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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What Gaslighting at Work Looks and Sounds Like—and How to Deal

person standing in an office holding a cell phone to one ear and holding their other hand to their head with an expression of confusion on their face
Bailey Zelena; LaylaBird/Getty Images

In one of my first jobs, I was a hostess at a restaurant with a strict dress code: no sleeveless tops or dresses. One day I brought in a modest white crocheted dress that had no lining on the short sleeves, so parts of my shoulders were visible. I asked the manager if it met the dress code, and said I’d brought along a spare outfit in case it didn’t. Sure, he told me. So I wore it for my shift.

A few days later I was fired. The reason? I wore an outfit that violated the dress code. I explained that the manager had cleared the dress, but he denied it. He also insisted I never told him about a planned vacation when I was hired—the other reason I was being fired since, apparently, we weren’t allowed to take a full week off during the summer.

I was positive I remembered him telling me the dress was OK, but did I misremember telling them about the vacation? I started to doubt myself. Maybe I hadn’t said anything?

What I didn’t realize then was that the manager was gaslighting me—causing me to question my own experiences as a power play. It’s a sadly common occurrence in the workplace. More than half of the 3,033 Twitter users who responded to a poll from a U.K.-based HR software and services firm reported they’d faced gaslighting at work. But recognizing it and taking steps to reduce or avoid it can help protect your mental health.

What is gaslighting?

Gaslighting is psychological manipulation that causes a victim to doubt their own reality and second guess their feelings or experiences. The term comes from the 1938 British play Gas Light, though more people are familiar with the 1944 film adaptation Gaslight. In the movie, Ingrid Bergman stars as a wife whose husband convinces her she’s going crazy by repeatedly denying that her experiences are real. He steals objects from the house and then accuses her of hiding them, for example, and tells her she’s imagining the footsteps she hears at night.

“Gaslighting can occur between any two individuals but it is more common when there is an imbalance of power since the gaslighter may feel empowered by their position,” says Tony Ferretti, PhD, a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Melbourne, FL who specializes in relationships. “Typically the individual who uses gaslighting attempts to manipulate others to gain greater power and control.”

The motives of the gaslighter may vary, but gaslighters typically feel insecure and threatened by others, “so they are looking to level the playing field with lies and distortions,” Feretti says. “They refuse to take responsibility for their actions and instead blame others, defend their position, justify their actions, manipulate, and displace their own issues or conflicts onto others in an effort to avoid vulnerability or being wrong.”

Though the film that inspired the term is nearly eight decades old, “gaslighting” has only become common in everyday language in the past decade, gaining such popularity recently that Merriam Webster selected it as 2022’s “word of the year.”

Why is gaslighting at work so harmful?

Whether the gaslighter is your direct manager, a coworker, a senior leader, or even someone who reports to you, its negative effects are the same.

“Gaslighting can be incredibly harmful since it can contribute to depression, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and feelings of helplessness,” Feretti says. “It can destroy a person’s self-esteem and shatter their self-confidence. A person can question their judgment, perception, and sanity, which can lead to poor job performance, indecisiveness, and feelings of inadequacy.”

Gaslighting can also decrease an employee’s commitment to their organization, according to a 2023 study, and it can affect your ability to do your job.

“People feel stressed and often overwhelmed by their own anxiety and confusion and have trouble making even simple decisions,” says Robin Stern, a licensed psychoanalyst, cofounder and associate director for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and author of The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life.

It can impact your relationships beyond work too. “Such betrayals can affect your ability to trust yourself and others,” says Eve Kilmer, PhD, a couples therapist based in Boulder, CO. “Over time, a gaslighter’s manipulations can grow more complex and potent, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to see the truth.”

A victim can even begin gaslighting themselves when the gaslighter isn’t around, Stern explains. “The longer the gaslighting continues, the longer it takes to reclaim your reality, to trust another, to feel safe in a relationship,” she says. “It becomes harder and harder to know where you stand and what you believe.”

What are signs and examples of gaslighting at work?

Gaslighting can take many forms, but it nearly always involves distorting reality in some way. Some people describe being gaslit as feeling like they’re in The Twilight Zone where parallel realities exist.

