Professional Gaslighting: When Women Do It To Other Women
The topic of gaslighting has come up a lot in recent times, and it's a good thing. Not gaslighting itself, but women being willing to call it out and not put up with it. I've been through it personally and professionally and it's not fun and it's not always easy to say what needs to be said...and take care of one's mental well being by refusing to allow such behavior.
Yet the assumption often is that gaslighting is A) in personal relationships, and B) from men towards women. And while both of those are incredibly common, after a situation recently occurred during a personal business transaction between myself and a professional woman whose services I'd reached out to her to engage, I had an epiphany: Holy Crap. She. Was. Gaslighting. Me.
It was a weird feeling, but it finally made sense, and opened the floodgates to memories of other women in a position of power who try to passive aggressively tear down other women. Some call it "mean girl", some call it "cattiness", some call it being a "feckless c-u-next-Tuesday", but when you really think about it, they are doing what men have been doing for years: Gaslighting.
Psychology Today defines the gaslighter's tactics:
"A gaslighter will initially lie about simple things, but the volume of misinformation soon grows, and the gaslighter may accuse the victim of lying if he or she questions the narrative. They typically deploy occasional positive reinforcement to confuse the victim, but at the same time, they may attempt to turns others against the victim by telling them that the victim is lying or delusional."
If we re-frame a multitude of situations, we'll see that gaslighting is wildly common and often misconstrued as ordinary passive-aggression. The white women who tell BIPOC women it's not about the color of their skin when they speak up about thinly veiled racism. The "bless your heart" women in business who pretend they are working hard to help you when your paperwork is actually being left at the bottom of the stack. The manager who tells you you are the best employee they've ever had - but then talk down to you about being "too emotional/honest/vocal/outspoken/bossy" while providing zero examples...or just as bad, saying something to the effect of, "if you don't already know what the problem is, it's no use in me telling you."
A gaslighter in a professional situation will deliberately leave you in the dark, not disclosing the information they are ethically required to communicate. They often pretend to support an open and honest dialogue and working relationship...while quietly sabotaging the professional interaction. Gaslighters tell you how wonderful you are and how excited they are to work with you...then slip in personal insults. They are so narcissistic that if one dares to question their tactics, techniques, and/or actions in this professional setting, they will either completely ignore you or attempt to discredit you through what I call "apples and oranges" metaphors - you know, giving an example of something to intentionally disprove you even though there is no logical comparison. They want to "discuss your relationship" and how both parties can "work together moving forward" when they never had any plans to work with you and have no desire to improve the relationship on their end. When you call out a gaslighter for their deceit, they feign regret while away from you they are attempting to discredit you to their peers. Non-apologies like "I'm sorry you feel that way" or artificial concerns about your well being like "I think you'll just be happier if..." are par for the course. They use their power and your vulnerability, financial or otherwise, to not build relationships and grow professionally on their end, but rather to make themselves feel less of a failure by attempting to emotionally and professionally destroy your well being.
Career Contessa highlights the concept that "Gaslighters thrive off of our desire for approval and fear of abandonment. And as much as they piss you off, you try to please them and fear their rejection. So prepare to second-guess yourself as you break away from their web."
I remember being fired from a job years ago and not sticking up for myself. I was very young, and left humiliated, in tears, because I thought perhaps they were right about me. Many years later, as my confidence grew and my record of success did as well, I found myself in a situation where I was being professionally retaliated against as a whistleblower at a large government agency (one that would shortly thereafter be sued by another former colleague when they tried doing it to her, as well as eventually show up in the news for their pattern of unethical practices), and this time, there were no tears. I called them out, and I walked out, head held high. Because I knew I was right, and their gaslighting could not break me.
So when you are in a professional relationship outside of the workplace, where the person stands to profit greatly from their services, the power dynamic is - like in your job - slanted in their direction. You sign a contract, and therefore are dependent on them for the results you need. You expect they are truthfully representing themselves - their experience, knowledge, abilities, and...their professionalism.
Quite bluntly? You expect a level of maturity in a professional relationship. And all too often - much more often than one might expect - there is condescension, deception, and emotional manipulation. Even when we think we'll spot it, we don't always see it right away, or because of the sometimes unique situation, we either don't do our due diligence, or we ignore our guts because we want it so badly to work. We want to trust them. And we learn. Hopefully.
I've excerpted key parts of tips from Blackness and the Workplace provided to help recognize the signs of professional gaslighting, and have translated a few into a variety of types of business interactions beyond on-the-job...
* Listen to Your Instincts: If you know yourself and your value, no amount of gaslighting can threaten you. This means you must have a strong degree of self-confidence (not arrogance) and sense of self, which will filter constructive criticisms from low-key gaslighting attempts.
* Recognize: Don’t be in such a rush to be super good friends with everyone. Stand back and observe. Trust me, the problematic ones will rise to the surface soon enough. Recognize them and make a game plan for how to interact with them.
* Reaffirm: Things can get tough...When they do, have a friend or circle of friends who can lift your spirits and reaffirm your value. Sometimes we need someone other than ourselves to see how great we are, and this connection is powerful.
* Document: Document everything! Make documentation your friend. Your best friend. Your God. Your...you get the picture.
And while I hadn't read the last piece before doing it, boy I sure as hell documented. I took notes on every little thing after I parted ways with the individual who had shat all over our business relationship. Whether I take formal action or not against this person, I'm not sure as I am in the midst of a huge project right now, but I'm glad that, as things were going on, I wrote stuff down. Every thing, big or small, that didn't sit right, was documented.
Then I breathed, and focused my energy on attaining MY goal, and set that situation off to the side to address later. Because she was not my first priority - my goal was. I found a creative way to get to where I wanted to be, and entrusted a longtime ally to see me through this next step. And because of this, the goal is in the final steps of achievement, and that is so, so cool.
But just as importantly? I learned from the experience. Where I could have better vetted the person. Where I could have "managed up" more effectively - i.e., not assuming a certain level of competence from the start simply because she had a license but didn't disclose she had zero experience with my type of transaction. And I took these lessons to the next transaction, where the situation itself may have been different but where ultimately, it was about believing myself: when something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. Dig deeper. Listen more. Insist upon transparency. And if you need to? Make those adjustments, and do it sooner rather than later. Whether it's at home or at work, remember - YOU are worth it.
“People who harm you will blame you for it. Remember, an abuser will generally always play the victim, spin a story, tell everyone and they generally call you crazy.”
~ Maranda Pleasant