From friendships to the workplace, gaslighting doesn’t just happen in romantic relationships.
During lockdown, I filled the reality tv hole in my heart by rewatching the 2018 season of Love Island. I had almost forgotten how good that season was, what with the Georgia/Josh/Kaz Casa Amor drama to Jack’s hilarious accents and his iconic ‘what time’s your flight?’ response to Dani Dyer stating that she was planning on going home the next morning (never forget). But one thing that I didn’t forget about was Adam, and the uproar he caused with many, many people calling out his gaslighting behaviour online. It got me thinking, when we talk about gaslighting, it’s usually in reference to romantic relationships and romantic relationships only. Yet, it does happen in other relationships, whether that’s within your family, or friendships, even between colleagues.
Defined as a form of emotional abuse which involves psychologically manipulating someone to make their victim question their reality, in order to be in a position of power. According to Dr Cliodhna O’Donovan, Chartered Psychologist and member of the PSI (@drcliodhnaodonovan), toxic relationships don’t have to be romantic.
“[Gaslighting] may be spoken about more in the context of romantic relationships, and the impact could feel stronger. It cannot only be romantic relationships or intimate relationships that can be toxic, but work relationships and family and friendships can also be equally impactful.”
Anna*, agrees with this, having experienced gaslighting within the workplace, “I was always under the impression that gaslighting only happened between a couple, I had only ever seen it, or heard of it when it would be a man doing it to a woman. It wasn’t until after I experienced it at work when I would talk about my experience with friends and family, that I realise my manager had actually done it to me. In reference to what’s seen in other relationships, admittedly it did not seem as bad, but I shouldn’t have had to go through it.”
Continuing, Anna explained what happened and how it felt, “It started off with sly remarks every now and then, questioning the work I had done and my abilities, the remarks then slowly but surely became more frequent. If I had edited a document, she would comment that she was the one that had to do it, because I was dossing. Or if I simply asked her a question about a previous statement, she would be adamant that she said no such thing, that I must have been imagining things. It may sound minuscule, but hearing comments like this over and over again can really chip away at your confidence, both in a professional and personal sense.”
Cliodhna explains that comments like this are a large reflection of what gaslighting is. “People can sometimes be misled into thinking gaslighting refers to one, large incident, where in reality it’s more of a pattern. Someone continuously chipping away at your confidence, sense of security, or self-worth.”
While it may not be obvious, gaslighting in all forms of relationships, including that of work relationships, can be carried out both consciously and unconsciously.
Cliodhna explains this, saying “someone may be doing, responding or behaving in a way that we might describe as gaslighting but might not actually be aware that they are doing that. It could even come from their own vulnerabilities or concerns that they might be insecure in their relationship.”
Continuing, Cliodhna states that gaslighting can sometimes be hidden behind positive reinforcement, “they say something specific, that they know you will construe in a certain way, but they would then reply with, ‘oh, no course I never meant it like that, you know, I think you’re great’. Like a backhanded compliment, as they seek to undermine you and keep you off-kilter and again this can lead you to question your own interpretation of reality.”
While some people may suddenly find themselves in a situation in which they’re being gaslit, whether in a relationship or from a college, others can be subject to it almost their whole lives from family members. Chloe* tells STELLAR of her experience with gaslighting, and that she was subject to it in her own home. “It took a long time, I’d say around 20 years, give or take, for me to realise that my own sister had been gaslighting me for the majority of my life, she did it for as long as I remember. We had different opinions on ways of life and how people live their lives, so we could saw eye to eye on the important things in life.
She would aggressively tell me I was wrong about general things that I knew I was right about (it got really out of hand), that I was making stories up, and that I was over sensitive and damaged. If I ever confronted her about particularly hurtful things she would say, again, she would tell me that I was making things up to make her look bad, or that I wasn’t remembering the facts correctly.”
Chloe recalls that even though it took her a long time to realise and to come to terms with what was happening, she didn’t see an end to her sister’s behaviour in sight, even after trying to have multiple discussions on the subject, “I brought up how I felt about the situation with my sister time and time again, but there wasn’t an option of a happy ending. I didn’t feel like I could cut my sister out of my life, but I also couldn’t go on feeling like I was constantly in the wrong. Now, we’re both in our late thirties and only see each other a handful of times a year. Things have gotten better, bar the snide remark here and there. I don’t know if she was unhappy and just took things out on me, but one thing I do know is that I feel so much better not having her in my life fully.”
If you feel like you are being gaslighted in any form of your relationships, Cliodhna suggests that while it may not always be possible, “one might suggest that it can be positive for us to mutually dissolve or remove ourselves from those relationships.” On the other hand, if you care for this person and do want to keep them in your life, communication is key to resolving the problem with how they treat you. “Speak to them, use concrete examples and non-confrontational language, for example, ‘on Tuesday, when we were in the boardroom, you made this remark I felt upset about that because of this reason’. See what their response to this is, and if you’re met with negative remarks or further examples of their previous behaviour, then you’ll realise that this is something you’re unlikely able to negotiate,” says Cliodhna.
If you take one thing from this, is that it’s important to remember that gaslighting does not only happen in romantic relationships, or even just close-knit relationships. It can happen in any situation, and it’s never okay.
While it may not always be possible for you to cut certain people out of your life completely, you can see if they’re willing to change their behaviour. If not, try to minimise contact in any way you can. Remember to put your own mental health first, whatever the situation.
*Images via Twenty20*