Gas-lighting – the process of gradually undermining and invalidating a person’s self confidence and perception of reality – is generally thought of more in the context of personal relationships. And it is true that it happens a lot in this context. See our main article on gas-lighting for more on this.
However, it is also very common in workplaces, especially ones with toxic cultures, and a high concentration of staff with personality disorders like sociopathy and narcissism. For these types of people, gas-lighting is the go-to tactic to undermine and chip away at anyone they see as a target.
As with a lot of emotional abuse, it will start off gradually, as the toxic person test the waters to see how much they can get away with, and then starts to ramp up with the denials and flipping of reality on it’s head growing more and more outrageous as they erode the victim’s boundaries more and more.
If allowed to continue long term, it can leave victims with long lasting mental health and self esteem/self confidence problems that can affect people even if they move onto other jobs. This is the real damage of toxic psychological abuse, where the after-affects continue to follow the person around even into new environments which are not toxic like the old one.
In this article we want to offer up some useful tips for victims of workplace gas-lighting to “wipe the slate clean” and rebuild their self confidence and self esteem so they can begin to enjoy their work again.
Here are some quick tips to recover from gas-lighting at work:
- Understand gas-lighting and how it affects victims
- Leave your employer if the culture is toxic.
- Slowly rebuild your ability to make decisions
- Seek professional help
- Learn to spot Gas-lighting more quickly
- Learn to set boundaries
- Be cautious in new work environments at first
Let’s run through each of these tips in more detail.
1. Understand Gas-lighting & It’s Effects on You
The first major step in overcoming gas-lighting. We assume more readers already understand what this form of abuse is, but lets offer up a brief definition anyway:
Gas-lighting is a form of psychological abuse designed to erode a person’s sense of reality, perception and sanity. Common forms of gas-lighting include claiming things were said or done when they weren’t, or vice versa, and a general intentional flipping of reality on it’s head to confuse the victim.
In the workplace, some common ways this can manifest are:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Some common effects of gas-lighting on victims at work include:
- A loss of confidence in your own perception and sanity.
- You will start to second guess and doubt yourself in a way that you didn’t before.
- As self doubt grows, so does indecision and hesitance. Your performance starts to suffer as you always question yourself about things you used to do automatically.
- You start to struggle to function properly in your job, as things which you used to do unconsciously and automatically start to become conscious, such has your self doubt and “analysis paralysis” grown. You find you get easily mentally “overloaded” in a way you didn’t before.
- An overall increase in anxiety, rumination and overthinking, as your distress levels start to rise as you can sense on some level that something isn’t right.
- 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 you weren’t told about. A clear sign of gas-lighting and abuse.
Here are some good resources on gas-lighting:
- See our lengthy article on gas-lighting, which goes though defining it, some common forms of it, and how to deal with it in detail.
- See our follow up article on secondary and tertiary gas-lighting to understand how apathetic and easily influenced onlookers (and therapists) can amplify the effects of gas-lighting.
- See our article on the sociopath-empath-apath triad for a follow up on this – a very common dynamic where toxic people play apathetic bystanders off against a particular target. This happens a lot in workplaces – very important to understand.
- Dr Ramani Durvasula is a great validating resource on abusive dynamics. See here, here and here for some of her videos on gas-lighting.
- Richard Grannon – Spartan Life Coach – is also another excellent resource on YouTube. Binge watching his videos is ideal for someone suffering from any kind of abuse at work or elsewhere, or hoping to recover from it. He tends to use the terms “Brain-washing” and “Crazy-making” more than gas-lighting, but he is effectively talking about the same thing.
- See also Richard Grannon’s courses on his website. Check out especially his course on overcoming narcissistic abuse, where he has a hypnosis recording specifically to deal with gas-lighting.
- For a more general overview of how toxic personalities manipulate in the workplace, see Robert Hare and Paul Babiak’s Snakes in Suits, available on Amazon.
