Taking Control Of the Narrative – Gaslighting

A few weeks ago, I published an article called Connecting Gaslighting at Work and Belonging Uncertainty. The article was about identifying the signs of gaslighting and how gaslighting is related to belonging. It’s bittersweet to say that the response was overwhelming. I received hundreds of messages and would like to thank you for sharing your stories with me, from the bottom of my heart. While I am happy that people could connect with the content and one another (via great post dialogue), it’s sad that so many of us have experienced gaslighting at work. Here is a summary of what I learned from all of you:

  • People don’t know they are being abused – Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. Still, the topic and name are not discussed very much within the workplace as it is around romantic relationships. Some told me that they didn’t know they were being abused, blaming themselves for lack of professionalism or ability to outsmart their gaslighter. Others said to me that their gaslighters convinced them that the abuse was not even happening. One thing is for sure, all of them said that they couldn’t put a name to what they were experiencing to explain it to others, and that made them feel anger, guilt, pain, and predominantly shame.
  • People feel shame – When people are dealing with challenging emotions, an overwhelming shame is associated.  Gaslighting is profoundly personal and often makes the victim question their beliefs and cognitions, leading to eroded judgment, self-worth, and confidence. Another person told me that when she was gaslit, she was “in a shame spiral. My shame was reinforced daily, and as much as I tried to cover it and or hide it from others, I’m pretty sure people saw through my facade.”  One person told me, “ In hindsight, I wish I would have had the energy to look for another job because I never really worked any of it out. I’m still working it out two years later. When I quit, I convinced myself that I was taking control back, but in reality, I didn’t feel like I had any other option, so leaving an abusive situation was my only option. I knew I made the right choice, but it continues to haunt me. Why didn’t I fight harder? What would have happened if I kept escalating? ” The overwhelming shame associated with gaslighting in the workplace doesn’t necessarily end when you leave the job, boss, or company.
  • People feel out of control – What I learned from the hundreds of messages and people’s stories is that people felt out of control in every sense of the word when they experienced gaslighting. One person that reached out told me, “the only control I had was quitting, so I did. It took me a year to pull the trigger. I didn’t look across the company for another job; I was exhausted. My emotions were out of control, and I hardly recognized myself.” That makes sense since gaslighting is a type of emotional abuse, and victims are made to doubt their perception of reality.
  • People shut down  – When being gaslit, victims reported that their resistance was lowered, their well-being went downhill, and they tended to bottle things up. More often than not, people told us they withdrew and/or lived in a state of ambivalence, dwelling on their complex emotions. Essentially, the victims felt stuck, and as one person told me, “I did a lot of brooding. I felt like it was easier not to deal with how I was feeling because then I had to do something about it, and I loved the company so much that I knew leaving the company would feel just as bad. So I did nothing.” The unfortunate reality is that when we bottle things up, the issues at hand don’t usually go away, and eventually, we have to deal with them. Susan David recently wrote about this, “Research on emotional suppression shows the emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification.” 
  • People explode – One could argue that it’s better to explode rather than bottle up our emotions. You know, the whole “it’s important to feel things” argument (which is pretty sound, by the way), and there is a reality that when we bottle things up, eventually, people “lose it.” After all, human emotions are like a boiling pot of water. As Lindsay Dodgson said in a 2018 article on bottling emotions, “ If you put a lid on a boiling pot, eventually the contents will rise to the top and spillover. If we push our feelings down and down and try to avoid them, eventually, they will explode out more fiercely than before.” When we explode, it’s messy. We tend to feel even worse about ourselves which comes from a place of fear and blame. We blame our emotions, our ability to control said emotions, and we are afraid to trust ourselves. 

Facing your gaslighting experience and the emotions that go along with it takes courage. It’s like Churchill said, “ If you are going through hell, keep going.” Here are some ways to help you cope with your experience:

  • Set your intentions – Put it out there in the universe – this is my goal, and these are the actions I will take to achieve that goal. See if you can engage with your emotions differently, and in doing so, be kinder to yourself by eliminating the should haveswould haves, and could haves. Be intent on taking back your narrative. Your story is yours, and you have control over it. Make sure the story you are telling yourself has a plot twist – that you will take control out of the hands of your gaslighter. The story we tell ourselves can be pretty powerful. Make it a good one, on your terms.
  • Put your abuser on a PIP   Document everything–just like you would do in a performance improvement plan (PIP). Move the conversation to written form instead of putting yourself in harm’s way in conversation after an abusive conversation. Keep a journal, write down what was said, or, if it’s over an email, create a folder in a non-work account with every interaction noted. Snapshot conversations as well, many interactions are not as formal as in emails and store them in this file. Keep a record of every interaction where gaslighting occurs, including dates and times. This is not a CYA; it’s an exercise to straighten things out in your mind and highlight the event happening, your accomplishments related to the gaslighting conversations, and not allowing others to control and confuse you anymore.
  • Check the employee handbook – be knowledgeable. Check your employee manual to see if your company has a policy on handling complaints about gaslighting or workplace bullying in general. You’ll want to know the policy or lack thereof before you go to HR–if that is what you decide to do. 
  • Confront your gaslighter – This is a tough one, but it is important to stand up for yourself. Additionally, if you want to escalate this at work, you’ll be able to show that you tried to address the problem on your own.
  • Manage your expectations – If you feel like you are not getting anywhere on your own, you may decide to go to HR. If you decide to go to HR, remember that most HR employees aren’t trained psychologists and while they will do their best to mediate and sympathize, they are not treatment professionals. Also, while you may be holding out hope that your gaslighter will be fired, that is unlikely to happen. Most likely, HR will try to get the gaslighter to back off or help move you to another part of the company.
  • Quit – Mental abuse is never ok, and that said, most people messaging me quit to leave their abuser. I couldn’t agree more that knowing when to cut bait and rebuild confidence in a new environment is essential. That new environment could be another department in the company, or you may need to seek out another job at another company rather than continuing to endure the same isolation, anxiety, depression, and other mental anguish caused by your gaslighter.

Gaslighting is serious and can have a long-lasting impact on your health and your career. Gaslighting is about control, but when we start to take back the power to control our narratives and stories, we move one step closer to overcoming adversity and abuse in the workplace. 

I would love to hear from you, what else would you do to take back control of the narrative on gaslighting?

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