Before I dive in, I’d like to express gratitude for a space like Elpha and the community here. What a difference safety and connection make.
OK. So first, what is gaslighting? According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, gaslighting: is a form of emotional abuse that causes victims to question themselves, giving the abuser more power.
While we might hear about gaslighting as it relates to personal relationships within families and partnerships, this kind of abusive tactic unfortunately can happen at work too. And I know a lot of women who have experienced it within their workplace.
Gaslighting is a big deal, and it’s different from someone being rude, being in disagreement with an opinion, or trying to be right. It usually starts small and develops over time with the goal of having the victim question their reality. Gaslighting often leads to:
- Minimizing your own feelings, wondering if you’re just too sensitive
- Doubting yourself and your experience
- Over apologizing
- Feeling confused, unhappy, and disconnected from yourself
- Difficulty making decisions, or following through with tasks that you once handled with confidence and ease
My experience: The first time I experienced gaslighting in the office was in 2015. My manager had delivered feedback in a way that I felt was extremely inappropriate and unprofessional, so I found 1:1 time with him to discuss what happened and set a professional boundary.
I sent a transparent note before our chat to set expectations and provide clarity on what I wanted to discuss and why. I was nervous and didn’t want the conversation to come as a surprise.
We met in a small conference room just the two of us. I thanked him for joining and told him I wanted to ensure we had a positive, respectful working relationship. To do that, we needed to discuss his feedback delivery a few days prior.
When I brought up my experience, he completely denied it. I remember clearly him saying, “That didn’t happen, Sheena. You’re making this up.” I had never been so confused in my life.
The meeting continued to get weirder and weirder, as he proceeded to tell me that I was an emotional person, and that it was me who was being unprofessional.
I walked away from that meeting feeling an intense combination of emotions: fear in a way I had never experienced, confusion, and disconnection from my body like I had entered the twilight zone! There’s more to this story, but eventually, this manager was investigated and let go after countless reports of this kind of ongoing abuse.
Recently, I had a similar, though less severe, experience with a client I was consulting for and I was able to move through it with greater ease, clarity, and connection to myself. Without going into the details of what happened. I’d like to share and handful of tools that I used to help keep me grounded, and in my power.
- Breathwork: Intentional breathwork is one of the best ways to regulate our nervous system in distressing situations and reconnect to our bodies. It is also easy to do in a public setting. I recommend two consecutive inhales, followed by a long exhale to start.
- Grounding Mantra: In my life today, I use this mantra when I feel less grounded in my own body: I am a mountain. I am solid.
- Pausing: In the situation I was in recently, I counted slowly to 5 before responding to anything this client said. It enabled me to stay focused and calm.
Take back your power:
- Bring a neutral, trustworthy person into the conversation: I immediately suggested we bring in another person who had been helping with the project. In the situation I was in recently, my client rejected this suggestion. However, making the suggestion in the first place reminded me that there were other people available as witnesses and neutral support.
- Stay true to your experience: I didn’t give in to the urge to question myself or my reality.
- Call a trustworthy, close friend: Following the experience I called a trusted friend who I knew would validate my experience.
- Speak up: Ultimately, I decided to end my contract with this client immediately following this conversation. However, I know that kind of action is not always immediately feasible. In the cases that it’s not, speaking up is huge. Gaslighting is effective because it rattles the victim’s confidence and causes confusion. Making other people aware of this kind of behavior may be enough to make the person gaslighting back off.
- Seek professional help: After the initial incident with my former boss in 2015, I shared my experience with a really helpful therapist. I not only received the validation I needed to regain trust and confidence in myself over time, but I also gained access to a lot of helpful tools like the ones I’ve shared here. They’ve come in handy since, even in situations that simply involved hard conversations and conflict.
Whether it’s happening at work or elsewhere, gaslighting and other abusive behavior can be isolating, confusing, and deeply impact one's well-being. Through my experience, I’ve learned that reaching out is always more helpful than my mind tells me it’ll be. We never have to deal with this kind of thing alone! Whether it’s communities like Elpha, speaking with trusted friends and loved ones, or seeking professional counseling and therapy, we have access to guidance when it comes to navigating potentially abusive situations.
Here are a few helpful resources that dive deeper into what I’ve shared above as well: