Gaslighting: Dealing with toxic bosses in the workplace

Gaslighting is a tactic that is used by people to make others question their reality. Photo taken from -
Gaslighting is a tactic that is used by people to make others question their reality. Photo taken from -


I’ve been working with the same supervisor for the past two years and during that time our relationship has deteriorated. My boss has become very negative towards me and at times, even embarrasses me in front of my juniors. Their behaviour is really frightening sometimes and makes me feel very uneasy. I am always questioning myself, my memory and my sanity. The environment is very toxic. I don’t know what to do….

Self-doubting Debbie

Dear Debbie,

Unfortunately, based on what you are saying, you may just be experiencing the tactic called gaslighting and what you’re describing is nothing new. It is a common technique used by many leaders and people in positions of power.

According to Psychology Today, gaslighting is a tactic that is used by people to make others question their reality. Unfortunately, it is a form of psychological manipulation whereby the perpetrator, ‘gaslighter’, attempts to make their “victim or victims” question reality, their own memory and their sanity.

The term originated from a 1938 play entitled Gas Light which was later made into films by the same name in 1940 and 1944. You should probably have a look at one of the films on if you get the chance. The term has been used since the 1960s to describe attempts at manipulating a person’s perception of reality.

Many experts have written about this topic and have identified the following warning signs of such manipulation. It is important to note that this can happen in any relationship so don’t think that it only applies to persons in romantic encounters.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse and bullying and a specific type of workplace harassment whereby:

1. The abuser is blatantly dishonest, and tells the victim that everyone else is dishonest

2. The abuser denies every saying or doing something, even though there is proof to the contrary

3. They carry out their assault gradually over time, wearing the victim’s resistance down, undermining their thought processes over time

4. The abuser says one thing and does another

5. The abuser is verbally abusive, often making ‘tongue-in-cheek’ remarks

6. The abuser trivialises the victim’s worth by criticising them

7. The abuser tries to align people against the victim

8. The abuser projects their own negative behaviours/traits onto their victim

9. The abuser tells the victim that they are crazy

In today’s workplace such abuse may take the form of the behaviours you mentioned. Additionally, in workplace scenarios, you may find the abuser accidentally leaving you off important email threads or taking credit for a project done by someone else and then telling the person that they had to substantially fix the project to make it better. These abusers may also be guilty of making racist, sexist or other derogatory comments and acting as if they were joking or that the victim misunderstood the context.

When confronted, common phrases used by gaslighters are “You’re too sensitive”, “I was just joking”, “That never happened”, “You’re imagining things”, “Your memory isn’t clear”, “You are so dramatic!” and “You are overreacting.”

Victims of gaslighting exhibit the following signs: Constantly second guessing themselves; feeling confused and even crazy; they always apologise and they make excuses for the abuser’s behaviour; they have trouble making simple decisions; they feel as if they cannot do anything right; they often feel hopeless, unhappy and joyless.

If any of these behaviours, feelings or phrases resonate with you, you may just be a victim of gaslighting.

Yale University researcher Robin Stern PhD suggests that the first steps a victim must take should be to become emotionally aware and engage in greater self-regulation. She states that a victim needs to understand that they do not need anyone to validate their reality. They need to become more confident in defining their own reality and set clear boundaries for themselves. They also need to give themselves permission to feel how they feel.

In your case Debbie, you need to identify the problem, name what’s going on, then sort out the truth from distortions and dishonesty. Start recording or jotting down notes from the conversations you have with your supervisor and look for signs on your part of repeated denial of your experiences. The importance of documentation cannot be overstated. Always have a witness with you when you interact with your supervisor; limit all communication to written formats as much as possible and follow up all conversations in writing. You may also want to ask colleagues if they have a similar experience with your supervisor. If they say that they have then you all may have to consider jointly addressing the matter with your boss.

Alternatively, you could speak with your supervisor in a non-confrontational, non-aggressive manner to let your boss know how you feel and indicate that you want to form a better working relationship, but bear in mind that such a discussion may not yield any positive results and could make things worse.

If all else fails, check your employee handbook to see if your employer has policies dealing with this sort of issue, if not, you may just have to go to human resources or your supervisor’s boss and raise the issue, share your concerns in a cogent and concise manner.

However, at some point, you may have to make some serious decisions about your future with this employer if it becomes too toxic and your work begins to suffer even more.

While you take the time to assess your situation you may need to talk to someone. Find a relative, a friend, a co-worker or even a therapist, through your EAP if you have one, to talk to in order to work through your feelings and get a reality check and some self-confidence back.

Good luck.

Make the shift


AFETT is a not-for-profit organisation formed in 2002 with the goal of bringing together professional women and engaging in networking opportunities, professional training and business ideas. Ask AFETT is a column meant to address issues and concerns of professionals seeking advice to assist in progressing in their careers. Today's response was written by AFETT member, Simone Francois Whittier, attorney consultant, liqueur-maker and owner of IndelimeTT Ltd. Learn more about AFETT at, search for AFETT Events on Facebook, follow us @AFETTEXECS on Twitter or contact us at (868) 343-2160. Email us your career-related questions at

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors, meant strictly as advice and guidance, based upon their experience and expertise. In no way are they meant to be legally binding upon AFETT and or its members, servants nor agents.


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