2. Leave Toxic Workplaces If You Are Still In Them
This is another one which sounds obvious, but you’ll be surprised how many people remain stuck in toxic workplaces, continuing to suffer covert abuse, somehow hoping that things will get better when they won’t. I’ve definitely been there myself.
It is a common trap for victims of psychological abuse to fall into Toxic Passivity, where they lose all hope of improvement or a light at the end of the tunnel, and just fall into a perpetual negativity, where they are not living a good life but aren’t doing anything to improve their situation either.
They start to soak up the negativity and toxicity around them, and fall into a rut, where their quality of life continues to suffer. It is very important to not let things get to this stage.
If you are in a toxic workplace environment, you should do all you can to get out of it as soon as possible. Do not wait around hoping for things to magically improve, when all the evidence objectively tells you it won’t. This is a common trap victims of bullying fall into.
Another downside of this is that it is much harder to recover from gas-lighting and begin to set boundaries when you are still being targeted by it. Recovering from any form of psychological abuse tends to happen quicker when you are in a safer, non toxic environment.
Be more proactive in the way you move through your life. This can be difficult, since being in a toxic workplace can drain you of motivation to the point that once you get home from a shift, you have zero motivation to do anything else, like look for other jobs. You just want to collapse in front of the TV. I’ve been there and I understand this.
The best way to overcome this is to move towards an exit, but just do so in slow, small steps. Just aim to do a little bit, however small, each day to get out of your current situation.
This can be looking at just a few pages of results on a job search site or updating just a small part of your CV each day. You don’t have to do everything at once, but work towards changing your current situation every single day.
Get out of workplaces quickly where your stress levels are rising because of constant gas-lighting and other abuse
3. Rebuild Your Decision Making Ability
This is a huge thing to try and do post gas-lighting and other abuse in a workplace environment. If it goes on for a long time, this kind of abuse will likely have eroded your ability to properly make decisions in a way you used to be able to before the abuse.
You will instead find yourself constantly second guessing yourself, freezing with indecision and sometimes unable to make even simple decision like which dessert to go for.
This is because systematic gas-lighting over time will have trained you to distrust the reality of your own perceptions.
Like anything else though, you can re-train yourself to trust your own perception and ability to trust your decision making.
Here are some great ways to do this:
- Build up your decision making confidence by practising making low key, unimportant decisions daily (eg. which dessert to go for, which film to watch etc). Just keep practising making a decision quickly and sticking to it, slowly building up to more important decisions.
- Practice making unobserved decisions at first. A large part of self doubt with abuse and bullying is a sense of your decisions constantly being observed and scrutinized. Making some decisions without others present can help you build up confidence again.
- For more important decisions, make pro/con lists to be really thorough about it. This makes it easier to be happy with whatever decision you do come to, because you have spent some serious time and effort considering it in a rational, organized way.
- For workplace tasks that you used to do automatically but now second guess yourself over, drill them back into your unconscious through repetition of the steps in the your mind, and even light visualization if you wish. Should move them back from the conscious mind to the unconscious where they belong and stop you overthinking them.
- See this great video from Dr Ramani on overcoming self doubt and second guessing after abusive relationships.
- Again Richard Grannon’s courses are also packed full of great recordings on rebuilding your self confidence and self esteem post abusive relationships, created by someone who has been there himself.
4. Enlist the Help of a Therapist
Depending on how severe and prolonged the workplace gas-lighting was, and how secure your sense of self was to begin with, it may be a good idea to get the help of a professional therapist to help yo recover from it.
Enlisting the help of a good therapist can help you better work through the abusive experiences, validate you on your perception that abuse has taken place, and restore your confidence in your own perception. Having a suitable therapist on board can be a good supplement to the other steps we mentioned.
However, suitable is the key word here. Many therapists do not properly understand or believe in things like gas-lighting and other forms of covert abuse, and can actually re-gaslight you if they don’t have the right knowledge base and skills set to validate you. This is what we covered in our article on secondary and tertiary gas-lighting.
