Gaslighting: the favourite tool of the polite bully.

When keeping the peace isn’t enough helping teams who “walk on eggshells.”

At The Colloquium Group we work with clients to remove the anxiety, conflict and toxicity from teams under pressure. Our focus is to refresh teams, helping them become focused, healthy, and highly productive.

However, the poor behaviour of a few can create chaos in a team. One behavioural pattern of concern to us is the growing accounts we hear from clients of “gaslighting” behaviour.

Gaslighting is when someone intentionally twists your perception of reality for their own gain. It is psychological abuse. It has now been recognised as a common technique among abusers and bullies. In our view it is the favourite tool of the polite bully.

The term originates in the 1938 stage play Gas Light, where a woman is psychologically manipulated by her husband. In the play, and subsequent films, the wife is subjected to a systematic and subtle barrage of lies until she finally thinks she is losing her mind. His intention is to drive her into a mental asylum and control her wealth.

Gaslighting works like this: firstly, you have to convince your victim that their perception of reality is distorted; and secondly, you have to persuade the victim that your version is absolutely true and accurate. The goal is disorientation and to have the victim second-guessing themselves. This can lead to low self-esteem, stress, anxiety and depression. In this state the victim starts to rely on their abuser to keep the accurate record of events and, in a state of helplessness, they fall more under the control of the abusive gaslighter.

The gaslighter lives with inner anxiety. They are afraid of change and they fear people they cannot manipulate. To manage these fears they develop behavioural patterns that give them a sense of control over others. They are incapable of doing the relational work of curiosity, listening, being emotionally present, and experiencing empathy. They do not have the skills for rational argument or disagreement so they stick their head in the sand, lie about it and say it never happened.

Yes, they are habitual liars. They do it constantly. Often over small things that create cognitive dissonance in their prey. In particular they love denial, misinformation, contradiction and misdirection—all aimed at sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of their victims making them question their memory, judgement, and psychological stability.

Here are some of the favourite lies of the gaslighter:

“This is the first time I’ve heard about this.”
“We never spoke about that.”
“You are being unfair.”
“You have remembered this wrong.”
“We already decided this.”
“We already spoke about this.”
“So, you are changing your mind.”
“You must be confused again.”
“I think you imagined that.”
“You are being emotional.”
“But we agreed to this.”
“I never said that.”

These lies build up, gradually over time. It is subtle at first and slowly grows into more blatant lies. They wear the victim down and even the most intelligent and emotionally resilient people can get taken in by their charm. Before you know it, you exist to meet their needs. The psychological damage can be devastating.

The gaslighter distracts you by putting you on the defensive. If they are cheating you, they will accuse you of cheating. If they are being unfair they will accuse you of that. It means that you are now defending yourself from the very thing they are doing. Their goal is to disorient you and make you question yourself and your reality. In this way you are distracted from their behaviour.

The gaslighter is toxic in the workplace. They play one person off against another. They encourage others to collude and exclude certain people. They gossip and discredit others and divert conversations to the perceived offences they have with others. They especially target those who they suspect may be able to see through their manipulations. If the gaslighter has a powerful role they can be spiteful and punitive in consolidating control.

If you are working with a gaslighter here are five things to remember:

1. It only works when you’re not aware it is happening.

Gaslighting occurs slowly over time and is so insidious you don’t realise its happening until it reaches a crisis point. The abuser needs the victim to lose their confidence in their memory and their reasoning. They will tell you blatant lies with a straight face. It is in that moment that you get confused and question yourself. They may throw in a compliment in that moment just to confuse you even more. But once you realise what is going on, you can assure yourself that this person is telling lies to control you. Being aware of this allows you to shrug it off, roll your eyes (not literally) and unentangle yourself emotionally.

2. It’s not about you.

Gaslighters are very insecure. To feel safe they need to have control. This is not about you personally. They have few other coping or relational skills so this is the only way they know how to function. In their worldview fairness or equality means they have to get the superior deal–it is all about getting what they want. It’s black and white and not up for discussion with them. While the behaviour is inexcusable, it is not personally aimed at you.

3. They don’t care about you.

In their mind, you exist to meet their needs for validation and security. What is confusing is that while they are pushing you down they will also praise you. You may feel you are having good, friendly, positive conversations but in the end you’ll notice that nothing changes and they never give an inch. It is confusing and makes you think that maybe they are changing. They’re not. They are using a masterful, calculated technique to get you to comply with what they want. They may say they care, but you will notice their actions don’t match the words. No matter what they say, it is about their power and control over you.

4. They’re not going to change.

It’s probably all they have known since childhood. This behaviour has worked for them so far in life and continues to get them what they want. They will keep doing it until it stops working This is sociopathic behaviour (meaning they view the people around them as existing to meet their needs, and they have no remorse). Even if they were willing to change it would likely involve intensive therapy.

5. You can walk away.

Gaslighters will not easily go away unless you can no longer meet their needs. They will have slowly created ways for you to become dependent on them. It is probably time to rethink whether this is a relationship that is worth keeping. If they are a family member then set clear boundaries. If they are a spouse you may need couples therapy. If they are your boss then it’s probably time to get as far away as you can.

At The Colloquium Group we work with teams that are “walking on eggshells” and help them to become engaged, healthy and highly productive.

This article was written by Stephen Smith and Murray Bingham of The Colloquium Group. Associate Professor Stephen Smith holds a PhD in Community and Behavioural Health from the University of Sydney. Murray Bingham is completing his Masters in Coaching Psychology at University of Sydney. For more than a decade we have worked hands-on with many commercial, government and not-for-profit organisations helping to develop the relational dynamics, communication patterns, and positive engagement of teams to improve measurable business outcomes.