solution to your problem by yourself, you need to call for a backup. In this case, your HR department can help you deal with your gaslighter.
Even better, you might want to talk to your colleagues first and see if anyone has similar problems with your gaslighter, as Jokic suggests:
“If someone gaslights us, there is a high chance that they are doing it to someone else in the organization, so you can subtly check it. If you confirm the suspicion, you can agree to inform the HR department together.
Keep in mind that you can always contact HR independently, especially if you have evidence that you are a victim of a gaslighter.
A good solution is to organize a conversation with HR and the gaslighter, to discuss the events and the relationship. This way, the gaslighter would become aware that they are no longer under cover and that they must bear the consequences for their behavior.”
So, talk to your colleagues about this type of behavior and, if necessary, go to your HR department for help.
Tip #7: Consider speaking to a mental health professional
We already mentioned that gaslighting creates a negative work environment that affects your mental health. If you’ve already tried everything and you’re still heavily influenced by your gaslighter, maybe it’s time to bring in the big guns.
Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho suggests that you speak to a mental health professional:
“Consider speaking to a mental health professional if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or anxious due to the gaslighting. Navigating a toxic work environment can take a toll on mental health, so seeking professional help to process your emotions and provide additional coping strategies is an important step in protecting yourself. Through therapy, you can learn the tools that help to build your self-esteem and empower yourself in dealing with gaslighting.”
Remember, there’s only so much you can do. Sometimes, gaslighters are too big a challenge for one person, and you simply need an expert’s help.
Conclusion: Turning off the gas on your gaslighter is challenging but feasible
The most detrimental aspect of gaslighting is the fact that it makes you question your sanity. You’re not sure what’s real anymore.
Although it is a form of harassment, the sad truth is, gaslighting is not so easy to prove — usually, it’s your word against your gaslighter’s word.
Still, if you learn to recognize the phrases gaslighters usually use, as well as the proper responses to them, you may find it easier to combat this cunning form of manipulation.
With the help of our experts, we have given you tips on how to shut down gaslighting at work.
However, keep in mind that sometimes this toxic behavior can be too much for you to handle, so you might need the help of a mental health expert. Don’t refrain from seeking professional advice, as your mental health is at stake here.
✉️ What about you? Have you ever experienced gaslighting at work? Do you have any additional tips on how to shut it down?
Share your experience and tips at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may include your answers in this or future posts. And, if you found this blog useful, share it with someone you think would also benefit from it.