Keep an eye out for these signs and examples:

The gaslighter lies about things that happened.

For example, “a coworker tells your boss you never gave them the documents when you know you did, or a boss denies ever promising to give you a raise when they did,” Kilmer says. “When you bring it up to them they deny, invalidate, and minimize.”

The gaslighter also denies or minimizes the significance of your observations.

If you notice other people are changing offices or are suddenly invited to meetings when they weren’t previously, you might reasonably ask your boss if changes are happening in the organizations. They deny anything is happening, “but then you find out three or six months later that person was promoted over other people,” Stern says.

The gaslighter tone polices you or calls you overly emotional.

They question or criticize the tone of voice or the language you use, or they tell you that you’re exaggerating or getting more emotional than a situation calls for.

They act hot and cold.

The gaslighter might throw you off balance by alternating praise with criticism or verbal abuse. Or they might praise you in public but criticize you in private, making it harder for other people to believe you when you try to share what’s happening.

They accuse you of mistakes you didn’t make.

Gaslighters might tell you, privately or in front of others, that you did something you know you didn’t do, or they insist that something you did was wrong or inappropriate when it wasn’t.

You’re left out of important meetings, decisions, or discussions.

The gaslighter might even compound the gaslighting by denying those meetings or discussions are even occurring.

The gaslighter manipulates situations you’re in.

This could involve sabotaging something you’re working on so that you look bad, or setting up situations for the purpose of embarrassing you or causing you to look irrational in front of others.

You notice certain red flags in yourself.

Stern offers this list of warning signs for gaslighting in any situation:

  • You know something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on what it is; you may even think you’re the problem.
  • You’re constantly second-guessing yourself.
  • You feel confused and even question your sanity—at work and at home.
  • You have trouble making simple decisions.
  • You take a step away from your friends and people who know you well for fear they will judge you.
  • You don’t feel like the same self you used to be.
  • You feel socially isolated.
  • You find yourself ruminating about conversations with your gaslighter—over and over and over.
  • You’re always apologizing.

Some signs are specific to the workplace:

  • You feel burnt out and exhausted by the interpersonal dynamics with your gaslighter.
  • You can’t remember when you last felt motivated.
  • You’re working far from your fullest potential.
  • You have an entirely different narrative and feeling about your workplace than your supervisor’s.
  • You’re stuck in your job and you don’t know why, because your boss keeps praising you.

You recognize gaslighting characteristics in the other person.

These behaviors or characteristics are common among gaslighters, Kilmer says:

  • They regularly avoid taking responsibility and are quick to blame others for their mistakes.
  • They easily criticize others, but when they’re criticized, they quickly show rage.
  • They lack empathy for others.
  • They need constant admiration and validation from others to shore up their fragile ego.
  • They’re controlling.
  • They use and exploit others.
  • They have poor boundaries.

The other person uses common gaslighting phrases.

Statements like these should set off warning bells:

  • “You need to calm down. There’s no reason to get so upset about this.”
  • “You’re being too sensitive about this.”
  • “Don’t take it so personally.”
  • “You’re reading too much into this.”
  • “You seem to be overly emotional.”
  • “You seem unstable.”
  • “I never said that. You must be misremembering.”
  • “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “I was only kidding.”

Who’s most susceptible to gaslighting?

No one is completely immune from gaslighting. It can occur between any pairing or even between a group and an individual, Stern says. For example, whistleblowers may become targets of gaslighting by an organization, according to a 2018 study. A whistleblower begins to doubt their “perceptions, competence, and mental state” when “the institution enables reprisals, explains them away, and then pronounces that the whistleblower is irrationally overreacting to normal everyday interactions.”

Though gaslighting can happen to anyone, some people may be more vulnerable than others. “Individuals who lack self-confidence or are insecure, who excessively seek approval and acceptance, who lack healthy boundaries, and who have difficulties communicating assertively are at greater risk,” Feretti says.

Those who’ve had a narcissistic, controlling, or manipulative parent are also more susceptible, Kilmer says. In the context of this kind of conditional love, “You learn it is safest to keep your parent emotionally regulated by pleasing or appeasing them, or else risk rage and retaliation,” Kilmer explains. “You learn not to trust your judgment, having been told what to feel and think.”

