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?