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Are you being manipulated at work?

You may not just have a difficult boss or co-worker — you may be being gaslighted.

The first time it happened to marketing manager Crystal Lim*, she was completely blindsided. 

“I was going overseas for a work trip, and my supervisor asked me to take pictures for another project we were working on. She had seen my Instagram feed and said I took good pictures, so she wanted me to take some for use in our presentation to our director.”

“Because of her instructions, I lugged my heavy DSLR camera all the way to Europe, and spent a lot of time and effort into curating shots. However, when I returned to the office and showed her my pictures, she looked at me incredulously and went, ‘I told you not to take these! Your pictures will never make it into the presentation. They’re only good enough for your own social media feed.’ I was completely taken aback — I had actually written down her instructions! But because I was so shocked, I couldn’t defend myself in time.”

Account executive Marianne Tay* had a similar experience in the advertising agency she used to work at. She says: “The account manager I was working on the same account with instructed me to come up with a few pitch ideas for a client. Over the course of the prep work, he dictated the direction of the pitch and reminded me to follow his instructions exactly. When we finally went to present the ideas to the account director, she was not at all pleased to find out that we had gotten the client’s brief entirely wrong.”

“Instead of owning up to his mistake, the account manager agreed with her and told her that he’d already told me, and he wasn’t sure why I still went ahead with the pitch angle. He was so convincing that I actually tried to recall if I’d misunderstood him. When I asked him about it afterwards, he retorted, ‘well, you didn’t have to take me so literally, did you?’”

Denial, misdirection & contradiction

It’s tempting to write off these apparent lapses in memory as one-off incidents, especially if you’re dealing with someone you work closely with. But if you’re starting to see a consistent pattern over an extended period of time, you could be looking at something a lot more insidious.

Gaslighting is widely defined as a form of manipulation that makes the victim doubt his or her sense of reality. 

Through constant and persistent denial, misdirection and contradiction, the manipulator gains the upper hand when the victim starts to question their own memory and sanity.

While the concept of gaslighting isn’t new, it has been more commonly covered in popular culture as a manipulation tactic in relationships. The term originated from the 1944 Oscar-nominated mystery thriller Gaslight, which tells the story of a young woman who is constantly manipulated and lied to by her husband, to the point where she isolates herself from the public for fear of not being able to trust her own grasp of reality.

Gaslighting was also brought to the fore in The New York Times bestseller The Girl On The Train, where a cheating ex-husband was revealed in a plot twist to have taken advantage of the lead character’s alcoholism to plant false memories of her abusive behaviour towards him.

More than just a manipulation tactic

But it was only last year that gas lighting outside of personal relationships became a hot topic, thanks to the United States presidential election (and, more specifically, US president Donald Trump). Even when presented with video or written evidence of contradictory statements made throughout the course of his campaign, Trump would resolutely deny ever making them. Former CNN correspondent Frida Ghitis summed it up best in an opinion-editorial in which she stated: “Reality is becoming hazy in the era of Trump. And that’s no accident. The fact is Trump has become America’s gaslighter-in-chief.”

Now, people are starting to take notice of such tactics, particularly in the work environment. If Lim and Tay’s stories sound like something you’ve experienced before, you may be a victim of gas lighting in the workplace.

Rachel Gan, manager of Sales & Marketing, Consumer & Healthcare at recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Singapore, shares two common examples: “If your boss has a history of promising to do something for you and subsequently retracting his or her statement; or if you find a co-worker alternating between being warm and cold towards you, while constantly undermining your contributions, it could be a form of gaslighting.”

According to Ho Shee Wai, founder and registered psychologist of The Counselling Place, people who gaslight often have some form of personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder. They could appear at any hierarchical level in the workplace, but problems are amplified when they are your supervisors.

“In Asia, we are always told to listen to our bosses and corporate settings do not encourage second guessing or questioning one’s boss,” says Richa Sharma, manager at employment agency Page Personnel Singapore.

“Individuals who gaslight are people who are constantly seeking power in some form, and having your own boss, who already sits in a position of power, gaslight you, makes it very confusing for the victims.”

As experts describe it, gaslighting is a “sophisticated form of emotional abuse”. And the unfortunate thing is, it’s sometimes hard to identify and hence correctly manage it. “Many people are unaware of the concept of gas lighting,” says Ho. “Many people chalk it up to having a difficult boss.”

