Gas-lighting – the deliberate attempt to invalidate and erode another person’s perception of reality by constantly questioning or undermining it – is now a pretty well known term. But it can appear in a lot of contexts, including workplaces, not just social environments.
How can we identify when gas-lighting is going on in the workplace? Also, how can we differentiate gas-lighting from merely disagreements or differences in opinion, or legitimate criticism?
That’s what we’re going to cover in this guide. Identifying workplace gaslighting really comes down to the issue of (the whole, not selective) reality, facts and evidence. But for victims, it’s not always that simple, because their confidence in their own perception may have been so badly eroded that they literally can’t move forward with confidence in their own perception. Their self confidence, self esteem and assertiveness may have been so badly damaged by prolonged workplace gas-lighting that a broader view is needed to help that person step back and see the obvious things they’ve been conditioned to not see anymore.
In this case, understanding the motives and behavior of the person engaging in the gas-lighting, plus looking at the long term outcomes in terms of changes in the victim’s stability, mood, confidence and assertiveness, can be more indirect ways to identify what has really been going on, and to disengage from the gas-lighting process entirely.
Let’s look at some common signs of workplace gas-lighting, and then some more layered questions people caught up in this need to ask themselves, to bring clarity back to their perception of what’s going on.
Common Signs & Examples Of Workplace Gaslighting
Here are some common quick signs and example of how gas-lighting can manifest in the workplace, taken from my own experience plus other good guides here and here (we’ll deep dive into some aspects of this in further sections):
- Abusive colleagues claiming they didn’t say certain things to you, when you know they did, or vice versa.
- Sometimes, they’ll flat out deny a conversation even took place, when you know it did, or vice versa.
- Colleagues or managers may flat out deny ever getting a report you know you sent them.
- A persistent pattern of claiming you did certain things wrong, or missed certain procedures, when you are fairly certain you didn’t, yet there is no evidence either way.
- Changing rotas and then not telling you, but claiming they did tell you.
- Constant re-framing (twisting) and projection of blame onto you for things which aren’t your fault (for example, it’s not that they did a terrible rota, but that you’re complaining about it. Constantly twisting things so they reflect negatively on you).
- A questioning of your values and qualities (work ethic, integrity, loyalty, cohesiveness etc) that is manipulative and plays on guilt.
- Colleagues ganging up on you and sending you the persistent message that you are the cause of any problems with colleagues or customers, not the toxic environment you are in. A constantly negative narrative being pushed about you.
- A gas-lighter will often deliberately provoke a reaction in you with an offensive or outrageous comment, and then try to further pathologize you for your (understandable) reaction (“oh wow, look at you now, losing control” kind of reaction).
- Similarly, any kind of push-back on bullying or mistreatment or gas-lighting will be met by the person “doubling down” on their position, further trying to gas-light you.
- Senior managers can add to the gas-lighting by invalidating and brushing off any attempts to report your concerns and seek support. They may agree that you are the problem and add to the abuse.
How To Really Identify When You’re Being Gaslighted (Cutting Through The Nonsense)
It’s all very well having definitions and “signs” of workplace gaslighting to check off, but when it actually comes down to interacting with these people, it’s not always that simple. The gaslighting process may be well advanced to the point where they control you very easily, and your self doubt has grown so strong that you can’t even step back and “see” the obvious anymore. Is it really gas-lighting or just dis-agreement?
Plus, when you’re dealing with toxic work colleagues (especially psychopaths/sociopaths), and you try and push back and call them out on the gaslighting, these people ALWAYS have some excuse, rationalization or “clever answer” to try and justify their behavior and claim it isn’t gaslighting (which in itself of course is actually PART of the gaslighting process).
If this kind of dynamic has been going on a long time, you may have even “given up” fighting back, and just accept their interpretation all the time. This is NOT a healthy situation, so you need to be able to cut through this noise, and take a wider view of whether a situation is toxic, and gas-lighting is really going on versus the false reality they may have conditioned you into accepting.
One of the best ways is to simply check in with yourself, assessing changes over a time of 3/6/9/12 months, and not on what they are saying to you, but here are some broad level pointers to cut through a gas-lighters constant “BS” and “word salad” and see workplace gas-lighting more clearly for what it is:
- Honestly assess how your self confidence and self esteem has progressed or regressed over the past 3/6/12 months. Has it grown or been steadily eroded over that time, since working with/for this person you suspect is gas-lighting you?
