a form of manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or members of a group, hoping to make targets question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the target and delegitimize the target’s belief.
I have always felt like a villain and maybe gaslighting my immediate family is why. But I was gaslighted many times in my youth. I wonder if it’s like molestation, where it’s passed on from generation to generation.
The more I learn about gaslighting, the more I think that at least half of people do it regularly, and that almost everyone has done it at least once. There’s intentional and non-intentional gaslighting, and regardless of the intention, the effects can be extremely detrimental.
After college, I started a company to eliminate animal testing in the United States. The European Union had just done it for cosmetics, and I was convinced that I would do it across the board in the US. I thought that if the US did it, the rest of the world would follow. Instead, I experienced over four years of binge eating, my best friend and I getting gaslighted by a coworker, being too afraid of people to leave my house, and more. It all kept piling on top of each other, and I didn’t deal with any of it. The first decade of adulthood felt like a nightmare that was just about to end, but never did.
I thought Seattle would be better. I really did. Like a new start. I found a city and people I wanted to be a part of.
I’ve had 8 jobs in the last 3 years and lived in 10 places, several of which were very unsafe, and one where I got gaslighted and attacked by a roommate. I couldn’t complain because I always had a roof over my head, but I failed at everything except having more trauma. I had three years to build at least one business or have one job in Seattle, and I failed. I kept getting panic attacks and deep depression and would quit. Or I’d get told to lie, which I fought against adamantly, but was ultimately let go even though I tried to persuade with alternatives. Or I’d feel the strongest pull that I can’t describe to stop doing what I was doing and start doing something else…to the tune of over 100 times. Throughout, I tried desperately to find work. But after the first few jobs, I started freaking out that I was going to get fired and had nightmares. The nightmares caused more anxiety. The anxiety caused more…you get the picture.
This past July, I shared with a business breakfast group that I was struggling between staying in Seattle or moving to New Jersey. A friend who was an executive coach and therapist offered to give me a free session.
At the beginning of our session, she asked me to start talking. When I said, “IBM”, I got tears in my eyes. She said, “let’s work on that.”
When it was all over, she leaned forward, put her hand on my arm, and said, “Heather, you have PTSD, and what happened wasn’t your fault.”
On July 25th, I was diagnosed with PTSD from getting gaslighted by a guy at IBM for two years when I was in my mid-20’s. A week later, I found out that my other coworker experienced the same and is recovering too. It’s such a shame cause she was a brilliant physicist/geneticist/chemist who is now struggling.
For those two years, he accused her and me of doing bad research. He had made a nanoparticle that to this day, I feel tremendous sadness over being lost. Its results were mind-bogglingly amazing. You could put just about any drug or compound into the nanoparticle and target different parts of the body. It was so nontoxic that it defied any other nanoparticle before it. For months, I brought him and our team pictures, videos, and test results that had us all believing that we’d in some way helped to save the world from disease.
But we ran out of the chemical. So, he made some more, and all the test results were different. He was notorious for making interns cry, being extremely manipulative, and angry. He gaslighted me and my colleague, who was also my best friend, for two years. He said it was our fault that the results were all different and would “work with us” to figure it out. In my second year of having the company, he convinced IBM to downgrade my contract from annual to quarterly. All year, I had panic attack after panic attack until I was afraid to leave the house. I was terrified my contract would be terminated with no notice, and desperately did whatever he wanted. I felt like my entire livelihood hinged on him, and he had complete control and power over my ability to pay rent and be successful. I thought he dictated my whole future.
By the third year, he was fighting for it to be downgraded to monthly, which thankfully, I fought and didn’t happen. But by then, the whole IBM research block knew what was happening. I begged other departments for work so that I could work my way out of this group, but they all said they didn’t have anything for me. (I found out a few months ago during coffee with one of them that they were afraid of giving me more work. They thought that with all the pressures, demands, and drama from this guy, that they were doing me a favor :().
I went through the hell of uncertainty, doubting myself, proving myself, and ultimately, no longer trusting myself and losing all confidence. Possibly, worst of all, I started to become afraid of people. I was isolated and alone, and the only other person who understood was going through the exact same thing. And not once did it occur to me to just quit. Novice business owners don’t realize that we can choose our customers!
In the end, this guy admitted that he had taken bad notes in his lab notebook and couldn’t reproduce the nanoparticle. I’ll never know if he wanted to save face, was afraid of losing his job, or had experienced similar abuse during his PhD (like many PhD’s do, another issue that angers me). He died unexpectedly in 2015 from a random drug complication.
I was so alarmed by being diagnosed with PTSD that I consulted with another therapist and a counsellor. They each independently gave the same diagnosis, along with depression, anxiety, and a bunch of other fun stuff. Turns out, PTSD is super common. The more I learn, the more I wonder how different the world would look if kids became self-aware and learned to cope with life positively from the very start. Well, duh.
