The Hill Life: Gaslighting in the Workplace

Dec 14, 2011

Several years ago, I was having a debate with a co-worker about the merits of one of his many unachievable, time consuming, ultimately wasteful ideas for how we could move our business forward.  This time it was the insane notion that buying a tent at Gold Cup and flying in a bunch of Texas cowboys to fill it and party with the local jetset would draw attention to our firm by landing us in the gossip columns.  At one point during the debate, he looked at me with a smirk on his face and said, “You’re flipping out over nothing, and it’s not professional. Calm down.”

The thing is, I wasn’t overreacting.  I was angry that he had, without consulting me, written a check for a non-refundable deposit on a tent that we could not afford.  I was upset that he continued to think that these half-baked schemes would move our business forward when he continued to come to the office at noon and leave at 3:00PM.  And so while I was definitely angry, I was well within my rights to be angry.

Yesterday, a friend forwarded me a HuffPost article by Yashar Ali about gaslighting.  What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals (I am not one) to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.

So if your opposition in an argument can’t win the debate he tells you that you’re “overreacting,” “crazy,” “off base,” or that you need to calm down in order to convince you that you’re the problem.  It’s a brilliant way of deflecting the discussion away from the merits of the argument by shifting your perception until you believe that your behavior is the problem.  Need another example?

My friend Abbie works for a man who finds a way, almost daily, to unnecessarily shoot down her performance and her work product. Comments like, “Can’t you do something right?” or “Why did I hire you?” are regular occurrences for her. Her boss has no problem firing people (he does it regularly), so you wouldn’t know from these comments that Abbie has worked for him for six years. But every time she stands up for herself and says, “It doesn’t help me when you say these things,” she gets the same reaction: “Relax; you’re overreacting.”

Abbie thinks her boss is just being a jerk in these moments, but the truth is, he is making those comments to manipulate her into thinking her reactions are out of whack. And it’s exactly that kind manipulation that has left her feeling guilty about being sensitive, and as a result, she has not left her job.

But gaslighting can be as simple as someone smiling and saying something like, “You’re so sensitive,” to somebody else. Such a comment may seem innocuous enough, but in that moment, the speaker is making a judgment about how someone else should feel.

While I have certainly had this tactic used against me in the past, the question for me becomes: How to discern when a person is gaslighting you vs. when you’re genuinely overreacting–something I’ve also been known to do?

I think determining the difference between gaslighting and overreaction is the toughest thing to do.  It requires you to take a breath and ask yourself, am I reacting appropriately?  How would I feel if I were in his (her) shoes?  But I will say, that if you think a co-worker is gaslighting you the correct thing to do is to defend yourself.  If I had it to do over again, I would have looked at my former co-worker and said:

“Taking $1,500 from the office account without checking with me is not nothing. Booking a venue for an event without checking with me first is not nothing.  Not consulting your business partner before you make serious decisions about to spend the business’s money is not professional.” 

I wouldn’t have even addressed the “calm down” remark because then, I would have given it creedence. 

So have you ever been “gaslighted” in the workplace and how did you respond?  And how can we tell the difference between when we’re being emotionally manipulated and when we’re genuinely in the wrong?


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  1. anon says:

    I get this all the time from my husband. What do I do about it?

  2. Dr. Jean Grey says:

    I think the gaslighting technique is probably even more common in personal relationships. I haven't encountered it, but I can easily recall male friends and colleagues saying disparaging things about their current or former girlfriends like “Oh, she's crazy.” Or, even worse: “She's a psycho.” One male I know (not a former ex, not really a friend) who is horrible to women, meaning he cheats on them, will make plans, not show up and not call type of thing will call any girl a “psycho” when they legitimately get angry when he mistreats them. Funny how all his exes are “psychos.” Of course, it's much easier to just ditch the guy in a personal relationship than when it happens at work. I think Belle is right in responding with a clear and calm statement of what the grievances are and not backing down.