Daniel Koh, psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, agrees, “Most of the time, [the victims] are so caught up in handling their emotions or the current situation [of being gaslighted], they don’t realise the intentions [of the abuser].”

A mental & physical toll

According to Ho, it’s crucial that people are aware they’re being manipulated. “The technique used in gaslighting is similar to those used in brainwashing, interrogation and torture that have been used in psychological warfare by intelligence operatives, law enforcement and other forces for decades. And the effect is a negative impact on the mental equilibrium, self-confidence and self-esteem, so that [victims] are no longer able to function in an independent way.”

Sharma echoes those sentiments: “By listening to the accusations by the abuser, you are automatically and categorically giving him or her more power and control. As a result, you’re breaking the trust you have with yourself and handing it over to the abuser(s). The problem is bigger than you think.”

Sounds exaggerated? Consider the physical and mental toll gaslighting took on Lim and Tay.

“I left every meeting with my boss completely drained — mentally and physically — from having to be hyper-present,” says Lim. “I started exhibiting classic signs of burnout: I physically couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, I lost my appetite, I lost interest in things I used to feel passionate about. My hair started falling out and my skin became patchy and dry.”

In Tay’s case, despite exercising diligently and eating well, her period became irregular because of the stress. 

“There were days where I would pass out on my laptop at home because I was wracking my brains so hard for new ideas again and again in case he changed his mind. And because he would make sneering remarks about how I was such a ‘millennial’ — implying that I couldn’t take the heat — I tried even harder to prove him wrong. I ended up drinking almost every day to relieve the stress.”

Despite the physical strain, both of them stuck it out for longer than they wanted to because of the same reason: They blamed themselves for the situation. “I bought into his ‘millennial’ nonsense, and truly believed I was just terrible at what I did,” recalls Tay. “I didn’t quit because I was afraid that nobody else would hire me, and I’d be proving him right.”

What can you do?

If the gaslighter is your boss, Robert Walters’ Gan suggests summarising and documenting your discussion after important meetings. “In the event that your boss promises you a pay raise or promotion then denies ever having said anything, it would be good then to use the writer summary as a reference point — it could be in the form of an email or appraisal form,” she elaborates. “If he or she maintains the same stance despite the evidence, maintain your calm but be assertive yet tactful by asking your boss what made him or her change his mind.”

In the case of a co-worker gaslighting you, Gan says that regardless of the situation, it’s important to maintain your professionalism. “If you feel the feedback provided by your co-worker lacks justification, try scheduling a meeting with him or her to obtain more clarification.”

When faced with such people in the office, both Sharma and Gan agree that it’s best to have a support system whether within or outside the company, and “basically, [let them be] your reason within the insanity”.

It’s also imperative to have faith in yourself and trust your intuition. “Have self-confidence. If you don’t allow others to get to you, then gaslighting won’t work,” says Insights Mind Centre’s Koh. 

Of course, if the situation doesn’t improve, sometimes there’s just no point fighting a losing battle. “The healthiest way to end gaslighting is to put yourself as priority, and get out,” shares Sharma. “This is not a battle you need to win. There is no ‘they won’, or ‘they beat me’ scenario. You just need to move on and be at peace with it, but also recognise the lessons learned from the ordeal.”

Don’t be afraid to leave

In the end, both Lim and Tay left their jobs because, despite confronting their supervisors, nothing changed. 

“My boss simply did not see anything wrong with her actions,” says Lim. “The only thing left was to change my situation — either not let it get to me, or leave a job I loved. For the sake of my wellbeing, I chose the latter.”

“The moment I handed in my resignation, it was as though I had a complete personality reboot,” muses Tay. “I had become a very negative and bitter person in the last few years working with my manager, and resigning made me feel as though life was full of possibilities again. My mind felt clear and my colleagues even joked about my skin glowing the next day!”

“I was sad about leaving my colleagues, of course. But ultimately, no job is worth the mental torture I had to endure. All I was looking for in a supervisor was someone who demonstrated basic respect for others. Gaslighting your co-workers and subordinates is the very opposite of that.”

*Names and occupations have been changed to protect their identities.

Are you being gaslighted in the office?

Sometimes, the best person to look to is yourself. Watch out for these telltale signs:

  • You constantly feel bad about yourself and your performance at work.
  • You often wonder if you’re losing your memory or your mind, and you start to doubt your own perception and sense of reality.
  • You second-guess yourself regularly and become insecure.
  • You wonder if you’re being “too sensitive”.
  • You start to depend on the abuser as your source of reality.