Three weeks ago, the counsellor told me that I should get on section 8 housing, disability, and check myself into a year-long PTSD program at a hospital. I said, “But I shouldn’t have to do this! I shouldn’t have PTSD!”
She said, “But you do. Can you work?”
“No, it doesn’t seem so.”
I felt and still feel tremendous shame.
Before this, I’d aced every interview and been hired at every job I’d ever interviewed for (except for one, where I immaturely smoked a blunt with my friend before the interview and didn’t get the job because I kept asking, “What was your question again?”) Most of my jobs were retail and in the food industry, and I seized every opportunity and broke records. Not to mention that I landed a $323k contract with IBM to launch the business in the first place. Work was the last part of my life that was untouched by panic, fear, and despair. But ultimately, this, too, got sucked in.
A week ago, I moved back to Maryland to live with my parents and experience safety for what feels like the first time since 2011.
Since then, I’ve learned that as rampant as gaslighting is in personal relationships, it is just as rampant in the workplace. In the workplace, it’s typically referred to as workplace bullying. But it’s so much worse than that, because bullying is usually obvious. Gaslighting happened chronically, right under my nose, and I didn’t know how it was affecting me until it was too late. Gaslighting can involve scapegoating big time, so that I felt like it was my fault. One of the “coping” strategies of trauma victims is to believe the trauma was their fault. It gives us a sense of control, but also shame. I thought that it was my fault for not being smart/aware/insightful/perceptive/confident/tough/and so on forever and ever enough. It wasn’t until the first therapist said, “Picture your younger self sitting next to you. Look at her. Was it her fault?”
No. It wasn’t.
Anyway, I’m in MD for the foreseeable future and focusing on my mental health.
Gaslighting by higher ups is well-researched, and gaslighting by peers is just starting to gain recognition and research.
Workplace abuse has been described as behaviors directed at an employee, with the intent to harm him or her. It negatively affects the person’s work and occurs regularly, over a period of time (Einarsen, Hoel, Zapf, & Cooper, 2011). In those individuals targeted for abuse, cross-sectional studies report depression, difficulty sleeping, and symptoms of burnout (Nielsen & Einarsen, 2012). In terms of consequences for employers, these behaviors have been associated with employee absenteeism, illness, legal and medical costs, early retirement, and general workplace instability (Hershcovis & Barling, 2010). Boddy, Miles, Sanyal, and Hartog (2015) find that employees in bullying situations tended to arrive late for work, leave early, and take longer breaks. (Popp, Social Intelligence and the Explanation of Workplace Abuse, 2017)
It’s illuminated the “dark side of emotional intelligence,” how psychopaths and sociopaths can harness their emotional intelligence for evil without feeling bad about it.
But in one of the articles I read, the author points out that it’s not the psychopaths and sociopaths (1/25 people) that we necessarily need to worry about. Their damage can be far-reaching, but there are many more folks who are close to psychopath and sociopath. This is more consistent with my life experience; I don’t think that just about everyone I know is a psycho or sociopath, but I do think that most of them have gaslighted someone else at some point or another. I don’t think that this guy was a psychopath or sociopath, because when his daughter was born in the first year of my company, he suddenly became a real human being. He thanked me for my work because without it, he would have lost his job. I also don’t think I’m a psychopath or sociopath for gaslighting my family as a teenager.
Here’s what missing for me in the literature so far:
- Is gaslighting learned or manifested?
- Once a gaslighter, always a gaslighter?
- Can a gaslighter be gaslighted? “Good people rarely recognize evil, as this kind of behavior is incomprehensible to them” (Temin, 2010).
- Is screening out gaslighters our only option? Because I was a gaslighter :(.
I don’t want gaslighting in the workplace (and in general) to be another “psychological phenomenon” that costs too much time or money to address. I always don’t want for all gaslighters to be doomed to have no career or hope, as I often feel. I have yet to see the dollar impact of it, and think that this is almost impossible to measure, much more than how effective employee trainings are (versus numbers of hours trained).
As a kid, I always wondered why common, traumatic life events would create villains in superhero stories. Thanks to gaslighting, I now know. TV has always been a giant pain in the ass for society. Netflix recently released several television shows that are built around inaccurate assumptions about how mental illness works and is treated, idolizing the power of gaslighting, and good old hypernormalization of harm.
My biggest takeaway at the moment is the recognition that my gut instinct isn’t garbage like I thought it was. When I joined a startup last year, my body had the same reaction to a new salesperson that I had felt with the guy at IBM. My quality of work plummeted as I increasingly became more confused, defensive, and afraid. Reading one of the articles was a play-by-play narrative of what had happened – the new employee had gaslighted me out of that job.
For the record, the new guy was happy to lie.