Therefore you should make sure you your therapist is:
- Aware of covert abuse tactics like gas-lighting.
- Aware of Cluster B disorders like sociopathy and narcissism, since these are the personality types most likely to engage in gas-lighting.
- Warm and down to earth, not aloof and distant.
- Is fully on your side and committed to helping you heal.
See our Find a Therapist page for more on finding a suitable therapist following toxic abuse. This advice definitely applies to overcoming workplace gas-lighting just as it would to a toxic personal relationship.
Getting support from a good therapist is always a good idea to restore your balance after abusive dynamics like gas-lighting
5. Learn to Spot Gas-lighting More Quickly
This comes from the earlier step of educating yourself on gas-lighting, as well as training yourself to be more confident in your own perception.
To avoid being such an easy target, you must build up and maintain your ability to be able to spot call gas-lighting and other forms of covert abuse out for what they are.
You need to get rid of that nagging voice inside that keeps asking “Is this just me?”, “Did they just say/do that?” and so on, when you know that they clearly did. Manipulators thrive on this self doubt and inability to just see gas-lighting straight away and respond to it.
Here is a great general principle to follow on this:
“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
6. Learn to Set Boundaries & Stand Up For Yourself
This goes into deeper level issues as to why certain people get targeted for gas-lighting while others don’t. Manipulative personality types like sociopaths and narcissists seek to go after people who they see have weak ego boundaries and an inability to say no or stand up for themselves.
Predators go after the weakest prey, and this is why it is important to make yourself a harder target by developing stronger boundaries and an ability to stand up for yourself, confronting bullying for what it is and telling people to stop.
However, it is also true that for many victims of gas-lighting and other bullying, it is not as simple as repeating mantras about having stronger boundaries and standing up for yourself.
Many victims of toxic abuse suffer from co-dependency, which is defined by weak or porous ego boundaries, often caused by unresolved childhood issues. Workplace narcissists and sociopaths can very quickly hone in on these unresolved issues, and see when someone will be susceptible to gas-lighting and having their perception messed with.
This is why it is important to work through these issues with a qualified therapist, especially if gas-lighting has been a recurring theme in your life, and you suspect you have weak boundaries that exploitative people are honing in on time and time again in workplace settings.
This is a sign of deeper issues which need approaching more indirectly and therapeutically, and not through simple bullet point suggestions. Follow our advice in the section above on finding a suitable therapist to work through these issues with.
See also this good video from Richard Grannon on the common intersection between co-dependent personality types and toxic abuse such as gas-lighting.
7. Be Overly Cautious For A While in New Jobs
If your experience of being gas-lighted was particularly bad or prolonged, or it has kept happening to you and you really want to put up strong boundaries against it happening again, then consider adopting an ultra-cautious strategy in any new jobs you enter, until you see sufficient evidence over time that the culture is healthy and non toxic, and gas-lighting does not play a part in day to day life.
This can include doing any one of the following:
- Fully documenting all instances of inappropriate behavior, and indeed all conversations if you wish at first. Saving emails, texts, screenshots etc. so you have evidence to counter attempts to gas-light you.
- Request that minutes be taken of all meetings you are involved in.
- Being very careful and guarded with colleagues you meet at first, not giving too much of yourself away, until they have demonstrated they are genuine and trustworthy over time.
- Being especially wary of superficially glib and charming personalities who try to create powerful bonds with people they meet right away. Characteristic of the Cluster B toxic personality end of the spectrum.
- Following the steps above should help you spot and call out gas-lighting straight away when you see it. Warn manipulators that you know what they are doing and will report it if they continue.
- Report any concerns of gas-lighting and bullying to senior managers and HR, but only if the general culture is supportive and receptive. This is where having documentation/evidence helps.
- If the work environment and management are unsupportive and gas-lighting and other bullying is more pervasive, don’t bother reporting concerns and instead look to move on as soon as possible. Be more proactive in moving through your life and avoid falling into toxic passivity.