Gaslighting

Two hypothetical employees, Amy and Barbara, are working together on a project that requires a great deal of coordination. Each enjoys their job, and they share a close working relationship, in addition to a social one.

One day, Amy discovers Barbara doing something odd. After Barbara leaves, Amy turns on the work computer and finds, much to her shock and horror, evidence suggesting Barbara has been secretly undoing her part of the project for quite some time.

Amy finds herself beset with feelings of intense anger, hurt, and betrayal. Why would Barbara do this? The only reason she can imagine is for Barbara to make herself look better than Amy to management. But how could Barbara do this to her?

Amy prints out the evidence, goes home, and thinks about it. A lot. After several sleepless nights wondering what to do, she decides to have a meeting with Barbara.

When they meet, Amy tells Barbara what she saw, and then shows her the printout.

Imagine Barbara responding in one of four different ways.

Response 1
Barbara immediately bursts into tears. Crying almost uncontrollably, she demands to know how Amy could think such a thing. She goes on to say she is nothing if not loyal and honest, and that she had cared for and respected Amy so much until that very moment.

Barbara adds that she’s devastated, having never felt so hurt or betrayed in her life. She tells Amy she can’t stand to hear another word, is too upset to work, and is going home. She then storms out the door.

Amy feels incredibly guilty. As she leaves the meeting room, she wonders how she could have misconstrued the situation so terribly. She also worries that she’s done permanent damage to what had been a wonderful working as well as social relationship.

She feels this is all her fault.

Response 2
Barbara responds with outrage, demanding to know how dare Amy accuse her of such things, especially after all that Barbara has done for her. For what’s probably only a minute, but feels like an eternity, Barbara shouts and yells at Amy, calling her all sorts of names she’s never been called before.

She ends by telling Amy she’d better prepare for dire consequences if she ever makes an accusation like that again.

Amy leaves the meeting so terrified of Barbara that she not only forgets how she felt beforehand, but actually destroys the evidence, fearing it could provoke Barbara again.

Days later, in therapy, Amy discovers that she is more afraid of angering Barbara than losing her job.

Response 3
Barbara responds by saying Amy’s got it totally wrong: that Amy only thought she saw what she did, and that what she really saw was something else. Barbara adds that, based on that misperception, Amy went on to completely misconstrue the “so-called evidence.”

Barbara then painstakingly goes over what Amy saw, as well as the printout. Step by step, she shows Amy how and where she kept leaping to conclusions, always on the flimsiest of evidence.

Amy leaves the meeting completely convinced by Barbara’s narrative. She feels embarrassed, yet deeply relieved to know she was wrong. She tosses the printout into a wastebasket without a thought, and begins to wonder what in the world is wrong with her.

Response 4
Barbara replies by saying she’s shocked, but not surprised by the accusation, as she’s long suspected Amy of the very same thing. Barbara goes on to share observations of her own that Amy has been undermining her for some time.

Barbara adds that she’s spoken to other co-workers about Amy, all of whom agree that Amy is not only rivalrous and petty, but childish and immature to boot.

Amy leaves the meeting feeling devastated, confused, and utterly demoralized. Could Barbara and everyone else really think that about her? Even worse, could they be right?

For the first time, Amy thinks about leaving her job.

Response 5
Barbara replies by admitting to the behavior in question, but then tells Amy she deserved it, given the fact that Amy had been undermining Barbara in subtle ways for quite some time. Barbara goes on to cite numerous examples of times when Amy has one-upped her in front of bosses and co-workers, all of which comes as a shock to Amy.

Amy had never thought of herself as anything but kind to Barbara, remembering many times when she went out of her way to help her. And while Amy recalls the incidents Barbara mentioned, she had never seen them as one-upping anyone.

Until now.

Suddenly Amy finds herself feeling very sorry, and apologizes to Barbara. Barbara replies that while she accept’s Amy’s apology, Amy is going to have to work diligently to regain the trust she lost with her one-upping behavior. And that, until then, she can expect Barbara to continue undermining her behind the scenes.

Amy finds herself feeling angry and bewildered.

What’s going on here? And how do we help Amy?

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