Most of this happened within the last two months. Per a classmate’s idea, I think more and more that HSP’s like myself and about 20% of the population are a huge opportunity. A few forum comments yielded how difficult it is for us to find work and living environments that allow us to thrive. Our industrialized and capitalistic society was not built for humans with feelings, so it reflects that in every aspect.
About a year ago, I had the idea to create a coworking and living space that was designed for HSP’s. Many of us are freelancers or self-employed, I almost never feel safe or secure, and we can all agree that scents, loud noises, and toxic environments don’t work. I worked on it until a few weeks before an old roommate attacked me, when it got put back on the backburner. I still think this would be an interesting experiment, but want to think bigger. The reality is that many HSP’s have already sheltered ourselves away, limiting our impact and benefit on society. The pain is just not worth any amount of money or work.
Is there a place for us? Can villains become good guys? Is there hope for “toxic people”? How can we all coexist? Is any of this worth the effort?
Biology will always beat machine. I don’t care what anyone says.
Other than Kevin Kelly, who says that machines will be used for non-human functions. And that eventually, AI will be able to do anything a human can do. Including be creative, or whatever.
I agree, if we stay as constrained, bogged down, oppressed, and trapped as we are now. If we aren’t unleashed, through the power of genetics or whatever.
Fuck machines. And fuck AI. Cause biology will always be better.
I think our energy would be better spent seeing the limits of DNA, assuming there even are limits. Plus other forms of life we can come up with. Because for god’s sake, get it out of your head that life has to be DNA, or even carbon-based.
But my real pickle with machines and AI is the final play of the assholes. Basically, one human tyrant or tyrant family gains control of all humanity through globally adopted AI and machines. And they either wipe everyone else out or who knows. If they wipe us out, the best case scenario would be through not-a-bad-way-to-go bioweapons.
Best case scenario.
Or we get our shit together, and fix our shit through the power of biology. Cause as much as I love Elon Musks’s commitment to preventing our fulfilling-our-worst-selves-scenario, he’s bringing mechanization and AI to us too quickly. Doesn’t he wonder if maybe, just maybe, all of this human capital management, empowerment, mindfulness, values, and so on needs a little longer to become pervasive? To make a widespread difference? Maybe helped with a little gene editing?
Anyway, if we get our shit together, we are the ancient race. We have intergalactic space travel not through a machine, but through biology. Because life experiences matter, space, and time differently than us. Even just the difference between us and a bumble bee.
I’m very aware that this whole “printing of organisms” thing is going to be quite a clusterfuck of ethics and what is life questions. But I have often wondered:
Would it be as bad for feed animals if we were able to make them not have feelings? Or consciousness? Assuming we’re going to eat them one way or another.
If Terminator were to happen, realistically, we’d be pretty easy to wipe out.
Is it a compliment or a disgrace of humanity to say, “If we were in a zombie apocalypse, I would do really well.” Should I be scared of this person or become really good friends with them?
I don’t see why certain superpowers wouldn’t be possible if we could do Bioshock-level stuff with genetics. I mean, at the very least, vampires would probably be easy to make.
I know that Marvel Universe’s X-Men have a real dilemma around their relationship with humans. But both the pro and anti-human mutants are pretty cavalier when it comes to humans dying, especially because of their being completely nutty with power. Like, Magneto murdered probably hundreds of thousands, even millions of people in Apocalypse. And Xavier’s all like, Cheerio. I hope we can be friends, and I’ll see you when I see you.
What’s the fastest-growing lifeform in the world? I bet we could double, triple, even quadruple that with genetics.
If I wanted to be richer than god, I’d use genetics to cure male pattern baldness.
I’m pretty sure that there’s a bacterial composition that would make it so you could eat almost all day long and never gain weight. I want to figure it out, patent it, and throw away the key. Like big pharma has with so many cancer-curing, diabetes-curing, and other-curing therapies. Except in this case, I want to help save the world (versus destroy it from eating itself to death). Problem is, bacterial compositions are not really patentable. I guess I’ll just have to do the second step, which is to make the opposite – the bacterial composition for someone to be able to live off of a cup of rice. Or whatever.
Can we make things like a machine version of a hummingbird’s wings? Like, how pervasive is biomimicry, really?
Coders are always talking about code health and simplifying the code. We know that our DNA has a lot of junk. But it probably also has a lot of dormant stuff, genes that aren’t turned on. What if we have a bunch of genes that got turned off for various reasons, and all we have to do is turn them on? Maybe this is where we could start. And then maybe next, we can work on simplifying our code and removing the junk or repetition to, for example, reduce opportunities for error that result in genetic disease.
Can we modify our brains so that we can also communicate with animals?
Will plants be able to be sentient?
Will all of our buildings be made out of weird grown materials? Can it just all be made out of plant-like material?
