Thirty-seven year old Ayesha, a marketing manager for a nursery group in Dubai hasn’t forgotten her experiences with the organisation, as it made her question herself constantly. Recalling how her colleagues used to insult her publicly, she says, “They would ask me the same work-related question again and again till I would start to doubt myself. If I wrote something with a colleague, they would ask me to point out the parts that I had written, so they could find mistakes.”
When they couldn’t find any error, they would say there was a problem with her language. “They would repeat it till the point I would think that I had actually made a mistake and not checked the document properly.” Ayesha was often humiliated publicly, in order to shape other people’s views of her. She eventually filed a case and while she won, she also documented the behavioural issues at work and shared her experience with others. This method of making someone constantly believing they’re at fault, retelling and fabricating a narrative, is called gaslighting. It’s a form of manipulation, where one compels the other in a way that makes them doubt their own story and believe something else.
Gaslighting and manipulation
Jana Habson, a psychologist from Dubai, says that manipulation itself is a natural tendency. “When we speak about manipulation, very few people know that it is very natural. We are all doing it on a daily basis, and we all have our own agenda. When I say ‘manipulating’, it is a very neutral word in actuality. But gaslighting is malicious manipulation,” she says.
“It’s like I want you to do something that you do not agree with,” she elaborates. “It is such a tricky form of manipulation that the other person feels confusion. They start questioning their sanity and wondering ‘is this really true’. Their perception becomes askew.”
When we speak about manipulation, very few people know that it is very natural. We are all doing it on a daily basis, and we all have our own agenda. When I say ‘manipulating’, it is a very neutral word in actuality. But gaslighting is malicious manipulation
Gaslighting finds its origins in the 1940 Hollywood film, Gaslight. A woman is murdered for her rubies but the murderer is unable to find them. He returns, several years later, under an alias as a newlywed. His bride is unaware of his intentions. Unbeknownst to her, whenever he lights the gas lamps to search the closed parts of the house, the lamps in the rest of the house dim slightly. When his wife points this out, he convinces her that it is all in her imagination. Later, she discovers that the fluctuation of the lights is actually part of a larger deception. This led to the term ‘gaslighting’, a verb that is frequently used to describe a rather layered form of manipulation.
Joseph Belda, a consultant psychiatrist in Dubai, refers to gaslighting as a "particularly fine kind of bullying" that is extremely hard to recognise, especially for people who already have a fractured self-esteem and are battling insecurities. “The person being gaslit is slowly convinced that they’ll never succeed and are perpetually at fault. They get burnt out and it affects them mentally, and physically. It can affect them in the form of high blood pressure, back pain, among other such symptoms.”
An abusive relationship
There’s the popular saying, the devil doesn’t come with red horns and a pointy hat. It comes as everything you wished for. It’s the same logic applied to those who gaslight others easily. It is difficult to recognise it in a person at first as it sometimes comes under the guise of charm and much cheer. However, the mental exhaustion seeps in, and you know something is off, you just don’t know what. Gaslighting comes in various forms, for instance erratic behaviour, blowing hot and cold, lying, spreading false narratives, leading to the person questioning themselves.
Nick Stevens (name changed on request), a marketing director in his early 50s based in Dubai, remembers his ‘tyrant’ of a boss. “He would use gaslighting and all manners of insidious manipulative behaviours to destroy the employees, whilst being funny, charming and charismatic. I know of one ex-colleague who suffered PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and ended up in therapy.”
Calling it a “horrific time”, Stevens’ mental health suffered as he felt that he could not protect himself or his staff from the boss.
The person being gaslit is slowly convinced that they’ll never succeed and are perpetually at fault. They get burnt out and it affects them mentally, and physically. It can affect them in the form of high blood pressure, back pain, among other such symptoms.
Gaslighters have some common traits, apart from a manipulative personality. Nazli Balkir, an associate professor at the department of psychology in Canadian University Dubai points out several traits of a gaslighter, including a poor self-worth and functioning abilities, as well as a narcisstic personality.
Twenty-nine year-old journalist Samrudhi Ghosh from Delhi, India, remembers how she was publicly belittled and yelled at by her manager. “She would yell and then act like everything is normal the next minute. She would tell us that if we could not handle this much, we would be in for a rude awakening at other organisations, where the bosses were ‘much worse’.”