  3. Lexi says:

    I think sitting on it works. Putting time between the confrontation and responding to it gives one time to think. For me, stepping away for even 20-30 minutes allows me to go over the event in my head objectively and decide whether I overreacted or the other person was being manipulative.

  4. T says:

    I agree with Dr. Grey – this kind of “gaslighting” is as common in personal relationships as in the work enviornement or even…volunteer environment. Knowing when to step back and learning how to deal with the “gaslighter” are the key to defusiing it. Honest self-assessment is important for your own professional integrity and paramount to thriving in spite of it.

  5. Karen says:

    It's my dad's favorite thing in the world. At home, we are constantly told to “settle down” and that we are overreacting. If we don't “settle down” then he ends conversations by leaving the room, often while the person on the other half of the discussion is still trying to articulate her point. It's disrespectful and rude, but he's 63 years old. He's not going to change.

    Now that you've got me thinking about it, I've no doubt he's done this at work, too.

  6. CynthiaW says:

    Ugh… I haven't had this done to me at work very often – but the first thing that I thought of was Jean Grey assertion about personal relationships. I know quite a few men and have been in relationships with a few men who use the tactic often – it's the perfect way to change the discussion from his poor behavior to whether or not the woman is overreacting or “being crazy”. Ironically (or perhaps by design), the very comment is likely to make a perfectly rational woman actually start acting crazy.

  7. B says:

    My husband does this. Intentionally, or unintentionally, I have no idea. I've not had it happen to me at work, but I would probably respond in the same way I have learned to at home. If I know I am overreacting (Because, let's be honest, most of the time we know if we're reacting more than we should), I awknowledge it. If I do not think my reaction is unmerited (Like the most recent case of his decision to loan a large amount of money to his irresponsible sister, which cleans out our savings and maxes out one of our credit cards, and I kept bringing it up to discuss how horrible of an idea it is/was) I will continue to discuss it to get my point across. At the beginning of our relationship, I let it affect me emotionally. I'm growing past that finally. In a work situation, I think it's best to stay professional, even if that includes reminding someone that they're being unprofessional by insinuating that your emotions are over the top when they are not, and if you are out of control emotionally, be sure to take the steps that you know will get you back to professionalism.

  8. elise says:

    My husband's nickname for me…is…WHACKO! I hate it.

  9. EK says:

    This hit so close to home for me – I've had plenty of conversations with women I know about comments like these. I raised the issue with a male friend who argued that sexism no longer exists – when I told him that “stop being so emotional” was a remark rarely directed at men, he was stunned but ultimately agreed with me. This has to be one of the least-discussed and most common issues women contend with today; I've heard these lines from male family members, coworkers, friends, passers-by, and so on. Great discussion topic.

  10. Belle says:

    EK- I really agree. I've been lucky enough to have not had this done to me by my romantic partners, but my Dad does it to my Mom all the time. Especially the “why can't you get this right?” thing mentioned in the article. It's like he has created a world where she feels everything she does is wrong simply because he deems it so, not because it is.

    So yeah, this really hit home for me.

  11. that girl says:

    I've been accused of overreacting, of being feisty, and someone even suggested to my boss that “he control me.” At first this bothered me, but this article and my experience in working with men has shown me that men are hardly ever accused of what I was accused of just because im passionate and work hard at what I do. I'm also damn good at what I do, so i'll take it like a champ and not accept those detractors as valid criticism.

  12. RMS says:

    The post and comments seem to focus on men doing this to women, but has anyone else encountered a woman doing this to you? I've found that sometimes women who are older than me in the workplace are the ones to say harsh things or tell me that I'm overreacting, while older men tend to be extra polite in work discussions.

    In personal relationships, I've had more girl friends tell me I'm crazy than guys I date. However, I have noticed throughout my life that if I start to cry in front of a man I am close to (Dad, brother, boyfriend) they immediately go into make her stop crying mode and the real issue isn't addressed until later.

    I've found that when girls use this technique, it's usually because they're overcompensating for something or refusing to admit that they are hurt and it's easier to be angry and judge the other person. I recently had a situation where a close girl friend said things that were extremely hurtful about my life choices and then when I had a strong reaction she said that I was being unreasonable. How is it unreasonable to get upset when someone says something she knows is hurtful?

