Gaslighting at work: How to stay centered, and take back your powerFeatured

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.

Staying centered:

  • 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:

Thank you for writing this! I am sorry you went through this experience. I had something really really similar happening to me and on top of this there was racial and gender discrimination, turned out that office had a tendency to hire women in "support" roles and specifically minority women specifically Asian and Black women were the most common (but there were also Latinas and Indian women, who had short stints). I think about it and I have shivers, and so glad I am no longer there!
Thank you for reading @iynna and for sharing your own experience. I think this happens a lot more than we realize or talk about. I've also seen firsthand how race and gender discrimination can amplify this kind of treatment and go unnoticed/reported completely in such situations. I think the more we're able to talk about this stuff with each other (and from an empowered place whenever possible - because for a long time, I had a lot of shame around it believing it was my fault, or I attracted it), the more we stop it from continuing.
"we're able to talk about this stuff with each other (and from an empowered place whenever possible" AMEN! I honestly think that the fact that we're even able to express our feelings and share our experiences is a gamechanger!
@sheenavega Thank you for sharing. I feel like you just described my personal experience at work. I am happy to hear that your situation turned out a lot better than my situation. I'm a career changer working to get into a design role within the UX/UI realm so, I can't just jump ship. I work for the State and you would think that the EDI initiatives alone would be grounds for a safer space. I was wrong. I went to HR who stated that this happens a lot with change in management, my union rep who told me that she can't do anything about "interpersonal conflicts". I hope and pray to get an opportunity to get out soon. Staying hopeful! Thanks again for sharing!Tisha
It's so sad that so many of us have felt this way... I hope the generations to come have it easier on that front
@TishaParadis I'm really sorry to hear you're in this situation it can feel so incredibly maddening to share such a vulnerable, and important experience with HR or a union rep, and then be told there's nothing to be done. You're totally not alone, as you can see from my post. I'm not sure if I mentioned this in there or not, but the first manager to treat me this way got fired eventually, but it was YEARS later. Maybe you speaking up will have a ripple effect for those who come into your environment later, you never know. Still, I know that doesn't make the present moment any easier. If you ever need to chat, just to share, vent, cry, whatever, feel free to ping me and we can set up a zoom <3
Thank you! I really appreciate that. My piece of the story is only a fraction of what's happened on my team, unfortunately.
Gaslighting can happen to anyone. And it makes you feel like you lost your mind. Never mind feeling anxious and even scared. Happened to me as a mid level manager and it was a year of hell. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Your post is awesome, thank you for sharing.
Thank you for sharing this post. I now realized after some research you prompted that my leader’s behaviour (which I couldn’t articulate) was gaslighting. Please allow me to share my story, for therapeutical reasons ☺️She would ask me to work in that team to take notes (“I know it’s not thrilling but you’ll learn what we do”). The next time I met her, she said “I hear Natalie is still needing to get involved and program manage because you are still not leading it”. I was quietly fuming but also scared of pointing her incoherence because she could make my life truly miserable, I am an empath and felt her frustration quite intensely.
This is such a valuable post - thank you so much for sharing!
Such a clear explanation and set of actions to take. Thank you for taking the time to share.