Ghosh, filled with doubts, was almost convinced that she had to “toughen up” for the professional world. She felt demoralised and could not shake off the constant feeling of dread, afraid that something would set her off. “I also began stress eating. A coworker of mine would have frequent anxiety attacks.”
It was only when she moved out of the company, she realised that she had been gaslit into believing that such behaviour was normal. “I learnt that it was not in fact the norm to be screamed at every morning.” She found strong support in her teammates, as they bonded together over the trauma at the office.
Paula Jacobson, a human resource professional based in Dubai observes that workplaces can be far more toxic than highschool ever can be. “One of the worst kinds of gaslighting is when a boss takes credit for someone’s work and that makes that person feel inadequate in other areas of their work. I’ve seen people receive a low score on an annual review and when questioned, were not given enough tangible information. People’s careers are in the hands of someone else, who may have an agenda for themselves and their own advancement and only be interested in their own advancement and not that of the team,” she says.
Thirty-five year old media professional from India, Charu Thakur recalls how her colleague was systematically isolated by the manager who spread false narratives about him to the rest of the employees. “I remember a co-worker questioned our manager once, telling her that he doesn't agree with the opinion. Overnight hell broke loose. The manager marked a 500-word mail to the human resource department saying that my colleague can't deal with a female boss.”
The fabrication of the events continued for days, and every team member was told the story in order to isolate the man, even when he wasn't at fault. “The next few days, he was asked to stop filing content, and in the next two days, he was asked to leave,” she says.
It’s like being in an abusive relationship, says mental health coach Danielle Daou, based in Dubai. Such behaviour would prevent an employee from giving their best and they would dread coming to work. “The worst part is for that person to live in anxiety, and it would lower that person's self-esteem, and can even trigger depression,” she says.
This form of manipulation has severe effects on a person’s mental health. The anxiety and stress takes the form of panic attacks, stress-eating, and a battered self-esteem. Multiple studies, including a recent one by Aaron Schat and Michael R. Frone in ‘Exposure to Psychological Aggression at Work and Job Performance: The Mediating Role of Job Attitudes and Personal Health’, shows the impact of workplace toxicity on a human being. Employees are susceptible to depression, physical and emotional exhaustion, which culminates in a weak immune system also making way for life-threatening conditions like cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
The process of healing
Signs to look out for gaslighting
• Lying and distortion - even when you know they are not telling the truth, they can be very convincing. In the end, you start to second-guess yourself
• Discrediting you – pretending to be your friend while vilifying you to others
• Denying their behaviour
• Distracting you when you try to call them out
• Trivialising your emotions and reactions
• Transferring blame onto you – if you hadn’t behaved in a certain manner they might not have reacted so strongly.
• Using kindness as a weapon
• Rewriting the narrative
Reference courtesy: Ahern K. - Institutional betrayal and gaslighting: Why whistle-blowers are so traumatized; verywellmind.com
Look inwards and going to the root cause
Gaslighting can cause extensive damage in a person. The process of healing is not cut and dry, which just involves documenting, leaving the job or confronting the perpetrator. Before any of that, Habson asserts that one needs to look inward first. They need to see their home environment as well, whether they have always had such experiences and understand why they normalised it. “When we talk about mental health issues, we don’t always have a straightforward solution. The person needs to examine themselves and see, what makes them so receptive to gaslighting,” she says.
Each person’s healing process and needs is unique, says Dao. “It all depends on the emotional damage that has been done, and it is worth looking into the past to heal and see what needs healing to start with.”
Awareness with the help of therapy
Systematic gaslighting can fracture your sense of self, and self-worth. Seek help from a professional and slowly learn to collect yourself again and rebuild your self-esteem. UAE-based psychologist Joseph Belda complements this point and says that one needs to be aware that they are, in fact, being gaslit. “A psychologist will help this person to become aware of what has happened to them. It requires a lot of psychological work, so that it does not happen again. It’s very traumatic, so it needs a lot of time.”
Make sure you have a strong support system around you and find outlets to battle the anxiety - keep a record of all the conversations you have with your manager or colleague if you begin to suspect gaslighting. “Keep your social circle at work informed about what is happening to you rather than choosing social isolation. It is important to understand what you are experiencing,” advises Balkir. She also advises to keep reminding yourself that you are not at fault for being gaslit.