  13. Whitney says:

    I've never been “Gaslighted” at work, but I have been in personal relationships. I agree with Lexi that stepping back from that kind of situation and sitting on it for a few minutes can allow you enough perspective to decide whether you need to go back in with an apology or a demand for one from the other person. Another thing that helps is to text the scenario to one of my more objective friends to see if he/she thinks that I'm over-reacting. Second opinions can really help.

  14. phoebee says:

    Women absolutely gaslight other women and they are great at it. My mother-in-law and immediate supervisor have perfected it to an art form. I've got their number and don't “play”, but I've watched them devastate other female in-laws, grandchildren, and younger co-workers without so much as a glimpse of conscience.

  15. Zara says:

    It's interesting that this seems to be a tactic used almost exclusively by men in reference to women who don't agree with their opinions. My father, an otherwise champion of equality between the sexes, loves to pull the “you're being emotional/sensitive” card with my mother and myself. It's incredibly frustrating because I almost always end up responding with anger, which he believes validates his argument. This tactic really feeds on the stereotype that women are inherently less rational than men, and it is a horribly effective method of denigrating women.

    Belle, thanks for this great post.

  16. Ms. B says:

    RMB – It is not unreasonable to be hurt when attacked. Those doing the hurting do not want to be accountable for their words or actions. I call these Octopus people. Their tenticles are long, they suck the life right out of you and then swim off on their merry way.

    • Confizzled says:

      That’s what the girl at my job did. Caused chaos for the whole business, turned everyone against me, then never showed up for work again. All in 3 months!

  17. TrailBlaizer says:

    The political equivalent of gaslighting is the infamous race card.

    That being said, there are going to be plenty of whacko-bat-shit nutjobs who will read this post and think, 'sheesh, maybe it's not me, it's everyone else!”

    Just because someone gaslights you doesn't mean you're sane. /logic

  18. Belle says:

    TB: I didn't say that. I certainly think it's important to know the difference between gaslighting and being off your nut, and it can always be both. But it's certainly a real thing.

  19. jess says:

    True TrailBlaizer – Everyone has moments when clarity isn't a strength. As others have said – self assessment, second party opinion, etc…helps keep it real. As per Belle's observation/discuss, there are way too many who practice gaslighting to deflect their own usery and unprofessionalism. I doubt there is anyone who hasn't experienced it somewhere, maybe even dished it out. Either way, not exactly admirable.

  20. ava says:

    i've certainly had my genuine CRAZY moments; however, I also think I've been gaslighted by every single male in my life at some point — and that includes exes, current bf, brothers, cousins and dad (dad is debateable; he's typically right of course :))

  21. Lola says:

    Oh-boy, have I ever been gaslighted in the workplace. By a woman who was off her rocker, but tried to make all of her employees feel like the problem was them even if they had a legitimate issue. It was sort of like the frog in the boiling water scenario – it started off so small and insignificant that we didn't even realize what she was doing until four years later she had us routinely questioning our own sanity.

    Granted, we learned this particular woman was clinical mentally ill. But now that I've been through this situation and know how to spot it, it seems to be people who have a tendency towards arrogance or narcissism – sociopaths at the extreme end of the spectrum. They're master manipulators and will try anything to get their way, which often involves steamrolling over everyone and everything.

    If you've never encountered anyone like this, it can often take some painful lessons to realize what's happening to you. But once you learn how to spot them you'll be able navigate without playing their game.

  22. TrailBlaizer says:

    You all are just crazy. Seriously, what's with the overreaction?!

    (Sorry, couldn't resist 😉

  23. Lexi says:

    Excellent post. Have seen this happen a lot in the workplace towards women and not at men– even when they're overreacting and getting way to worked up on an issue. Especially had this happen at one job at which my boss told me that we were never going to work things out because I was a Leo just like his daughter and ex-wife. sigh! Knew then I had to leave because he kept me in that daughter/ex-wife category.

