What Happened When I Was Gaslit By My Boss

Illustration: Mallory Heyer
I started my new job with the kind of inflated confidence that comes with finally acquiring a fancy title and a salary that would pay off student credit card debts still lingering from 2012. I even bought a blazer with the ASOS voucher given to me as a leaving gift from my old team. I hadn’t worn a blazer since high-school so clearly, I meant serious business at this point in my life.
Like 49% of UK workers who took part in a LinkedIn survey, I consider a good relationship with colleagues as being one of the biggest factors for feeling fulfilled at work – so I was relieved to find that my new boss was a gem to work with. In those first two months, I enjoyed learning the ropes and taking advantage of the office perks. Then, I was moved to work under a different manager.
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Six months later, I became part of the 41% of employees who told the same survey that they left a job due to being unsatisfied with the leadership. My days were spent crying in the loos, doubting my abilities, questioning my work ethic, losing all confidence and becoming withdrawn from the team. I felt worthless.
But it wasn’t because I was swamped with deadlines, dealing with a shouting boss or being told I was a failure. Bizarrely, it was the complete opposite.
I constantly asked for work to do but it was always withheld from me, and I became increasingly paranoid trying to work out why. Any work that I did get was either menial or it had already been done, by my boss. I didn’t get clear answers to my questions about the role and I often had my weekly catch-ups – where I would voice these frustrations – pushed back for days.
And yet I was always told that I was performing well, which left me even more confused. The only job I felt I’d been given the chance to perform well in was monitoring the cat memes channel on Slack. It got to the point where I seriously thought I’d only been taken on to up the number of female employees in a predominately male company.
I’m a likeable, hardworking person who hates disappointing people, so what went so wrong after being given a new manager to work with?
"She’s gaslighting you!" a friend (who also happens to be an old boss) replied to yet another SOS WhatsApp message. Intrigued, I did a little research. The term 'gaslighting' originates from the 1944 film Gaslight, in which a man manipulates his wife into doubting her own judgments and sanity. It’s pretty heavy, dark stuff, but the effects felt familiar and many other people identify subtler elements of it in relationships at work and home.
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Robin Stern, author of The Gaslight Effect, gave this totally relatable example in Psychology Today: "You tell your boss you are unhappy with the assignments you have been getting; you feel you are being wrongly passed over for the best assignments. You ask him why this is happening. Instead of addressing the issue, he tells you that you are way too sensitive and stressed."
The impact that this type of behaviour can have on staff is huge and includes mental stress, anger, anxiety and lowered motivation. "Gaslighting is bullying," Evelyn Cotter, CEO of SEVEN Career Coaching tells me. "If someone is consistently behaving in a way that undermines you or your work, that is malicious behaviour and classed as toxic." And I’m certainly not the only woman to have experienced this kind of behaviour in the office. Recently revised research from UNISON and Portsmouth University found that six in 10 workers had been bullied or had witnessed bullying.
Take Gaby from London, who started a new job where her boss was the woman whose previous role she had filled. Gaby shares: "She extended my three-month probation to nine months, which made me feel very paranoid and anxious. I’d assumed I was doing fine because everyone else seemed happy, so I was unsure of what she thought I was doing wrong. She’d tell me I wasn’t up to speed on things, but I honestly felt perfectly OK with the job. The whole experience was grim, depressing, and utterly self-confidence-shattering. After nine months, I was made redundant and she took her old job back. I was only familiar with gaslighting in relationships, but it makes sense in a workplace context too."
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So what’s the best way to deal with this kind of behaviour? "If you are in a place where someone is making you question and doubt yourself, take a step back, speak to grounded, fair, reasonable people you trust and get a bearing on the situation," suggests Evelyn. "Create a strategy to overcome this if you want to stay and work through it. But my advice to anyone in a toxic environment is actually to leave. This type of dynamic, if it's with a boss or even a colleague, can be so challenging to deal with that your energy is often best utilised in finding a new role in a healthy environment. Use this as an opportunity to learn to trust yourself."
Up until my last day in the office, I still doubted myself over the whole ordeal. Maybe I hadn’t been managed so terribly after all; maybe it just hadn’t worked out? Perhaps I was oversensitive and took things too personally because I was used to being liked? These doubts vaporised when my manager let me leave the building without giving so much as a ‘goodbye and good luck’. At least there was no reason for me to worry about the awkward card, speech and stare ceremony.
I cycled home, opened a bottle of fizz with my flatmate and half-watched a crappy Netflix film while trying to process the previous six months. Leaving that job was the best decision I ever made. Good mental health and sense of self-worth feel so much more important than a big pay packet and an impressive CV. And my blazer definitely deserves more respect the next time it sashays into a new office.
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