- Assess changes in your assertiveness over this same time period. Has that also remained, or steadily been eroded and chipped away at? One common result of long term gas-lighting is that is smashes to pieces your ability to assert yourself, and the concomitant self doubt can lead to indecision and “freezing up” which starts to create problems that weren’t there to begin with, which you then get blamed for. Healthy, non-toxic interactions don’t produce this effect
- Is there not just an isolated incident, but a constant pattern of behavior that someone is always challenging and undermining you with “alternative facts”? To the point where you struggle to assert your own views anymore?
- Do you constantly find yourself being annoyed by a certain person’s nit-picking about small irrelevant things, and then following up your attempts to push back with more gas-lighting? (one common trait of Cluster B disorders (narcissism/psychopathy) that commonly engage in gaslighting is they like to annoy and provoke reactions in others to “feed” and “inflate” themselves. Gaslighting is an easy way of doing this.
- Are you starting to develop OCD style behavior patterns that weren’t there before, because your reality is constantly being questioned and undermined? Are you checking and double checking things compulsively now almost as an “insurance policy” to yourself that you can’t be gas-lit on that particular thing?
- Do you now find yourself constantly feeling the need to record, save and play back conversations to “be sure” what was said?
- In retail jobs where you are dealing with customers, are you constantly being undermined in front of them by this person? That’s another common way of gas-lighting that erodes your confidence and assertiveness even more. Good managers don’t undermine staff in front of others all the time.
- Are other negative emotions and states growing in you in a way they weren’t before? (eg. irritation, anxiety, annoyance, restlessness, sleep problems, over-thinking etc).
- Are you constantly getting irritating texts/emails on your days off questioning your reality on things? Has this negatively affected you to the point where work is occupying your thoughts when it shouldn’t be, and never used to?
- Watch out especially for that frantic, panicked feeling as you desperately try to search through rotas, reports etc. trying to prove or confirm something you are sure was already sorted or sent, or you weren’t told about. A clear sign of gas-lighting and abuse.
- Does your boss constantly seem to create situations through their own laziness and proper planning, that you are then either blamed for, expected to “carry the can for” or criticized for raising as an issue? (classic projection and blame shifting that is part of gas-lighting).
- Do you find yourself more and more isolated from colleagues that this suspected gas-lighter has “wrapped around their little finger”, and may be co-opting into smear campaigns against you? Do you find them seemingly taking the gas-lighter’s side on a lot of things in a way that further invalidates and annoys you?
“If you’ve ever felt the need to record a conversation to play it back to that person as proof or so you can be sure you heard it right, you’re being gas-lighted”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
Hopefully, you get the idea here, that you are your own best barometer and gauge, not someone else. The proof is in the pudding with prolonged gas-lighting, in terms of the toxic outcomes it produces for the victim.
This can help you cut through the noise of the psychopath/narcissist’s constant “clever answers” and excuses for their behavior. If you see your own state having changed for the worse since dealing with them, and it continues to go that way, you know you’re being gas-lighted and you can get away from this person as soon as possible to stop your self confidence being eroded any further.
Dr Ramani On Identifying Workplace Gaslighting
Narcissistic abuse expert Dr Ramani has recently produced an excellent video which I’ve embedded which covers this specific issue of cutting through verbiage and “noise” to really get to the crux of whether gaslighting is going on in your job. I’ve put some summary points from the video below.
Dr Ramani Durvasula On Identifying Workplace Gaslighting
- The predominant motive behind gaslighting is often to control and dominate the other person (which is why power fixated personality types like psychopaths/narcissists engage in this behavior most often).
- Is your reality regarding your attitude/commitment/approach/conscientiousness totally 180 degrees at odds with what someone else is trying to project onto you (inversion of reality)?
- Does the other person constantly deny reality, and then undercut you for questioning their denial of reality, to the point where you “give in” and start accepting their warped version of reality? Common sign.
- Are they making negative claims about you and your attitude/committment/performance that simply don’t check out to the point where they really annoy and offend you?