    I think one way to tell the difference is to check yourself and note if there are any patterns that come up. If so, you may have some hot button issues that indeed make you overreact.

    It also may be a reason as to why drinks after work can turn into bitch sessions, because sometimes you have to hold things in at work (lest you be labelled as overreacting) and be the super rational one.

  24. Katie says:

    I used to work in a grocery store and was gaslighted a few times in situations where I was 100% in the right. One time, a coworker started a rumor that I was pregnant and it lasted for six months and I confronted the person who started it (“Why are you overreacting? It's not a big deal!”) as well as management (“You need to sort out your own personal life! It's not that serious!”). There is no dealing with that particular brand of crazy. Luckily, I have since moved on and now work in an environment where adults are adults and not overgrown teenagers.

    Someone gave me a book called “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Basically, the best defense is to be “the computer” and not react to statements that are meant to trigger an emotional reaction from you. Your second reaction is perfect because you explain yourself rationally without feeding into your coworker's emotional trap.

  25. Noelle says:

    My old boss used to do this to me all the time, and my therapist actually taught me how to handle it. The most effective way to respond is to stay calm and talk in a way that is not accusatory (even when an accusation is warranted). For instance, in one case my boss tried to get me in trouble for something I didn't do, and when I defended myself he told me it wasn't a big deal and I shouldn't worry about it and just “calm down.” I responded that I was disappointed in how he handled the situation and in the future, I hoped that he would ask me about the situation before he got me into trouble with a coworker. Whenever he tried to fight with me, I'd just wait patiently and then repeat the exact same thing. It sounds stupid but it can be extremely effective to just stay calm and keep repeating. Once my boss knew I wouldn't back down he left me alone.

  26. An says:

    This happens to me at work with one supervisor. All the time. Doesn't happen with any other supervisor so I know it is not me. I've talked to superiors, talked back, cried etc. and now I just try to ignore it as much as possible. Good post.

  27. ss says:

    This is very near to my heart also and I've spent a lot of time thinking about it.

    I see 2 very distinct personality types in my personal and professional lives – type 1 are people who will examine first and react later, and type 2 are people who go with whatever reaction prompted by their own emotions or biases and figure out the justification later IF challenged. Type 2 are the most effective gaslighters since they do it while totally believing they are in the right – the other party is indeed “too emotional” “too far out there” – so they feel totally justified in side-stepping the original issue and refusing to come back to it.

    I'm a type 1 – when confronted with direct criticism, I will examine first and then react, usually half a beat too late to sound anything but defensive. Luckily within my family, we have stark type 1's and 2's, so I was able to observe this kind of interaction early and recognise aggressive type 1's in my professional life. I peg them early and try to avoid situations where we are likely to have confrontations. I might typically go : “How are we deciding this ? Is there data ? Yes ? Great – let's see it. No ? You're going to take the responsibility for making the call ? Or you want me to carry it ? ”

    In case this sounds harsh, my experience is very much that type 2's are important to have on the team – among other things, an effective one can make a pitch from the heart because they REALLY believe it. Whereas a type 1 like me will say “well, it's a complex choice, there are numerous ways we can approach this, here's how the risks and rewards shape up on both sides …”

    I'm also guessing that effective politicians are typically type 2's ??

  28. Mary says:

    Wonderful post! I have seen this situation and dealt with it personally throughout my surgical training and career and it is both a comfort to know I'm not alone and a new worry that the practice seems so widespread. Must totally agree with the commenter who was taught to stay calm and stand her ground. I know a lot of women who never reached high because they were so discouraged by these practices, but the best advice came from the first female department head of Surgery at Johns Hopkins- she basically said that if we don't seek advancement things will never change, but by seeking out leadership positions we help to change the system. Hopefully this behavior won't be as common in the future.

