Beware of Gaslighting
by Mike Saxton, PhD
As an adult, it’s likely you are somewhat familiar with psychological manipulation, people getting others to do or believe things that satisfy their agenda without caring about the effect on those being manipulated.
The term “gaslighting” refers to a form of manipulation, derived from the title of an old movie about a woman who is psychologically manipulated by her husband to the point that she questions her own sanity. Gaslighting is subtle, often long-term manipulation intended to convince people to second-guess themselves, their beliefs, and even the world around them (Sorgatz & Petrantoni, 2018). Individuals who are subjected to gaslighting may grow to believe that they’re the problem when, in reality, the issue lies in the actions of their manipulators.
People may experience gaslighting in a variety of settings and relationships. Romantic partners may use this tactic to throw off their significant others, making them believe that they’re untrustworthy and convincing them to submit to obsessive monitoring, such as surrendering access to their social media to “prove” their honesty (Hara, 2020).
Family members may use this form of manipulation to isolate an individual with the goal of submission. Wilber and Reynolds (1996) identify a horrific example of someone who isolated an elderly relative by intercepting phone calls and other communications, then convinced the relative that no one cared about them. This allowed the manipulator to take advantage of the victim’s finances.
Gaslighting is not limited to family or romantic relationships; it can exist in the workplace as well (Schreiber, 2017). Opportunists can seize upon workplace disturbances as a chance to unleash this manipulation tactic. Any significant organizational change creates some level of discomfort and stress, which makes people ripe for this manipulative picking.
Gaslighters’ abusing their positions of responsibility is particularly insidious. Unlike in personal relationships, a manager has a recognized and official authority that, in the hands of a manipulative individual, can truly be destructive to the workplace environment. Further, the atmosphere of subtlety present in gaslighting can be exacerbated when directives and behaviors can be legitimized through a person’s position on the hierarchy chart.
What can we do about gaslighting, especially in the workplace? It may be subtle, but it’s not undetectable. If you think you may be the victim of gaslighting or similar types manipulation, it’s time for self-reflection and self-advocacy. Ask yourself:
- Do you doubt yourself in ways that you never used to?
- Have you recognized a decline in self-confidence or self-esteem?
- Have you begun to question your decisions in ways that you never used to?
- Are you subjecting yourself to self-blame for things that go wrong in the workplace or home?
- Are you having physiological responses to the presence of the suspected gaslighter or even the general environment (increasing blood pressure, shaking, difficulty concentrating, and other types of stress responses)?
While the above is not an exhaustive list, it may help you recognize whether you are in a manipulative situation. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.
It’s also important to remember that management has the right to manage. Personality clashes, disagreements with decisions, uncontrollable changes in the organization’s environment, acts of government, population shifts, economic changes, and similar situations can prompt responses from management that are not examples of manipulation but simply of directing the organization.
Again, if you feel that you are in a situation that sounds similar to those above, it’s all right to look for support. If you think you might be subject to any type of psychological abuse, make sure you seek help from a qualified professional. If you are a Goodwin University student or employee, Counseling Services are available to assist you at https://www.goodwin.edu/counseling/.
Hara, E. M. (2020, Jan). Caring-or controlling? Psychology Today, 53, 19.
Schreiber, K. (2017). Poison people caution. Psychology Today, 50(3), 50–58.
Sorgatz, R., & Petrantoni, L. (2018). The encyclopedia of misinformation: a compendium of imitations, spoofs, delusions, simulations, counterfeits, impostors, illusions, confabulations, skullduggery, frauds, pseudoscience, propaganda, hoaxes, flimflam, pranks, hornswoggle, conspiracies & miscellaneous fakery. New York: Abrams.
Wilber, K. H., & Reynolds, S. L. (1996). Introducing a framework for defining financial abuse of the elderly. Journal of Elder Abuse & Neglect, 8(2), 61-80.
Dr. Mike Saxton has been an adjunct faculty member at Goodwin for three years. He is passionate about working with adult learners and strives to develop a learning environment that fosters holistic growth for the student, not just academically. He uses his diverse professional, personal, and academic experience to offer guidance above and beyond just passing the test. Dr. Saxton encourages students to pass the test of life through both successes and learning from failures. As an instructor and mentor, he utilizes his diverse background that includes higher education, wireless technology services, information technology, and self-defense instruction. He has served in Student Affairs as an administrator, instructional faculty member, property management, business owner, database developer, network manager, and self-defense instructor. Dr. Saxton graduated Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001 and 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and a master’s degree in Organizational Management, respectively. He graduated with distinction from Capella University in 2016 with a PhD in Organization and Management. He holds CompTIA A+, CompTIA Network+, and CompTIA Project+ certifications.