‘My boss was gaslighting me’
IT STARTED subtly, as gaslighting almost always does, the first time I ever spoke to my new boss. She had called me on my day off to introduce herself: "I was wondering if you were okay!" she exclaimed. "You were supposed to call me at 1.30pm and I've been sitting here waiting for 30 minutes!"
This was news to me - I didn't even know she existed until a colleague sent me an emoji-laden text about her that morning. I was fairly certain she was mistaken but she was so adamant I did briefly question whether I had missed an email or, more worryingly, received an email but clean forgotten about it.
The next week it escalated
I was called into a meeting to discuss my performance over the past five years. Despite back-to-back glowing performance reviews and smashed KPIs, she was not impressed. I'll spare you all the details, but here are some of the highlights of that 90-minute meeting:
1. "It's not really your fault everything is such a mess. I'm sure you tried your best - you just don't have it in you to do the job properly - not to the standard that is expected."
2. "I've spoken to everyone in the team and every last one of them indicated the problem is you."
3. "I'm planning a restructure and I'll be honest, I just can't see a role for you in the new structure."
I was completely devastated. I left the meeting in a daze, staggered across the road to the park, sat on a bench partially obscured by trees, and sobbed so hard I nearly vomited.
This was a job I loved - and not only was I seemingly about to lose it, I had apparently been doing it badly from the start, and everyone knew it except me.
After I calmed down, I got angry. Furious, in fact. I spent most of that evening penning an eviscerating response, listing each of her complaints and documenting the ways in which they were unfair and untrue.
Like a professional, I slept on it, stripped out all the emotive language the next morning and hit send. Two minutes later my phone started ringing - and it was her. She was "stunned", "completely floored".
"We must have been in different meetings because I came away from our chat feeling so positive," she said.
"You have completely misunderstood me. I didn't say any of those things - I would never say that. You are great at your job. Maybe the pregnancy hormones are clouding your judgment?"
This, I later learned, is textbook gaslighting, manipulating someone until they begin to doubt their own sanity, named after the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a man makes his wife believe she is crazy by slowing dimming the lights in their apartment while vigorously denying the diminishing brightness.
I was in turmoil. I had never been an overly hormonal pregnant person, having previously negotiated new contracts and given huge presentations without raising a sweat - I even watched The Notebook without crying at all, something I can't even really do not pregnant.
What's more, I'm generally a very confident and capable woman who almost always has her shit together. So what was happening now? Was I going crazy?
It just kept getting worse, quickly getting to the point where I couldn't sleep at night, spending endless hours going over things she'd said, desperately trying to find proof she was wrong, that I wasn't overreacting, misunderstanding and making a fool of myself on a daily basis.
In the end, I couldn't take it anymore
I went off on maternity leave two months early, unable to face another day of near-constant anxiety and stress.
It wasn't until a couple of weeks later that a friend heard about what had happened and told me to Google gaslighting and just like that, I realised that I wasn't the problem - my boss was.
I was also surprised to learn that while gaslighting usually happens in romantic relationships and occasionally friendships it is increasingly common in the workplace.
Is it happening to you?
"Gaslighting is by definition extremely hard to recognise, especially when it's happening to you, which is what makes it so insidious," psychotherapist Isiah McKimmie says.
"But classic signs are someone contradicting you constantly and undermining you every chance they get. It's also common for them to get other colleagues involved as well, as that gives credibility to their story, so you can also feel like you're being ganged up on. Overwhelmingly though, it's a feeling that your perspective on how conversations and events went down is continually being called into question to the point that even you begin questioning your own actions and reactions."
What can I do about it?
In a personal relationship, most psychologists advise you to run for the hills, but this isn't so easy in the workplace.
"Getting away from the gaslighter isn't always an option so it can be hard to deal with," McKimmie says. "First of all, document every encounter thoroughly in writing, so you have proof of exactly what happened.
"But before you rush to HR, sit down and have an open and honest conversation with the gaslighter. Don't accuse them of anything but try to find a way you can work together because often this behaviour comes from them feeling threatened.
"If you can find some common ground, you can potentially stop the behaviour by getting them to realise you can be an ally and not the threat their mind is making you out to be.
"If this fails, your thorough notes will make it much easier to escalate it."
In my case, karma intervened, if a little tardily, and my tormentor was demoted while I am back to normal and happily in possession of my sanity once again.
This article originally appeared on Whimn and has been republished with permission.