What is gaslighting? Eight red flags and how to respond

17 April 2023 dot 5-minute read
Feature Healthy Mind Live Well Work Well Gaslighting
Gaslighting, considered psychological abuse, is a form of workplace bullying. (Credit: Shutterstock)
After a 1,740 per cent increase in searches, Merriam-Webster proclaimed gaslighting as the word of the year in 2022. There wasn't a specific event that caused the spike. But searches for the word happened "frequently every single day of the year", according to the dictionary.
Merriam-Webster defines gaslighting as: "Psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories."
Adult clinical psychologist Sarah R. Siahaan, MA, M.Psi, characterises gaslighting as a form of emotional and psychological abuse. "A person or group manipulates one or more people into questioning their sanity and perception of reality."
Gaslighting is a prominent behaviour in domestic abuse cases. But you can be gaslighted in any relationship, including the ones you have at work.

Who is a gaslighter

Merriam-Webster also defines gaslighting as the act or practice of grossly misleading someone, especially for one's advantage. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Gaslighting occurs when there is an imbalance of power, and therefore you may experience it with your manager. Manipulation and deception can also come from your peers.
Siahaan, who has a Master's degree in Human Resource Management, says, "Gaslighters can be a client or condescending co-worker. They can also be a workplace frenemy who is jealous of your success."
A gaslighter plants seeds of doubt about your competence and credibility, weakening your confidence and morale. They may rely on external reinforcement to be effective, as Professor Kate C. Adkins writes in her paper "Gaslighting by Crowd" in Social Philosophy Today.
"An individual who makes their co-worker feel unskilled and mentally off may do so to appear competent in the eyes of the supervisor," Siahaan explains.

Signs you're being gaslit

One gaslighting tactic is to make you the subject of gossip, where the gaslighter can discredit or question your abilities to other people. Then, when you confront them, they deny saying something even though your colleagues expressed otherwise.
According to Preston Ni, author of the book How to Successfully Handle Gaslighters & Stop Psychological Bullying, gaslighters will keep repeating a lie and are not afraid to escalate when challenged.
Mental health experts say gaslighters will perform coercive or controlling techniques to gain control over someone. Here are gaslighting red flags:
  1. They change narratives to deflect blame
  2. They constantly contradict or deny your recollection of events.
  3. They minimise or dismiss your concerns.
  4. They manipulate facts and information to confuse you.
  5. They reframe your motives to be the opposite of your intentions.
  6. They make you feel like you imagine things.
  7. They pretend to be an ally and then become cold.
  8. They isolate you from colleagues and friends.
Gaslighters are also very good at baiting you into reacting. They make you feel like you're manufacturing concerns with phrases such as:
  1. "You're being too sensitive."
  2. "You're overreacting."
  3. "I'm only trying to help."
  4. "You're remembering it wrong."
  5. "That never happened."
  6. "You must be confused."
  7. "It's all in your head."
  8. "You're making a big deal out of nothing."

How you feel when gaslit

However it occurs, gaslighting, Siahaan points out, "develops into a repeated pattern of manipulation". It happens in small amounts for an extended period, making it challenging to recognise the manipulative tactics at once.
Dr Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, the author of Gaslighting: Recognise Manipulative and Emotionally Abusive People – and Break Free, says gaslighters are very good at wearing out their victim.
"This is one of the insidious things about gaslighting – it is done gradually, over time. A lie here, a lie there, a snide comment every so often...and then it starts ramping up," Dr Sarkis writes in Psychology Today. "Even the brightest, most self-aware people can be sucked into gaslighting – it is that effective."
Effective gaslighting makes you confused and uncertain until your self-worth suffers. Work stress increases, and your performance begins to lag. Siahaan shares people who have been gaslit experience the following:
  • Overworking to "prove oneself"
  • Feelings of incompetence
  • Failing to understand what's expected of them
  • Turning down opportunities to avoid put-downs

How to respond to gaslighting at work

A gaslighter will shake your confidence until you lose self-esteem. Speaking to a mental health professional may help you achieve mental stability during tough times. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Siahaan advises keeping calm and staying focused on the truth if you feel you're being gaslit at work.
"Gaslighting works because it confuses you and shakes your confidence. If you show it doesn't bother you, the gaslighter may decide it isn't worth [pursuing]."
Here are a few ways you can respond to a gaslighter in the office:

Call out the lie or bad behaviour

Bring attention to their lies or misdirection to show them you won't accept the behaviour, Siahaan explains. "Don't be afraid to speak up since making others aware of the situation gives [the gaslighter] more incentive to leave you alone."

Follow up on a gaslighting comment

Gaslighters like to make backhanded compliments and disguise insults as jokes. "Asking them to explain the joke as if you don't understand may help them realise these strategies won't work on you," says Siahaan.

Take notes

Once you notice red flags, keep a journal to document the times you feel invalidated. It will help you become more aware of the gaslighter's behavioural patterns. Not only will you identify the red flags quicker, but you can avoid falling into their net of confusion. When you're gaslit the next time, you will be more prepared to assert your truth and say, "That is not the way I remember it."
Your journal can provide official documentation when you bring your situation to the HR manager's attention.
Speaking with a therapist will give you the tools to better care of yourself. In addition, you can tap into AIA Vitality's network of health professionals for counselling advice. The wellness programme has a supportive community that can help protect and preserve your mental wellness during difficult times.
Getting professional help gives you healthy ways to cope with gaslighting, which can chip away at your identity and self-confidence. Siahaan points out, "If we can't trust ourselves, we can't advocate for ourselves in the workplace.
Social Philosophy Today. 2019. Gaslighting by Crowd. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]
ResearchGate. 2018. Gaslighting and the knot theory of mind. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]
NPR. 2022. What headline? 'Gaslighting' is Merriam-Webster's word of 2022. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]
Psychology Today. 2017. 11 Red Flags of Gaslighting in a Relationship. [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]
Psychology Today. 2017. Gaslighting: How It Manipulates Relationships [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]
Narcissist Apocalypse Podcast. 2022. How to recognize and recover from gaslighting [online] [Accessed on 4 January 2023]

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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