Genetics, man. Genetics.
I believe that giving people control over their own genetics is the ultimate way for us to empower ourselves, and the quickest way to save as many people as possible. And for the world to become sustainable. Including our relationship with it.
Elizabeth Holmes used to be my desktop background. She was my hero, but a hero who I could actually become. When I discovered her uniform of black turtlenecks, I realized that I, too, had a uniform: black Exofficio tank tops, jeans, and lime green Solomon sneakers. I wasn’t nearly as elegant. But I thought that since great minds think alike, I could be the next Elizabeth. It also helped that my middle name is Elizabeth, and we were born in the same year.
I read about Elon Musk, but other than comic books and a propensity to be the hero, I closed myself off to learning from him because I’m a woman. He is doing so much for the world, but he doesn’t face what I face. Whereas Holmes created accessibility in healthcare and was a powerful female leader. I often wondered, “How did she manage to retain so much control of her company?” My research confirmed that it was due to her brilliance, presence, conviction, and vision. I thought that she was better than me, but that if I worked hard enough, not for forever.
Every morning, when I turned on my computer, I would see Elizabeth on my desktop. And every day, I’d work harder, longer, and smarter. I wouldn’t settle for anything but a business that I could be proud of, that helped millions of people, if not the whole world. And day after day, where I failed, she succeeded. Still, when I’d see her picture, every morning was another to chance.
Then the WSJ exposed Theranos’s lack of viable technology. Their entire business was built on lies to employees, shareholders, customers, and the public. They ignored concerned employees and even tried to manipulate and bully one. I can only imagine the crushing pressure that Elizabeth faced to deliver on her promises, only to have another day of disappointing results. I imagine her saying to herself, like I’ve said to myself many times, “Just a little while longer.”
As an admirer and fan, I was devastated by the news of Elizabeth’s lack of integrity. I questioned whether a sustainable business was even possible. Was now still the best time to be a female founder? I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to meet the expectations of my employees, customers, or investors. And if I didn’t, what would I do? Would I ask, or even “force”, others to lie on my behalf? All in the name of innovation, progress, and humanity?
For almost a year, my future was shrouded in crushing doubt. And after six months of hard, really hard, work and sacrifice, I know better. I’ve learned that sustainable business surrounds us, their stories just go largely untold. And that there never has been a good time to be a female founder, so now’s just as good a time as any. I hate silos in organizations, more than any other destructive business force. And I’m an open book, often to a fault.
Looking back on my future, I know that I have a history of not sacrificing my principles for the sake of anything or anyone. My life has been filled with much suffering and heartbreak in favor of my principles, leaving a graveyard of relationships and opportunities in its wake. But now that I’m over 30 and have seen the impacts of compromise in others, I’m okay with it.
Only now do I realize how little I have in common with Elizabeth.
Most heartbreaking of all, I believe that Theranos could have disrupted the experience of diagnostic testing by pursuing the spa-like experience like Julep did for the nail salon. Or “democratized” it like Warby Parker did with prescription glasses and Dollar Shave Club with razor blades. These are solid, sustainable business models. And Theranos could have merged two profitable ideas while capitalizing on accessibility.
But that’s not the business model that Theranos chose. Every time I see her face, I wish that I could have been in the room when she wanted to be dishonest. Because her downfall wasn’t because the technology didn’t work; it’s because she wasn’t willing to pivot.
Knowing all of this, I was still left with one glaring question for years. As an entrepreneur, I couldn’t figure out why everyone was so pissed. Then, it suddenly hit me: the investors. They lost everything.
This past year, I studied what the MAST Brothers did with chocolate. They put beautiful wallpaper on chocolate bars marketed as “bean-to-bar” when it was actually standard chocolate. I imagine the conversations they had where they rationalized their marketing. And based on conversations with some partners at Deloitte, it’s fairly common for companies to choose “fake-it-till-you-make-it” marketing over the truth. Founders choose vision or “the greater good” all of the time. If it gets them the investment, marketing, PR, whatever they need, they’ll do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s an old or young company – everybody does it.
The difference between Holmes and the MAST Brothers is that MAST only got caught by the chocolate connoisseurs, and no one cared what they thought. The wrapping was too pretty, marketing too powerful, and profit margins too irresistible.
Theranos didn’t fail because it ran out of money – it ran out of time.
I really just wanted to hop on here to share my canvassing hack.
I canvassed once and tested about three or four dozen different phrases. By far, the one that got me the most acknowledgments, conversations, signatures, selfies, AND Twitter hashtags was, “Are you feeling altruistic today?” Everyone knew what it meant. I’d only learned its meaning a couple of weeks before.
While I’m here, I’ll mention that I’m working on the stuff from the essays before this one. Most recently, trying to get the whole semester’s worth of reading done as soon as possible.