Although more commonly known for its role in personal relationships, gaslighting at work is a real thing — and it’s a form of workplace harassment and bullying.
But it often happens so slowly, insidiously, and inconspicuously, the victim never notices until it’s too late. It’s like the boiling frog fable — being slowly boiled alive.
What is gaslighting?
According to Stephanie A. Sarkis Ph.D., gaslighting is a tactic where someone makes the victim question their reality, usually with the purpose of gaining power.
Gaslighters are not typical bullies who make your life miserable by harassing you outright. Instead, gaslighters make you undermine your own judgment, eroding your self-esteem over time.
Some of them may manipulate you by telling lies that shake your confidence. But expert ones do this so subtly — not even resorting to unkind words — you’ll never dare to think they’re mistreating you.
Anyone can be a victim
Recently, my friend Avi* confided in me about a gaslighting experience she had a few months ago. I balked. Why didn’t she tell me earlier? (Answer: She was ashamed and wasn’t ready to relive the hurt.)
She had experienced a very subtle form of gaslighting at work — the work of a master gaslighter. She didn’t even know what gaslighting was (never heard of the term!) and she found it unbelievable that someone would want to manipulate her.
If you’re not ambitious, you’re not getting in the way of anyone’s success, so you would never get dragged into office politics, right? WRONG.
From your perspective, you may be no threat, but people capable of gaslighting are a whole different species. You won’t know what they’re thinking.
They use your inherent self-doubt to bring you down
It started when Brea*, a new hire of the same rank as Avi — but with better qualification and relevant experience at a larger company — joined the organization. Although clearly ambitious, Brea made lots of friends. Everybody seemed to love her.
But when alone with Avi, Brea liked to flaunt her experience, question Avi’s work, and make snide comments like “Wow, how can you not look at this metric? It’s like, super important.”
Although leading a small team, Avi’s job was relatively new to her, so the stage was already primed with a little self-doubt. But soon, she found herself doubting her abilities more than ever, and her confidence hit rock-bottom.
When you’re being gaslighted, your thought process might go like this: If everybody likes her, then the problem must be me. Maybe I’m really incompetent. After all, she is better qualified and liked by everyone. Why would she need to step on me to get ahead?
They align others against you and thrive on your isolation
When Avi went on maternity leave, Brea covered her duties. But when Avi returned, she found that Brea had no intention to let Avi go back to leading her team.
Even when their boss explicitly put both of them in charge, Brea went ahead to arrange meetings with Avi’s team without informing her — even holding one at a place she knew Avi takes her lunch every single day. Needless to say, it was extremely awkward for Avi. Avi felt small and humiliated, but didn’t dare confide in anyone.
When you’ve been isolated by a gaslighter, it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping quiet, because you may be afraid that others might blame it on your own incompetence and turn against you instead.
How can you protect yourself?
Gaslighting is a mind game, so much of what you can do about it is in the mind, too.
If you see yourself mirrored in parts of Avi’s story, take heart. Recognizing the situation you’re in is the first and most important step.
Surround yourself with people who love you (we’re not just talking about coworkers), and remind yourself often of what you’re good at. This will protect you against any self-doubt that gaslighters are trying to instill in you.
Where possible, only use written means of communications with a potential gaslighter, so you have tangible proof to refer to in times of doubt. If you really need to have a face-to-face discussion, having another (preferably trusted) coworker sit in can help save your sanity.
So how did it turn out for Avi?
Eventually, she got out of the situation when another coworker fell prey to some of Brea’s antics. They started exchanging notes, and once she knew what Brea was up to, the spell was broken — it just doesn’t have a hold on her anymore.
* Names changed for privacy