Is it me? Crazymaking in the creative workplace

It's week one of novena one: Turning Points and Breaking Points and I am so excited to share the first insight: people who may be hindering your creative process.

Are you underperforming, or just being undermined?  As  architects, we define ourselves through our profession.  For us, it’s not just a career, it’s a vocation.  An attack on our job performance therefore becomes an attack on the way we define our core being.  Since our work involves evolution of ideas through criticism, are you being resistive when you feel that the criticism doesn’t ring true? I recently read a very life-changing book, The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulaiton Others Use to Control Your Life, by psychoanalyst Dr. Robin Stern, that addresses underlying causes and effects of manipulative behavior.  The term- gaslighting, first made popular by a  classic 1944 movie Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, describes the ongoing experience of dealing with someone who repeatedly  attempts to redefine your reality; who twists around your words or actions to the point that you begin to question your sense of reality. In other words, someone tries to drive you crazy or undermine you and you allow them to do it, by buying into what Dr. Stern calls the Gaslight Tango.  Dr. Stern has graciously agreed to share her insights on workplace gaslighting to help you recognize it and empower you with tools to take action against its negative effects.
AM: Can you give a little more information about what gaslighting is and how it plays out in the creative workplace?
RS: Gaslighting is a form of manipulation where one person (the gaslighter) seeks to define the reality for another and to undermine his or her confidence.  This works by the gaslighter challenging your understanding of  reality and of your own actions and character. “do you really think you are experienced enough to take that on?”  (implication is that you are not!)  OR in another scenario “…. Not included in the client meeting?  Don’t you think you are being WAY too sensitive?”  The gaslighter creates an emotional charge, sometimes a hook, often with just enough of a grain of truth that you begin to question yourself; after all, maybe you are very sensitive! This buying into the gaslighter’s reality often leads you to  accept blame for the fact that the gaslighter is unhappy (or not giving you that opportunity, raise or promotion). And, what is key here, is that the gaslighter DOES NOT have to accept any responsibility; he may never even have to answer the question of why you weren’t asked to the client meeting – in fact, now both of you are thinking about how sensitive you are, instead!!  Gaslighting undermines your confidence and sense of reality because only the reality of the gaslighter counts and he/she succeeds in  imposing it on you. Creative people are particularly susceptible to this because their work is subjective and relies so often on approval and acceptance by others.  Creativity is an expression someone’s inner voice, so devaluing or criticizing creative work is very personal.  Creative work by its nature doesn’t rely on facts and structure and leaves more room for  interpretation – it is a perfect set up for a gaslighter who is all too happy to assert control over the moment, or reality.  

AM: In your book, you define three categories of gaslighters; Glamour Gaslighters, who are essentially flatterers, Good Guy Gaslighters, who appear to be on our side and never disagree, then resent our actions and undermine us behind our backs, and Intimidator Gaslighters, who are belligerent. Can you describe a basic profile for each type in the workplace?
RS: The Intimidator is the easiest to spot.  They tend to be confrontational, may intimidate you with anger or emotional outbursts, even with facial expressions.  They are bullies (using power over you to move you to compliance and agreement) and they gaslight by belittling your work at the same time that they use their power or position or greater experience to put down your creativity and  your efforts and to make sure you feel unstable about yourself and fear their outbursts.  Glamour Gaslighters will praise you often and psychologically seduce you with their charm, but when they are not praising you or using praise to deflect your perception, they are just as critical and just as insistent that they see the reality of your work, your efforts, etc. Like all gaslighters, they define  what a “good” employee should do and how a “good employee” would act. Wanting the praise of the Glamour Gaslighter, you will work overtime, cancel plans, and turn your life inside out to meet expectations.  After all, it’s what any “good” architect would do. And, it feels so good to get the praise and be with your Glamour Gaslighter when he is charming, that you are willing to allow those moments to deflect your attention from the otherwise negative interactions.  The Good Guy Gaslighters seem very reasonable on the surface and are very willing to negotiate.  However, they will constantly question your work and therefore cause you to second guess yourself.  You may even feel like you successfully argued your point, but be so unsure of yourself, or just so completely exhausted,  after dealing with them that you feel lucky to have been successful. Alternatively, they will make you feel as if you are not a team player if you question their game plan.

AM: So much of your book deals with the importance of learning to trust yourself and not be drawn into other’s perceptions of your behavior.  Our profession of architecture can be outwardly collaborative, yet inwardly competitive.  How do you differentiate between honest criticism and gaslighting?
RS: Constructive criticism and feedback provides you with useful information.  Gaslighting happens when criticism is followed by a challenge of your values and beliefs.  For example, you may be accused of being arrogant, not a team player, infatuated with a particular designer or style of design, a rigid thinker.  “ You might hear a gaslighter say: C’mon, we all know you are so bought in to xxxx’s style that you will say yes to anything like it”; the gaslighter using your positive attitude towards a particular designer as a way to say that you don’t know how to critically evalute a new piece of work. Anytime emotional attacks are intended to impair your ability to think rationally about the problem at hand or issues are brought up that have nothing to do with the particular item being discussed and you begin to second guess yourself and your ability, you are being gaslighted. As you will read later, you need to learn to step out of the Gaslight Tango!