  29. Cindy says:

    I know this is an old thread, but I really feel the need to respond to this. I've been gaslighted – or at least, I think that's what is happening . . . To some extent it is still happening despite my awareness of all the pitfalls and traps that make this kind of system so devastating. Here is what all of you ultimately need to know: Being logical doesn't really help very much. And if you are introspective at all . . . the other person will get you. Here is what happens: Your judgment is questioned. You say, “What? I totally know what I'm doing here!” But you get hassled, so you agree to reconsider the other person's perspective. After all, that's what someone who is reasonable, thoughtful, intellectually honest, interested in self-improvement, and a team player does. But in this case, you think things over and you know that you're right. So you stick to your guns. Well, that doesn't go over very well. So right away you are building a repuation as arrogant and difficult. So next time your judgment is questioned, you think, “Well that's great. It's the same situation. Now I know what answer they want, but that's not the right answer! How do I look like I'm changing my mind, but actually stick to my guns and my ethics? How do I do tyhe same thing I did before, but make it look like I'm doing what they refused to actually come right out and tell me to do? Well, of course, even for a talented government functionary like me, these demands are impossible to balance for any length of time. And by about the 47th time it happens, you are totally stressed out, terrified of seeing that boss or coworker, and just as nuts as they are trying to tell you you are. And you know this, but can't stop. Because at the same time, you know that you aren't crazy and you keep thinking that somehow the whole thing can just be straightened out if they would just listen! But of course, nobody can listen; they'd have to acknowledge the difficulties in the organization if they did. This is a terrible, terrible place to be. As anyone still reading this thread has probably guessed, I've experienced this personally. Logical thinking made things worse because the gaslighter was the one who was always the more logical person – they made sure of that and they made sure everyone else knew how crazy and stressed out the victim is becoming. It is a terrible, terrible rabbit hole to plunge into. And I promise that I am not naive. I'm good at my job and this is probably the area of my life where I have the most confidence. But when this started I had just transferred to a new office that gradually shrank to two people – myself and the person pulling my strings. And other peoples strings. I quickly went from new kid to completely isolated “Don't understand why we had to take her on that transfer!” So I'm a good psychologist, and I work with inmates, so I understand manipulation. But this still blind sided me totally — The Gaslighter is also a mental health practitionewr. I would never have seen that coming. I'm pretty certain that she dosn't know wqhat she's done, And even though I know what's going obn, lots of times I'm still powerless to stop it.

    That's what gaslighting is like.

    • Liney says:

      Cindy, I’m even later to this post and to learning about gaslighting but am experiencing it now in a new workplace.Your response to this post has struck a chord with me, particularly how you have explained the process of being logical and introspective doesn’t help. I am spending hours and hours trying to figure out the nest way to navigate in my new workplace because of this man. It’s inefficient as well as everything else. Interestingly, every staff member (even CEO) experiences this with the gaslighter (the president of an NGO) so I am not alone and feel emotionally supported by my colleagues, but as a team we are all deflated and none of them have been able to help me as I am the new kid on the block and seem to be copping it the worst right now. I’d be interested to know if you have developed any strategies that work for you over the past couple of years?

    • TK says:

      Cindy, your description has hit the nail on the head for me…a rabbit hole. My gas-lighter has been my employee for eight years and I’ve seen him “work his magic” on other people but really didn’t know how destructive and toxic it was until our department moved and I report to a new manager. My new manager did not like this person and asked me to “work with him.” As soon as the employee realized our new manager had issues with his performance he began gas-lighting me, bating me into arguments and undermining my credibility with the new manager. He has dragged another employee into it by starting arguments in team meetings, engaging her in conversations about what a crazy and unreasonable person I am; he told me the other employee calls him after every conversation she has with me and tells him “every word I say”. After I spoke to HR about engaging in performance management with him he initiated an investigation into my conduct with human resources. He refuses to reply to emails and respond to questions and requests, goes around me with crucial dept. information, tries to exclude me from projects and when I try to have an honest conversation with him he says everything is fine and I am over-reacting. My manager is non-confrontational and does not back me up or address the problem which he essentially created when he asked me to address the issues he has with this employee. I feel like I’m under siege.

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