Empathetic people may also be more susceptible if they have difficulty setting boundaries, “because a gaslighter knows you’ll put up with their manipulation and abuse,” Kilmer says. In fact, one study found that having greater emotional intelligence strengthened the effect of the gaslighting on a person’s organizational commitment.

7 tips to deal with gaslighting at work

If you’re being gaslit, it’s important to protect yourself. “Gaslighting can be more damaging over time if left unattended or avoided,” Feretti says. “Over time we tend to ruminate and possibly assume we are at fault because they wear us down.”

Here’s how to mitigate and take care of yourself if it’s happening to you:

1. Identify the behavior.

The first step is pinpointing what’s happening and recognizing patterns. “Identify their gaslighting triggers and yours,” Stern says. For example, maybe you notice that situations where you need to ask for something or make a complaint trigger their gaslighting behavior. Naming the behavior helps your own mental health too. “It reduces some of the toxicity emotionally when you can see the manipulation,” Kilmer says.

2. Avoid confronting the gaslighter.

Confronting a gaslighter is rarely effective, Kilmer says. “The tendency is to believe if you can make an airtight case that this is happening, the gaslighter will own it,” Kilmer says. But “the reality is that gaslighters are insecure and fragile people underneath and will typically get enraged if confronted or criticized and will retaliate.”

3. Rely on a support network.

Whether it’s others at work, friends outside of work, or your family—or ideally a combination of all three—outside support is crucial. “It’s so important that you find a support network and gain objective feedback, maintain healthy boundaries, and know when to disengage and walk away,” Feretti says. Your priority should be finding others who are truly supportive. “Surround yourself with people who you feel care about you,” Stern says, “people who want to hear more about your feelings, not dismiss them.”

4. Document, document, document.

Writing down conversations after they happen can help you “sort out truth from distortion,” Stern says. “In the heat of the moment, with big feelings happening, it may be hard for you to hear the distortion in what someone is saying.” You might walk away from a conversation feeling momentarily reassured, but “the minute you write things down, you can begin to see where the gaslighter pivots from having a back-and-forth to telling you what you think or to denying what you know to be true or deflecting the conversation,” she says.

She advises scheduling and confirming all meetings by email, creating agendas, taking notes, and sending a summary after the meeting. Let the other person know your plans by saying something like, “After this meeting, I’m going to email you what happened, and if I misremembered something, please let me know.”

5. Distance yourself when you can.

Sometimes you simply need to get out of the immediate situation when gaslighting is happening. “When you take space to reconnect with yourself—even if you take a break and go for a cup of coffee—it helps you see, ‘This is not right. I know I saw that happen,’” Stern says. She advises opting out of conversations that become a power struggle and offers some statements to practice:

  • “I like to process things like this for a while, so I’ll get back to you.”
  • “I’d like to think about this and get back to you.”
  • “This conversation is hard for me. I’d like to gather myself and take a break.”
  • “I’m going to have a cup of coffee, and we can continue this conversation at a later time.”
  • “I’d like to digest this. Can we pick it up another time?”
  • “I feel like we’re just going back and forth, and I need a break. Can we come back to this?”
  • “I’m uncomfortable with how I’m feeling right now.”

6. Practice self-care.

Taking good care of yourself could mean turning to your support group, exercising, eating well, meditating, practicing self-compassion and patience, and using positive self-talk, Stern and Kilmer say. Focus on “assertive communication, self-esteem building, and supportive relationships,” Feretti adds. Stern also recommends checking in with your emotional life regularly, which you can do with tools like the How We Feel app, an emotional wellbeing journal she helped develop through the nonprofit How We Feel.

7. Consider leaving your job.

Not everyone has this option, but it may become necessary if the situation continues to worsen, especially if it’s impacting your well-being or your job performance. “If it is affecting your mental health, even though it’s unfair, I would explore getting a different position or job where you don’t have to work with the gaslighter,” Kilmer says. Because no matter how much you try to navigate or mitigate the situation, “Gaslighters don’t change.”