Amira is an ambitious professional in Chicago whose commitment to her career has paid off. Now in her mid-40s, she has quickly moved up the ladder in a Fortune 500 company. After almost a decade at the firm, Amira began doubting her abilities and feared that her job was in jeopardy. She arrived at her first counseling session with me anxious and suffering from low-level depression she attributed to her problems at work.
As Amira began to describe her anxieties, I noticed an all-too-familiar pattern to her story. About a year ago, Amira’s coworker Julia was promoted to senior vice president. Amira had always admired Julia, just two years her senior. After Julia’s promotion, the two remained good friends, openly praising each other’s work, with Julia promising to throw more challenging, high-profile projects Amira’s way. Amira’s satisfaction at work was at an all-time high; she loved feeling validated by Julia.
Two months after her colleague’s promotion, however, Amira was getting projects that didn’t challenge her or allow her to shine. Trusting her friend to empathize, Amira brought the matter up informally with Julia, who only seemed exasperated. “Sweetie, I never knew you were the anxious, paranoid type,” Julia responded. “Your work has been more than fine, as usual, and the partners appreciate it. We just haven’t found a perfect match for your skills.” And then, the next day, on her way out, she said to Amira, “Don’t you think you are little too stressed out lately? Let me give you my massage therapist’s card. His name is Frank. Tell him I’m paying for your first session. It’ll be good for you to relax.”
How weird, Amira thought. Why is Julia now treating me like I’m a nervous wreck? After all, everyone gets stressed at work and I’ve never been unusually anxiety ridden. Through her years as a successful director, Amira learned to trust her gut. Initially, she suspected that Julia’s “weird comments” might be a means to sabotage her. But, Julia is my friend, she told herself. And maybe she’s noticing something that I haven’t. Julia’s insightful, and I have been a bit nervous about my job lately ... ” It’s the perfect recipe for The Gaslight Effect.
The phrase “gaslighting” comes from George Cukor’s 1944 gothic film "Gaslight" about a man who attempts to drive his adoring and vulnerable wife crazy by methodically making her doubt her own judgment; one of his tricks is to covertly cause the gaslights to dim and flicker, only to deny it when his wife notices. For many years I’ve noticed this pattern of manipulation among my patients, colleagues and friends. I began using the term The Gaslight Effect in my practice to describe what happens when one person’s unwavering perception of reality takes precedence over another’s; the “gaslightee” abandons her own sense of reality in order to keep the relationship going—be it with a boss, a boyfriend or even a parent. Gaslighters don’t always intend to gain power this way, but once they do, they will forcefully defend their skewed view by invalidating everything the gaslightee says. Power can be a heady thing.
Clearly, it takes two to dance the “Gaslight Tango.” I often see successful, smart, confident women reduced to self-doubt at the hands of a few important people in their lives. These women are so intent on getting the gaslighter’s approval and keeping the relationship intact that, over time, they allow the other person’s negative opinion to replace their own positive sense of self.
Back to Amira. After returning from the massage session, she ran into Julia, who remarked, “I heard you met Frank. Feeling more relaxed? I’m sure that will help you with the workload.” Amira forced herself to ask Julia why she continued to unfairly characterize her as a bundle of nerves.
“Sheesh! I’m just looking out for you, Amira. You’re so sensitive these days,” she replied, adding, “I just looked at your hair and knew something was up.” Amira instantly felt defensive and self-conscious. “I’m just working late, as always,” she said, apologetically. “Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have time for a haircut by the end of the week.”
Several months later, Amira heard a rumor that she would be assigned to a high-profile project and presentation and she decided that Julia had started recognizing her talent again. Later in the day Amira mentioned the project, and Julia told her, “Oh, I gave that case to Jimmy. I thought you’d be taking your vacation now. We have been over this already. You know what a wreck you’ve been. Remember how much you needed a massage? A makeover? What with all your stress … ”
After years of working with scores of women like Amira, I’ve identified three stages of the gaslighting experience. Amira had already gone through disbelief and debilitating defensiveness. Now she was ready for the third stage: depression. After so many letdowns and attempts to defend herself, Amira felt truly defeated and despondent. She ate practically nothing for days and began to question why she ever had hoped for a higher position. She wondered if she was any good at her job. She told herself that there was a reason Julia had been named senior vice president and she hadn’t. Maybe she should consider herself lucky to have a friend like Julia, who “looked out for her.”
Over the coming months, Amira and I worked together to separate reality from Julia’s version of reality, and to rebuild Amira’s self-esteem. Today she's a successful director—in another company—and is strong enough to hold her own against the next would-be gaslighter. The most important and most difficult step was to recognize the situation for what it was: gaslighting. Once you identify the dynamic between the gaslighter and your own gaslightee behavior, you can start to see the manipulation for what it is and start to trust your inner voice again.
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