- Is you attitude being questioned when you know you are a conscientious worker (“not being a team player” is a common slur used by gas-lighters – constantly re-framing valid concerns/complaints you raise as being “not working for the team”, or “this is about the team” or other such slurs that try to play on your guilt).
- Valid contributions you make (closing sales/deals, doing extra time, going above and beyond, productivity improvements etc) never being recognized is another way of gaslighting and undermining in the workplace. Is it only ever the negatives that are emphasized, never the positives?
- With recent trends such as the “great resignation“, another common source of workplace gas-lighting could be piling more work and responsibility onto you to replace others, and then turning round and blaming you for not getting it done or for “poor productivity” or other slurs. Document increases in workload to counter this.
- Getting a better offer from another firm and approaching your current employer with this is often a good way of testing your current work culture. If your value and loyalty is further questioned, you know this is a toxic workplace that will continue to gas-light you, and should resign and move on accordingly.
- In the moment you are being gas-lit:
- Do not give up on your reality (hold on to it and don’t budge)
- Don’t give in to their warped reality
- Don’t engage or “tangle” with it to the point of exasperation. Simply nod, acknowledge or say you see it a different way.
- Don’t defend yourself to the point of exasperation. You’re defending against someone with an agenda that doesn’t care about reality or facts and will double down, so you’re wasting your energy. Simply state your reality.
- If the re-framing and doubling down continues, simply calmly disengage. Do not react in a way that will give them fuel to sneak around gossiping to others to further undermine you (a common smear campaign tactic).
- If they start going after you as a person, again, just calmly disengage and document (especially that they’re NOT addressing the actual issue being discussed).
Handling Workplace Gas-lighting
Once you identify that workplace gas-lighting is going on, here are some broad level tips for handling and responding to it:
Documentation – You must carefully and thoroughly and correctly document all instances of gas-lighting engaged in by colleagues/managers, which is actually easy when they’re contradicting clear facts and evidence (save emails, screenshots, minutes and document conversations which are evidence of gas-lighting). Also, with relentless and pervasive gas-lighting, you’re often dealing with pathological Cluster B personality disorders such as psychopathy/narcissism, in which case pay very close attention to, and thoroughly document, ALL instances of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from them, not just gas-lighting and not just towards you (there will be plenty with pathological personality types, who constantly push boundaries and break rules in the workplace).
Know When To Withdraw – With relentless and compulsive gas-lighters, know when to simply stop engaging and walk away. Part of the “kick” that pathological personalities get is from continually drawing you into discussions where they keep gas-lighting you more and more, and seeing your annoyance and exasperation grow. In other words, by even continuing to engage, you’re losing. Know when to simply step back with a comment like “I’m not even continuing this discussion” or “I’m not even conversing with someone who continually denies clear reality”, make your documentation, and save your energy.
Work on Assertiveness and Boundaries – Quite often a person who is targeted for gas-lighting is someone who has a vulnerability a toxic person scans for, and can see, such as poor boundaries and a lack of ability to stand up for themselves. If this is you, you need to work in developing (or re-strengthening if it’s been eroded) proper boundaries and assertiveness, which is what gas-lighters systematically seek to erode over time. Assertiveness is an important life trait and can be worked on easily with coaches/counsellors and therapists. And there are even specific courses you can go on to improve assertiveness.
Assess Company Culture – This is a very important broad level assessment to make when deciding course of action going forward. If the gas-lighting person seems to be an isolated “bad egg” in what seems an otherwise pretty healthy company with decent people, it may be worth escalating complaints higher up to middle management, HR etc. However, more often than not, if this behavior is going on and has been for a long time without being dealt with, it’s more often a sign that the entire company culture itself is toxic and needs rejecting, not just that person(s) engaging in the gas-lighting. Assess the general culture of the company for toxic red flags, including the quality and integrity of management and colleagues, plus the way workers are treated in general, and know when to simply save your energy and move onto somewhere better. For example, if you are reluctant to even escalate complaints against a toxic gas-lighter because you fear your concerns won’t be taken seriously or dealt with properly, straight away this is a red flag.
See also our article on recovery from workplace gas-lighting for tips on reversing it’s toxic effects if it’s been going on a long time.