AM: Will a workplace gaslighter most likely have a single target, or will they be an equal opportunity abuser/manipulator?  Are there behaviors that might encourage gaslighting, or responses to gaslighting that might exacerbate it?
RS: Any time that you idealize a person, opportunity or company, you are vulnerable to gaslighting.  Gaslighting can’t happen if you don’t feel in need of, or worse, that your worth is tied to the gaslighter’s opinion of you.  Most workplace gaslighters have learned through successful gaslighting encounters to deal with people and negotiate their way in the world by gaslighting.  They will throw it out there and see if you respond.  If you do, then they will repeatedly engage you in a manipulative way.  However, it is important to note that if you don’t initially respond, they may keep up their strategies (after all, that is just the way they relate!)  and over time, you may become vulnerable because they – and, then eventually you too -  build up a “case” for their point of view.  All gaslighters have an indirect and inauthentic communication style.  They are highly skilled at knowing how to manipulate. Therefore, it may be useful to confront your gaslighter directly about the way they interact with you and to say that you appreciate their input, but not comments that imply something negative about who you are as a person.  And, if after considering the idea of a conversation/ or confrontation, you think it would be impossible - or you try and encounter more manipulation - think about how important it is to you to stay at this job.  Are the pros still outweighing the cons?  Are you feeling anxious or depressed more than usual? Why are you staying there?  Is your job worth your psychological well being?  Can you avoid the gaslighter? If you can’t avoid him or her and even if you choose not to leave right now, think about your larger life plan and a possible  exit strategy. Do you need to stay another two years, five years?

AM: We often seek out mentors.  Because gaslighting is so insidious, how can you tell whether your mentor has your interests at heart, or is actually gaslighting you though their advice and guidance (i.e you have a lot to overcome- it’s a good thing you have me)?
RS: The relationship that you have with a mentor is a lot like one you might have with a trusted teacher or even a therapist. You are inclined to have confidence in the mentor’s advice because they (your believe) have a commitment to your professional development and often know things about you and your life.  A good mentor will ask you questions after making an observation and leave space for your thinking.  A good mentor gives you feedback in a way that is useful and can be "worked on" – and, after which you feel you know more about how to move forward and you feel empowered.   A gaslighter will put you down, undermining your sense of self and confidence. You will leave a feedback moment or session with a gaslighter feeling “less than”, depressed, confused and often going over and over the conversation.

AM: You state that a big part of gaslighting is related to a power struggle.  Learning to recognize when a conversation is not about the stated topic but about domination and judgement is key to avoiding gaslighting attempts.  Unfortunately, in a work environment, the power struggle bleeds out into how others in the office perceive us. What is your advice for working on a team project with a gaslighter?  Are there ways to create rules of engagement to minimize their gaslighting?
RS: It takes a lot of strength- a lot of checking in with yourself.  Do your best not to respond to the drama, and commit to avoid becoming emotional.  Instead, learn to recognize the power struggle (ie: you are going over and over the same thing, you feel challenged and defensive rather than listened to and understood) and simply state that you respectfully disagree.  One way to check yourself and get more information is to seek another opinion about what the gaslighter is saying about you; do others see the same thing?  Take in the information, sift through it and identify what is useful – if anything – to empower yourself to make a change if you want to. When you have to work with a gaslighter as part of a team effort, understand what kind of control you will have and how to limit your interactions with the gaslighter.   

AM: As architects, we tend to be overachieving workaholics.  How do you know the difference between manipulative flattery and a boss who genuinely appreciates your efforts and wants to praise and reward staff, but may have to call on them to rise to an occasion?
RS: Any time you are not sure if you are being manipulated or genuinely asked to do something because of your expertise, you need to step away from the situation to check in with yourself. In this example, if you are asked to work late, but, in doing so, you are going to have to cancel an long time plan (important commitment, vacation, etc.)  tell your boss you will think about it and give yourself some time to mull it over. Maybe it is a culture where you can’t say no to a request like that. If so, maybe that is not the place for you long term.  If you can say no, but, feel caught up in the flattery of having been asked, use the time away from the moment to check in about how important your previous commitment is – then, if you chose your first commitment, feel free to thank him/her for the praise and say no if working late will cause you to have to make other sacrifices in your life. If your boss tells you are really needed or you are the only one for the job, you may even let him/her know how much you appreciate the praise, but if you are challenged by a questioning of your commitment or work ethic,  state calmly (this is difficult but important!)  that you don’t agree, the reason you are refusing is that you just can’t work late in this instance is a previous commitment.  Be clear about your boundaries and don’t let your gaslighter misuse his “analysis” of your personality traits to draw you into an irrelevant discussion.  For example, you could say, “You may not be aware of it, but I am working very hard on this project – I will be happy to show you what I have been dong. Implying that I am not staying late because I am too anxious about saying no to dinner with my husband has nothing to do with my work.

