Have you ever encountered someone who continually makes you doubt your own perception of reality?
It starts subtly, but over time, this individual begins to label you as “paranoid” or “dramatic.”
If this sounds familiar, you might be a target of gaslighting.
Gaslighting isn’t limited to politics or intimate relationships — it also rears its head in the professional world.
As this Pumble blog post on gaslighting gained traction, we received numerous responses from readers who shared their experiences of workplace gaslighting.
They raised crucial questions, such as:
- What motivates gaslighters,
- What personality types are more likely to become gaslighters, and
- Why do some individuals seem more susceptible to being gaslighted?
To find comprehensive answers to these questions, we spoke with Dr. Robin Stern, a licensed Psychoanalyst and Associate Director at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, known for her work on gaslighting.
Without further delay, let’s delve into this topic.
Defining gaslighting: A few examples
Gaslighting is an insidious form of emotional abuse that can leave the victim feeling:
- Anxious, and
- Unable to trust their own instincts and memories.
Gaslighters employ subtle tactics to confuse their targets and chip away at their self-confidence.
To give us an idea of what gaslighting can look like, Dr. Stern shared an example from her book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulations Other People Use to Control Your Life. In this instance, a considerate woman is panic-stricken when she can’t find salmon for her husband:
“She walked into the store and knew from the moment she saw that they were out of the particular kind of salmon her husband liked that she would be in trouble when she got home. She knew that he would be gaslighting her and aggressive.
And, she had already started the process with him in her own mind — ‘well, if I really were a loving wife, I would have made sure that I got up early enough to get to the grocery store before they were out of the salmon.’”
For many gaslightees, Stern adds, “taking on the voice of the gaslighter” isn’t unusual.
However, gaslighting isn’t limited solely to intrapersonal relationships, as the reader submission below shows.
“I, too, suffered from gaslighting at the hands of a line manager. It eventually reached the point where I demanded that our supervision be done via team communication software and recorded.
Although they attempted to modify their behavior and approach in such meetings, it was generally unsuccessful — especially when I challenged what they had said and did to me, which made them resort to the tactics of saying I was not remembering things correctly or I was too sensitive.”
But, what fuels such behavior? We’ll explore that in the following sections.
Why do people gaslight?
Given how overwhelming gaslighting can feel to the gaslightee, it’s hard to understand why someone would target another person in that manner.
Pumble reader Bonnie Hoffman suggested that the malice could stem from deep-rooted insecurities:
“The gaslighter needs to prove their own worth to account for deep-rooted insecurities, so they choose somebody strong and capable, probably a person they secretly admire but resent at the same time. Perhaps their victims bring them face to face with their feelings of insecurity, and the only way they can deal with those feelings is to:
- Invalidate, and
Victims become socially isolated, so there are no real winners.”
Stern states that gaslighting is connected to how well we manage our emotions:
“If you aren’t somebody who knows how to skillfully process emotions in the moment because you’re not used to it, you may feel destabilized and uncomfortable to the point where you lash out with gaslighting.
And you may lash out by twisting the reality and lying, blaming the target of gaslighting, or deflecting responsibility. So, being skillful in emotional intelligence includes recognizing when feelings rock your emotional stability and using helpful strategies to regulate your emotions in the moment.”
Since we’ve touched on the feelings that may spur gaslighters, we’ll look at whether they all act in the same way.
Personality types that gaslight: The 3 types of gaslighters
Constant manipulation from an intimate partner, friend, or coworker can make you question your judgment and obliterate your sense of self-worth. For this reason, some people picture gaslighters as evil narcissists intent on harming others.
Yet, Dr. Stern underscores that gaslighting is a learned behavior:
“Much of the time, people think of gaslighters as being evil. But, gaslighting is a learned behavior. You either learn it by living with a gaslighter or being on the receiving end of gaslighting. So, you learn how to gaslight even if you’re not taking lessons willingly.”
Moreover, in The Gaslight Effect Recovery Guide, Stern stresses that “not all narcissists are gaslighters.” In fact, healthy narcissism acts as the foundation of our sense of self. Conversely, unhealthy narcissism is often the result of past trauma, and narcissistic tendencies and gaslighting don’t necessarily go hand in hand.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not all gaslighters act the same, and Stern brings attention to 3 distinct types:
“There are 3 types of gaslighters:
- Тhe Intimidator,
- Тhe Glamor Gaslighter, and
- The Good-Guy Gaslighter.
You may see all three types in the workplace.”
We’ll now see how these 3 types differ and what behavior is characteristic of each.
