Transactional Analysis of Gaslighting [May 09 2017]

In the light of the Mental Health Awareness Week (8th-14th May) , I intend to bring your attention to an alarming communication pattern you can experience at home, in the schools or in the office. I'll start with a brief story. Angela has worked for the company for six years. She applies for a new role. She gets it. She is part of a new team with some new faces. She's got a new boss. They get on well. Everything looks fine. She seems to be happy. Two weeks later her boss, Sharon, appears at her desk and asks: "Are you calling this a report? I asked you not to include these numbers. What's wrong with you?" Angela does not remember whether Sharon asked this or not. Two days later it happens again.

During the next team meeting, where Angela is present too, Sharon is talking about some numbers related to the new projects and reports. She says: "Although I needed to modify some calculations and do some extra work, as Angela messed up some numbers, our team performed very well. Let us hope she can quickly learn our processes and demonstrate more respect to our time and dedication to work." Angela feels humiliated and becomes totally confused. She does not know whether she really made a big mistake or it is her boss who is distorting reality. Anyway, this is what she sees in the room, and it does not make her feel any better:

Later that day Sharon sends out an email to the team asking them to do some overwork as "Angela slowed them down a bit today". Angela receives some "thank you" emails later from some team members, who seem to be allies in the environment. What is Angela experiencing?

The same as anyone would when being gas-lighted at home, at school or at the workplace. And these are warning signs you need to notice related to yourself or someone you know:

1 - Constantly second-guessing yourself.

2 - Asking yourself if you are too sensitive.

3 - Feeling consistently confused at work.

4 - Finding yourself apologizing for situations that aren't your fault.

5 - Feeling as though you can't do anything right.

6 - Doubting your own perspective.

7 - Feeling ashamed and guilty regularly.

8 - You are feeling that you are NOT OK in the context (one down position).

9 - Perceiving you are made to feel crazy, less-than (one down position or Victim) or constantly disappointing.

10 - Finding the situation so hard to describe that you tend not to talk about it at all.

11 - Wanting to leave the job but for financial reasons it is not feasible so you feel imprisoned.

12 - Always feeling you are not quite good enough and your opinions are worthless whenever sharing them with the gaslighter (your Persecutor).

How can gaslighting happen?

We need a gaslighter (a Persecutor) and a gaslightee (a Victim) and a drama can begin. To read more about the Drama Triangle, visit TA Coach here.

The gaslighter is isolating the gaslightee to have control over him or her. Sharon turned to Angela saying: "I asked you not to include these numbers." Her answer "Oh, really?" sounds like a here-and-now Adult response. But actually Sharon's messages make Angela disoriented, confused and later frightened (not OK). This is how we can visualize the transaction:

If this pattern keeps repeating, it can sow the seeds of doubt in the gaslightee to question his or her own memory, perception or sanity. The persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying from the gaslighter side can destabilize the gaslightee and delegitimize his or her belief. In an extreme form even others start believeing that gaslightee is unstable. (In TV series 24, seasons 5 and 6 President Logan is gaslighting her wife, Martha.)

The typical gaslighted body language displays lack of power, submissiveness, sadness, exhaustion, hopelessness via bent and closed postures, decreased eye contacts, losing focus on eyes and pulled down lip corners.

When gaslighting undermines gaslightee's entire perception of reality, it can slowly affect his or her relationships, friendships, family life and work life. In the extreme form of it, gaslightee can lose the ability to make judgements, feels overly sensitive, paranoid, mentally unstable, crazy or unhinged. Gaslightee can finally realize that he or she is a shell of the former person he or she used to be.

This is a pathological functioning state. Below you can see how it can be represented. The Adult ego state uses information which has its source in the Child ego state which may be incorrect. This is known as contamination. When the gaslighter id sending "You are not OK" covert messages (from the -CP to the -CC) and the gaslightee agrees (without questioning its validity), a contamination may occur. The unchecked acceptance of information is fed by the Child ego state generating delusion, that is usually based on a Child fear or hope. Beliefs are taken as facts.

How can you recognize a gaslighter? They use a variety of subtle techniques to undermine your reality and portray you as the disturbed and messed up one - just like Sharon did it to Angela. What are these tactics?

1 - Discrediting: they make you think that you are crazy, irrational, unstable or unable to perform essential tasks.

2 - Convincing: by showing the mask of confidence, assertiveness or compassion. You wil eventually believe that "you have it all wrong". You doubt yourself. You believe their version of reality.

3 - Tangential transaction: diverting the topic by another question or making a statement directed at your thoughts. Examples: "You are just imagining it." "I don't know what you are talking about." "You don't remember right." "It is just another silly idea you have."

4 - Discounting: for example trivializing how you feel, what you think. They may ask: "Why are you so sensitive?" "Don't get angry, we are just having a conversation. What is wrong with you?" "It is just a little thing. Why are you so upset?"

5 - Denial and avoidance: they refuse to acknowledge your feelings and thoughts. This makes you doubt yourself even more. "This is silly." "I didn't do anything like that. You are lying." "I don't know what you are talking about."

6 - Twisting what you say: they may twist and reframe what was said or done in their favour. You can second-guess yourself because of this. "You didn't get that right. What I said was" "If you remember correctly, I was just trying to help you." "You asked me to do so. This is what you wanted, not me."

Gaslighting can sometimes be so subtle that you can perceive it as an ambiguity. "I may be right, but maybe not." This reinforces your self-doubt. The gaslighter can manipulate with this deliberately attacking you psychologically over a period of time in order to make you doubt your own sense or reality and sanity. If you express that you feel bad because of what you are experiencing, they might start denying and refusing to agree with you. Once you give up your point of view (i.e. your fully functioning Adult ego state), you give them the ultimate power to tell you what to think or believe.

The other tricky thing with gaslighting is that the Persecutor might have positive qualities or an admired status that "outshine" their manipulative tendencies. Other times the Victim cannot avoid the interaction with the Persecutor (maybe because the money is needed so quitting is not an option). Finally, it can also happen that the gaslighter is not consciously aware of what he or she is doing. "But I am just trying to help you. How can you be so rude with me after what I have done to you?"

How can you get rid of gaslighting? Decontamination can help you - eliminating the overlap between your Adult and Child ego states. With this you can better be aware of what is really happening. This is the first step. Then you can clearly see what your Persecutor is doing and accept what you perceive is the truth. You give validity to your feeling and thoughts. Find someone who can have an independent opinion. It can be someone from HR or from a counselling service. Talk about it. Finally, depending on the situation or the relationship, you might need to prepare yourself to lose this person, boss or job - if it is becoming too toxic. Removing yourself from the situation can bring you new opportunities. My last idea is to turn to someone who is in a higher position than the gaslighter - if there is someone higher at all.

So, one more time. What are the most important steps you can take in the office when being gaslighted?

1 - Make a claim. Speak up. Report the behaviour at your HR department.

2 - Take notes and refer to the date and time and what exactly happened.

3 - Remind yourself you are not crazy.

4 - Talk to friends, counsellor, family. Share it with others you trust.

If you have any questions, comments or stories, share them with me via email. We can publish them here.



by Bali Polyanki

(c) All Rights Reserved 2017