What is gaslighting?
The term derived from the title of a 1930’s thriller “Gas Light” by the British playwright and novelist Patrick Hamilton. Without spoiling the plot, the wife of the villain fears her husband is using psychological tactics to try to make her appear insane. These cause her both anxiety and to doubt her memory and take on events. The visual flickering and dimming gas lights add to the atmosphere of the piece and depict the wife’s confusion of whether the lights actually dim or, as her husband tries to make her believe, is in her imagination and another sign that she may be losing her mind.
Over the years the thriller’s title has become used as a verb to describe the tactics of the husband. The definition of gaslight in the Oxford English dictionary is, “To manipulate (a person) by psychological means into questioning his or her own sanity.”
This type of bullying usually starts on a very subtle level. So much so that by the time the recipient is aware that something is going on, they feel it is too late to do anything about it. The gaslighter’s aim is to gain power and the recipient ends up feeling completely powerless. It has to be noted that, however desperate the situation may feel, it is never too late to act.
The gaslighter can appear charming in public but once on their own with the recipient, they will use tactics which will knowingly leave their victim doubting their perception and feeling they have little or no proof to dispute the gaslighter’s manipulation. Cases occur both domestically and in the workplace.
Examples of gaslighting behaviour in the workplace
Gaslighting tactics are used gradually and once the gaslighter sees their victim’s doubt, will turn up the heat. Think of turning on a gas hob, checking it has caught and then gradually increasing the flame to get the contents of a pan boiling, before turning it down and adjusting the heat to keep it simmering gently. The pan may eventually either boil over or the contents will evaporate, and the pan burn dry.
Some examples of gaslighting behaviour in the workplace:
- Your boss lies to you, you know they are obviously lying but they then use this pattern of behaviour to unsettle you and keep you feeling unsure of when they are lying to you and when they are not.
- A colleague assures you that you said you would complete a task when you know they had said they would handle it themselves. The more often this happens, the more you doubt yourself and your ability to depend on your memory.
- When a gaslighter sees doubt has set in, they may confuse you by praising you about something you’ve done. You’ll then question your feelings about the gaslighter and whether they’re as bad as you thought. This is the intended reaction, they want to keep you questioning yourself, doubting your judgement and increasing your trust in them.
- The gaslighter will have worked out the people whose loyalty they can depend on and tell you those people are making disparaging comments about you. The comments they quote may well be lies, but their effect is to leave you feeling isolated and they use this tactic to gain control.
- To further your isolation the gaslighter will talk to others and question your ability and sanity with them. They do this knowingly to cast doubt on anyone believing you if you were to raise the issues you are having with the gaslighter.
- In order to increase their control, a gaslighter will tell you that everyone else is lying, causing you to doubt your reality. It is a manipulation technique designed to make you increase the trust you place in them as the person to turn to for the truth.
10 tips to consider if you encounter gaslighting at work
- Try to stand back and detach yourself, look at what the gaslighter is doing rather than what they are saying. Their words are meaningless, it’s their actions which carry meaning. Their tactics are designed to make you focus attention on yourself and your recollection of an event, so you are distracted from considering their behaviour.
- Trust your own reactions and gut instinct, the gaslighter will never take responsibility for their actions. They will never acknowledge their behaviour is unacceptable and waiting for this to happen will not only be exhausting but will also be a waste of your energy.
- If at all possible, avoid being on your own with the gaslighter. Having a trusted third-party present as a witness makes it more difficult for the gaslighter to manipulate you. Keep detailed notes each time you have contact with them or any situation you feel they have affected.
- Talk to someone outside the workplace who you trust; perhaps a family member, friend or colleague from a previous job. This can bring a different perspective and can help to counterbalance the narratives and impressions the gaslighter is conveying.
- If you feel you are being excluded from meetings by being told the wrong start time or that an action had been attributed to you which you believed had been assigned to someone else, email everyone involved beforehand to confirm the date and time and afterwards to confirm your understanding of everyone’s responsibilities.
- Learn how to communicate assertively and do not let the gaslighter alter your view or version of events. Hold on to what you know to be true.
- Be mindful of how your body reacts when you have contact with the gaslighter. Investigate if your employer offers any support or even training on engaging with mindfulness meditation. This can help distinguish what is real from what we think might be happening.
- Don’t be afraid to speak to a health professional as they are all bound by confidentiality. This could be your GP, HR health advisor or, if your workplace has an Employee Assistance Programme, access to counselling.
- Be aware of and seek help by following your company’s bullying and harassment policy.
- Probably the most important tip of all – don’t isolate yourself.
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