Gaslighting: it’s more common than you think, and yes, it’s a terrible thing to have to endure. Worse, there are people out there that don’t even realize they are in this kind of relationship. But many are faced with it every day… at home, in romantic relationships, in clubs and organizations, and my personal (least) favorite: at work.
Being a two-year victim of gaslighting, I can tell you – it’s not easy to recognize, and even harder to remove yourself from. You see, gaslighters are particularly good at what they do. They make you, the victim, believe you are in the wrong. They use mind games in order to make their victims feel less-than-adequate and begin to doubt themselves and wonder if they are actually the problem. Often times, the victim will even have difficulty distinguishing between the lies they are being fed by the gaslighter and their own reality.
Sounds crazy, right?
Let me give you my personal example.
I took a job at a company where I worked very closely with the CEO. Within this role, I was responsible for not only assisting the CEO with various tasks, but also managing the staff and taking on all HR responsibilities. It seemed like my dream job at the time; a job where I could better the company and make it a place where employees are motivated to come to work each day. I had plans to put policies into place, create an awesome working environment, and advocate for employees through leadership, training and motivation.
I was told upon hire that I would have the opportunity to do all this, but for anything that I proposed to the CEO regarding employee benefits or making the company a better place to work, I received negative (and condescending) feedback. For instance, if I proposed working from home once a week as an added benefit once an employee had been with the company for a year, my boss would say things like “Well, you only want that for yourself. No one else will see value in that. Why don’t you take your own desires out of it and do what’s best for the company?” Or, “You need to take your feelings out of it stop trying to be everyone’s friend. Real managers aren’t interested in making their employees happier.”
Another example: after several employees had left the company in a matter of months, reporting things like unfair treatment and unrealistic expectations from the CEO, I decided that perhaps it was time to talk to my boss about our unfavorable turnover rate. I explained that our employees voiced concerns about the company having a very stressful and even hostile working environment and I suggested that we make some changes. His responses to this conversation included, “I am more than fair to all employees and provide a great working environment with great benefits… We all just need to grow up!” And “If the staff doesn’t like it here, they are welcome to leave… and that includes you! Good luck finding a job as great as this one.” And my personal favorite, “No one really believes that. You know that this is a great place to work! Why don’t you go and research what managers are really supposed to do?”
Now, you may think that I just had a jerk for a boss. But here’s the kicker: most of my suggestions actually came into fruition down the road; however, my boss would take credit for every one of them and actually convinced me that he was the one that came up with the idea and put it to action. If at any point I called him out on the fact that he had disagreed and told me I could not move forward with a proposal, he would deny it and claim I was making things up. What’s worse, for a while, I actually believed him.
Denial is just one trait of a true gaslighter. My boss was so good at lying, and lied so often, that not only did he believe his own lies, he actually got me to believe them as well. He constantly denied conversations we had. For those times where I had proof, either by witness or in writing, my boss would claim I just took something the wrong way, or he was joking, or even continue to deny the entire conversation, shrugging off any evidence I prepared, calling me crazy or immature.
Another gaslighter trait I saw all too often was the “you’re too sensitive” pitch. This is where a gaslighter plays on his victim’s caring heart and good intentions and makes them feel like these are negative attributes. Just like the statement above where I was told that “I need to take my feelings out of it and stop trying to be everyone’s friend,” my boss would convince me that I was too vulnerable as a manager because I truly cared about my employees. He tricked me into believing that I was inadequate by using my sensitivity against me. Even though I disagreed with him, he convinced me that I was being irrational and too sensitive. And when you hear something enough…
So, at this point you might be wondering how on earth I endured this mentally-abusive situation!
Well, it wasn’t easy. For the majority of my two years with the company, I was thoroughly convinced that I just needed to change my attitude, or participate in training to become a better leader, or simply be “less sensitive.” Even when my gut told me that I was being manipulated, I shrugged it off and decided to work harder to impress my boss and work on all the “short comings” I was reminded of so frequently.
In fact, I had been convinced for so long that maybe I was the problem, or it was all in my head, that I probably wouldn’t have ever figured out that I was working for a gaslighter. Thankfully, my boss eventually hired another employee to assist with various tasks (that I was too overworked and mentally exhausted to handle) who almost immediately recognized the type of narcissistic jerk I was working for. Once I had support and confirmation that he was, in fact, the problem, I began to gain my confidence back and understand what type of person I was working for. When I had someone else “on my side,” affirming that I was a great leader (and not crazy), it was easy to recognize what a deceitful, manipulative person I was working for, and easier to decide that I would not continue to allow it.
Sadly, there are many who deal with the abusive powers of a gaslighter in their everyday life. It is physically and mentally exhausting, and difficult to escape. The best advice I can give is to always trust your gut and never let anyone diminish the value you KNOW you have. Surround yourself with people you trust who will support you and remind you that you are not crazy. Most of all, never let anyone convince you that you are anything less than the wonderful person you are.