Gaslighting Wears At least Three Faces

We either gaslight explicitly, or we ghost so we can gaslight passively.

And then a third dimension with bosses: we rationalize why consent doesn’t apply here and give our subordinates the task of making others agree.

These are two direct quotes of mine from a recent text conversation.

We were examining communication, patterns, difficult conversations, reactions to difficult conversations.

Let me backup.

It’s admittedly odd to begin a blog with a personal text, and perhaps equally unusual to be discussing gaslighting via text message.

Yet gaslighting is a dynamic that enters in and out of unlikely and daily interactions all the time.

Gaslighting is a term that has been popularized and brought into our vernacular, but that doesn’t mean we agree on what it means or what it looks like.

We might use the same words to describe it, but argue about if and whether it’s present in an example.

Plainly described, gaslighting is manipulation with the goal of altering your trust in knowing what’s real.

Its effect is to create self-mistrust, making you vulnerable to further influence.

Gaslighting is a targeted strategy used repeatedly on an individual or group of individuals that increasingly results in that person’s distress.

This could be the point where conversation gets derailed and we debate perception as subjective, but that subjectivity is precisely what gaslighting manipulates.

One’s perceptions are leveraged to disprove someone else’s, especially in regards to someone’s feelings and observations in a shared interaction.

However, gaslighting is far subtler than this painted picture, and personalized in countless ways to make it more effective and suited to the relationship type.

This brings us back to my above quotes, describing three unique spectrums of gaslighting that I see and experience professionally and personally.

So, let’s paint that picture. I’m using the following headings as short hand, but they’re not necessarily official or exclusive categories.

Direct Gaslighting

In explicit conversation, someone plants doubt in your sense of reality. Your experience of a situation is rejected and countered incrementally and persistently, shifting responsibility back to you to accept an altered perception of your subjective experience or understanding of relevant facts.

Indirect Gaslighting

Through withheld conversation, someone plants doubt in your sense of reality. Seeking clarity isn’t on the table, thus resulting in ruminating, confirmation bias, confabulation, and a lack of complete information. There is facilitated interruption impeding your ability to alleviate confusion or open ended questions.

Hierarchical Gaslighting

Within a formal hierarchical relationship, someone plants doubt in your sense of reality, spreading that doubt organizationally to produce a certain narrative or chain reaction. Often the target of gaslighting becomes an additional mouth piece of the altered perception they are held accountable to integrating into their behavior and messaging.

This third example rings especially true, because it is not subtle and it doesn’t only influence how information is interpreted. It links decision making, discourse, and dual relationships into this umbrella.

An apt example includes a seemingly benign experience I had as an employee: changing offices.

On face value this is a very common occurrence at work, expected even.

As is often the case, you have to reconstruct a sequence of events and conversations to piece together a pattern of manipulation.

You’re working independently in your office and your boss asks you if they can talk to you.

They then ask you how you would feel about moving offices.

You clarify whether this is a question or a direction, and they say the former.

You respond that you don’t want to, but that as your boss you understand they can change a question into an expectation.

The conversation is brief, it is agreed that you will stay in your office, and you are assured that this is a closed matter.

Two hours pass and your boss approaches you a second time, opening the stated closed matter.

They articulate that after speaking with another staff member they have more information and more urgency.

You repeat your former answer, acknowledging that they have the ability to instruct you to move offices.

The conversation is paused.

A few months go by, and the matter is continually written into an agenda for supervision and passed over.

Finally, you are informed that on a weekend you are out of town your office will be moved two days from receiving notice.

Your boss articulates that as discussed, this needs to happen.

You come into your moved office the following week to find a present and card on your desk, specifically thanking you for your flexibility.

A few things are highlighted in this silhouette:

1) A failure to acknowledge one’s position of power and its implications

2) A drawn-out encounter to obscure a lack of consent

3) A misrepresentation of the situation

4) A misrepresentation of your involvement in the decision

5) An establishment of good will to prevent you from voicing negative emotions

Within this one example, you see examples of all three referenced gaslighting spectrums, except that in this case, given the relationship structure, the power and control extends beyond the construction of a narrative. It directly shapes the rationale for a decision made, and shapes your communication patterns, decision making, and morale moving forward.

Perhaps most significantly, it also positions your differing experience as counter to the needs of your organization, and your emotions as demonstrated insubordination.

It is entirely plausible that the need to move offices was necessary, and the ability to make a decision that affects your employees within your purview as a leader.

The point of referencing this sequence of events is not the outcome reached, but instead the conscious and incremental steps used to create a manipulated understanding of what happened and how I should feel and react.

Gaslighting restricts authentic representation of our thoughts and feelings, telling us we are wrong to think and feel how we do.

The consequences are both internal and external, on the one hand planting self-doubt, and on the other fostering a narrative to discredit and impact your perceived and attributed credibility.

Whereas in personal relationships coercion impacts choices within that relationship, in professional relationships the scope is larger, and the accumulation of interactions harder to disentangle.

An obvious reason for that is retaliation, loss of relationship, loss of social capital, loyalty.

The reasons are real, and the consequences are too.

Though gaslighting like all forms of violence reduces our wellbeing overtime, threatening our sustainability, our health, and our perceptions that get internalized and reinforced and become our basis for future choices.

Confronting those hurts does not get less cumbersome over time.

And time is not on our side when it comes to keeping our wellbeing intact.

Time sounds the alarm that we have already given more time than we had capacity for.

Time asks us to want more for our relationships, most especially in how we relate to ourselves.

We all have the right to know in our souls that we can trust ourselves and trust our bodies.

We all have wounds from gaslighting that we’ve engaged in, perpetuated, and had targeted at us.

And more importantly, we all have healing work to engage in to disrupt these patterns and more.

Writer. Thinker. Facilitator. Advocate. Invested in accountability for power based violence, creative initiatives, and meaningful, nuanced dialoguing.