Type #1: The Intimidator
When you hear the word “gaslighter,” what kind of person comes to mind?
If it’s someone who gives you the silent treatment and guilt trips you into doing what they want, then you probably had some past experiences with the Intimidator.
Intimidators are aggressive and use a range of intimidation techniques to put down their victims. Even when not part of gaslighting, punishment and scare tactics severely impact a person’s mental health.
Of course, fits of anger and unprovoked shouting are one way an intimidator may act in front of the gaslightee.
Yet, they may go down a more subtle route. For example, a manager who is belittling your achievements at every turn may round up their disparaging comments by saying, “Oh, lighten up! That was only a joke.”
When you buy into the narrative that it was just a joke and that maybe the problem is all in your head, a vicious cycle is set into motion. Stern calls this “the gaslight effect” — a phrase that refers to the devastating repercussions of continuous gaslighting.
Type #2: The Glamor Gaslighter
Imagine that you’ve been trying to get hold of your manager to check in on an important project. They’ve ignored your emails and messages, and when you spot them in the office, they’re always rushing to get to a different meeting.
Flash forward a few days, your manager has finally gotten back to you, and they suggest you take a longer lunch break or even the whole day off.
Instead of feeling elated, you’re frustrated because an extra day off doesn’t explain why they’ve ignored you. Instead of apologizing, they look at you strangely because you’re upset after being commended and rewarded.
That’s the modus operandi of Glamor Gaslighters — they rely on grand gestures to make the gaslightee feel special.
Because of this special treatment, self-doubt begins to eat away at you.
How could you be angry when they’ve gone out of their way to do something nice to you? And, if you don’t appreciate their efforts, you’re clearly in the wrong.
Type #3: The Good-Guy Gaslighter
When you suggest something to your colleague or partner, and they brush you off with a polite “You’re really thinking about it too much,” you wouldn’t immediately think they’re intentionally undermining you — which is the trouble when dealing with Good-Guy Gaslighters.
They put you down with a smile and kind demeanor — and all you’re left with is confusion. After all, they’re not openly aggressive, so you can’t help but think that maybe you do have a bad habit of overanalyzing the situation.
Moreover, your gaslighter may even pretend to be open to hearing you out, which further compounds your sense of guilt for questioning their motives.
Common symptoms of gaslighting
As we’ve mentioned, not all gaslighters are openly aggressive, so determining whether someone is manipulating you can be challenging.
Furthermore, gaslighting can have different consequences on a person’s mental health and their workplace.
Consequences of gaslighting on mental health
Depending on its severity, gaslighting can cause a wide range of symptoms including:
- Doubting your decisions non-stop,
- Wondering whether you’re paranoid or overly sensitive,
- Being excessively apologetic to friends, family members, and coworkers,
- Difficulty making decisions,
- Questioning your self-worth,
- Feeling unhappy even when everything is going right,
- Hesitating before speaking up, and
- Feeling as if you’ve become a completely different person.
Stern notes that for many gaslightees, shame may become a significant hurdle:
“People feel a sense of shame. And, that shame often keeps people in the relationship because they pull away from others who could otherwise support them, because they don’t want to reveal to others what is really going on.
But, if other people don’t know what’s happening because you’re too ashamed to talk about it, then it becomes harder to process outside of that one channel of information that you’re getting from your gaslighter.
Thus, shame becomes a big factor, and another is not understanding that everyone can be vulnerable.”
Not to mention, many issues can crop up in the workplace, too.
Consequences of gaslighting in the workplace
When you constantly fear unfair criticism and negative repercussions at your job, these emotions can limit your creativity and independence.
Stern underscores that in the workplace, gaslighting often feels like the opposite of psychological safety.
“When you have a gaslighter in the workplace, it destroys psychological safety because psychological safety includes the feeling that it’s okay to make a mistake and even failed projects are opportunities to learn. Safe environments make you feel like you can say what you need to say, and can take a risk to be creative because if you’re wrong, it’s okay — you will learn something.
If that psychological safety shatters, you won’t be willing to take a risk because somebody might put you down for your new idea or innovative approach, and then, if you complain, tell you you’re paranoid.”
Of course, not all of the symptoms mentioned above have to be present for people experiencing gaslighting. But, when they do occur, it’s because of the gaslighter’s:
- Actions, or
With all this in mind, we can now explore how people become vulnerable to gaslighting.
Personality types that get gaslighted
The truth is, anyone can get caught up in what Stern has named the “gaslight tango.”
If you are kind and empathetic, the natural thing to do is to always consider the other person’s perspective, which can leave you particularly vulnerable to manipulation.