AM: In your book, you discuss ways that we become drawn into gaslighting.  One way is by wanting to defend our selves against an attack,  something you call the “gaslight tango.”  Another way is through the “urge to merge”; to be “with” another in their perceptions and thinking – even at the expense of allowing someone else to define us and determine our self worth. Can you elaborate a bit on how these techniques might be used in the workplace?
RS: The urge to merge comes from our deep desire to be connected.  This can lead to taking on other viewpoints because we want to be aligned, and be seen as being aligned, with a person or company we admire. The urge to merge propels us in the direction of taking on another’s point of view – and, as you rightly stated, even at the expense of our sense of self. When confronted with gaslighting, we succumb out of a desire to have things work out and to align ourselves with the other. The gaslight tango occurs when you respond emotionally and question yourself instead of either challenging what was said or offering another solution.  Whether at the workplace or home, it is important to remember that you need never to allow someone else to put you down, to use your sensitivity or creativity as a way to make you wrong, or shame you into seeing his or her way.

AM: I love your term “emotional apocalypse!”  What kinds of emotional apocalypses can we expect in the workplace (aside from the threat of being fired)?  I struggle with the way professionalism can be defined, discouraging employees to speak their mind or take a stand or in fact display any emotion or passion.  This makes us especially vulnerable to an emotional apocalypse where we can be accused of being too aggressive, arrogant or emotional.  We can be told things that we can’t really verify like that others don’t want to work with us or that a client has complained about us.
RS: The gaslighter uses the emotional apocalypse, or threat of it, when you have resisted attempts to be drawn into his or her reality.  Emotional apocalypse can be a very personal thing – for some people  the threat of being rejected may be an apocalypse – for others there are other apocalypses. In the workplace, an apocalypse can include being ostracized or isolated from groups of co-workers or good  projects, having your work minimized or made fun of, not being invited to key meetings, assigned to insignificant roles on a project, being told you are not as good as you think you are. The key to being able to assert yourself in the workplace is to understand that the respect we seek from others starts with self respect.  When you respect yourself, you can assert your point of view while avoiding drama.  I recommend having a list of phrases that you can use whenever you sense escalation in the power struggle.  Saying things like “I need a minute to get my thoughts together,” or “I am uncomfortable continuing this conversation -  and I will get back to you about the project,” will allow you to exit the situation and avoid, for example,  the emotional apocalypse of humiliation.

Dr. Stern emphasizes that we need to preserve our self image and honor the creative part of ourselves.  “Gaslighting stops the creative process and makes us afraid to make mistakes.  Creativity is your voice, it’s the ability you have to interpret the world and see things in a new way.”  So how do we guard against being gaslighted?  “I use the term checking with your flight attendants to describe the process of checking in with yourself and the world around you,” says Dr. Stern.  “Whenever you feel that things aren’t right, look at other things unfolding around you, the emotional state of your co-workers, talk to other people you trust and listen to what they have to say about the situation. It’s important to do a reality check when you feel things aren’t right. To be sure, when people give you feedback on your work, it is NOT always gaslighting!!  Sometimes it important commentary that you need to pay attention to.  Constructive criticism may be very fair, and you may in fact, need to take another look at your work, or the situation at hand, but gaslighting is never fair.  You need to learn to evaluate each situation from an unemotional point of view, respecting your feelings but sifting through the information coming in to see if it is accurate and useful – as opposed to manipulation.” 

According to Dr. Stern, many of us inadvertently engage in gaslighting at times, motivated by frustration when we can’t get others to go along with what we believe is right or what we want.  It is easy to resort to emotional manipulation when we can’t get what we want any other way.  Gaslighters however, routinely engage with others in this way, with the intention, conscious or not, to destabilize them and leave them unsure of their reality -- gaslighters create a truly toxic environment for others.  Dealing with them effectively requires us to know ourselves and preserve our sense of reality. “We must be aware of and responsible for our part in  maintaining relationships --  that includes being responsible for our communications, with others  --- you can’t go wrong taking the ‘high road’ – and,  being firm and kind” says Dr. Stern.  “And, you never have to swallow your integrity.”

Robin Stern is an author, educator and a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City