Imagine this: You’re sitting in a meeting with your co-worker, who nonchalantly informs you about a directive from your boss you’ve never heard anything about. Confused, you quickly scan your notes and calendar to see if something has changed since your last meeting. You find nothing (despite priding yourself in being exceptionally detail oriented), but your colleague maintains their stance, making you straight-up question your sanity. Did they actually tell me this? Did I forget to write it down? Maybe they’re confusing me with someone else? Soon you’re questioning what’s expected of you, simply because this isn’t the first time your co-worker has denied and countered your thoughts, and you’re starting to wonder why it’s happening again. Well, friends, this is a prime example of gaslighting at work.
For those who might not be familiar with this term, gaslighting is a tactic for gaining control via manipulation, blame, invalidation, and/or withholding information from other people. While this term is often associated with romantic relationships, gaslighters can come in many forms and can be tough to spot in the act, because they tend to be pretty convincing in their narrative. In light of this, you’re inclined to believe them, assume you’re wrong, and—bam—you’ve been gaslighted.
“People who gaslight usually [have] low self-esteem, and their ability to convince you that they’re right [about a situation] gives them a sense of power and control.”— career coach Ashley Stahl.
But why do people invoke this approach in the first place? “People who gaslight usually [have] low self-esteem, and their ability to convince you that they’re right [about a situation] gives them a sense of power and control,” says career coach Ashley Stahl. That said, it makes sense that gaslighting at work, where many people just want to get ahead and find personal success, is a commonplace thing. Since that reality doesn’t make the practice any less damaging in effect, below find four signs your co-worker may be gaslighting you. Because if you know what’s going on, it’s way less likely to effect you.
You may like to be right 100 percent of the time at work, but that’s just not how the world works. But if you’re constantly second-guessing yourself because a co-worker continually counters your thoughts, ideas, or beliefs, you may be dealing with a case of gaslighting. Another sign that this may be what’s up is if your co-worker makes you feel confused about what you think and whether it’s on the nose or good enough. Questioning yourself can lead to confusion, which opens up space for a gaslighter to feel correct, even if they’re not.
Gaslighters like to be perceived as all-star employees, even at the expense of others’ success. One way they preserve their upper-hand status is by providing an endless stream of backhanded compliments. Think: “I never would have thought you’d be capable of that—great job!” or “You’re pretty talented for your age.” These comments land like serious burns, hurting progressively worse after the fact. You’re led to feel confused about why you feel badly though, especially since you know you’ve done a great job on the project.
“Validation is one of the most powerful communication tools, and it’s exactly what’s missing when you’re being gaslighted,” says Stahl. “[Giving] validation means being able to share when you understand where someone is coming from with their point of view, even if you don’t agree.”
Unfortunately, validation is just not a gaslighter’s cup of tea. While it’s worth communicating with them about your concerns or thought process, a gaslighter won’t even try to give you the benefit of the doubt. “Workplace bullies will gaslight you by making you feel wrong for what you think or how you feel, and will insist that their opinion or approach is correct,” says Stahl.
While questioning yourself from time to time is common (hello, imposter syndrome), it’s an especially common effect of a co-worker making you believe you’re doing a terrible job at work. And if boundaries are not put in place, those feelings can bleed into your personal life and more macro perceptions of who you are and what you’re capable of—in an outside the office.
And since no job (or person) is worth sacrificing the quality of your mental health, remember that boundaries—both mental and behavioral—are key. Building strong boundaries can preserve your sense of self-worth and shield you from feeling the toxic effects of gaslighting at work (and everywhere else, too).