Once that empathy is weaponized against you, you have no kindness left for yourself.
So, at one point or another, we all might have to stand up to a manipulator.
However, this Psychology Today article on gaslighting calls attention to 4 factors that could make us more vulnerable. These are:
- Childhood experiences: If you’ve been gaslighted while growing up, it may take longer to recognize how harmful this behavior is.
- Increased self-questioning: A gaslighter will capitalize on your shaken confidence and exploit it to keep you in that state.
- Conflict avoidance: If you’re averse to conflicts and heated arguments due to past experiences, your first instinct would be to go along with what the gaslighter wants.
- An inclination to appease others: It’s normal to want others to approve of us, but when you always feel like you’ve done something wrong, it may be time to rethink that relationship.
Fortunately, there are ways we can protect ourselves and learn to end the gaslight tango.
What to do if you’re being gaslighted?
Recognizing the warning signs is a good first step, but Stern highlights that putting an end to this toxic cycle of manipulation requires cooperation and self-awareness on the gaslighter’s end. Still, even when gaslighters are willing to change their ways, confronting them can be daunting, especially in a business environment.
“If you are dating someone and you stand up to their gaslighting, what’s the risk?
You may go through heartbreak or likely experience disappointment and maybe loneliness, but the person is out of your life, and you can also feel the relief of that.
But, what happens when you stand up to gaslighting in the workplace? What if there’s retaliation? What if you’re then labeled as a problematic employee?
What if you lose your job?”
In addition to these concerns, gaslightees also have to think about the most effective strategy to extricate themselves from these unhealthy relationships.
Their tactics may take different forms, depending on the type of gaslighter they’re dealing with.
What to do when confronting an Intimidator
Stern acknowledges the difficulties of interacting with Intimidators and emphasizes the importance of finding support and keeping a written record.
“For the most part, Intimidators are very hard to confront and address.
When confronting your Intimidator gaslighter, try not to be alone. Invite a colleague to be with you during the meeting and be sure to write down the conversation as much as possible.”
Try not to kick off the conversation or meeting by immediately blaming your gaslighter — this may trigger them to directly head into defensive mode. Instead, strive to express your emotions regarding the situation using neutral language to avoid a communication breakdown.
While saying “You’ve done me wrong in these ways,” feels tempting, reel that instinct in and choose something like: “The current situation has made me feel uneasy for quite some time.” This way, you’ll open doors to a more productive and constructive interaction.
What to do when confronting a Glamor Gaslighter
According to Stern, breaking away from a Glamor Gaslighter can feel uncomfortable because they turn up the charm to disarm the gaslightee:
“The Glamor Gaslighter will be romancing you in a different way for different reasons — but charming you nonetheless.”
Whether they’re gaslighting you to gain power or control, you’ll feel as if you are under their spell.
Consequently, it’s essential to tune into your own emotions and find empathy for yourself.
This may involve talking to someone not directly involved in the situation to gain an unbiased, third-party view. By reframing your perspective, you’ll learn to put less weight on your gaslighter’s approval and remove yourself from destructive and unproductive interactions.
What to do when confronting a Good-Guy Gaslighter
Going head-to-head with a Good-Guy Gaslighter can be tricky because there’s a reason they’re called the good guys.
“Good guys are more likely to listen to you and feel confused – after all, they are good guys. They may then try to accommodate and shift their behavior.”
When that shift occurs, Stern advises that you pay attention to their language and behavior:
“What you are looking for is for their behavior to line up with their words. And, you really want the other to engage with you, not against you — you want to have a conversation where when you ask a question, that question is responded to — not avoided, deflected, undermined, or squashed.”
Stern further emphasizes that, in these circumstances, being prepared is everything.
“Preparing yourself for those conversations and being sure that you have social support is the biggest factor, but also giving yourself space to step back and connect with your reality and how far you’re willing to go.”
Conclusion: Combat gaslighting and free yourself from manipulation
Stepping back from any relationship is hard, but, ultimately, taking care of your sanity and well-being should always be a top priority.
To reclaim your agency and revitalize your self-confidence, strive to:
- Tune into your emotions,
- Identify harmful behaviors,
- Notice when you’re being sucked into unhealthy power struggles, and
- Remember that your self-worth isn’t directly related to validation from others.
Breaking free from gaslighting entails not only standing up to your gaslighter but also turning off the voice in the back of your head whispering: “Maybe it’s you.” So, treat yourself with compassion and patience as you embark on this journey.
To learn more about gaslighting, how detrimental it can be, and how to combat it, we recommend reading the post below.