Universities provide ample fuel for gaslighters

Academics need to be more aware of this most insidious form of bullying, say Bailey Sousa and Alex Clark

September 29, 2019
A woman with a gas light
Source: iStock

University campuses, with their overt commitments to truth, transparency and collegiality, are probably the last places where bullying should occur. And yet we all know that it does. From silent treatment to overt intimidation, hundreds of instances of bullying are reported by academics, senior staff and students each year.

Yet another form of bullying is arguably more pernicious still, but which, by its very nature, is much less frequently reported.

“Gaslighting” entered the lexicon in the wake of the 1938 play Gas Light – and particularly the 1944 movie version starring Ingrid Bergman – in which the heroine’s controlling husband seeks to convince her that she is losing her mind. But it has risen to particular prominence in this post-truth era, in which international political leaders’ continual misdirection and flat-out denials of previous statements have led many to second-guess their own memories and judgements.

Gaslighting has become a concealed means to exert control and gain power over others in environments that lack official mechanisms to do so. But surely, you might think, universities’ highly educated workforces would be less susceptible than most to the mind games and trickery endured by Gas Light’s isolated young heroine? In fact, the pressurised world of higher education – where intradepartmental cliques often vie for dominance and precariously-employed staff seek protectors – particularly lends itself to this kind of abuse.

Gaslighting in academia isn’t evident in a single incident, but occurs in relationships over time. Most often, these relationships involve some actual or perceived power differentials, which the gaslighter seeks to amplify. This could start, for instance, with a senior colleague giving complimentary feedback in private, but then actively sabotaging the target’s reputation or career to colleagues via unfair criticism or groundless accusations of misconduct.

Academia provides countless opportunities for gaslighters – from questioning authorship on a paper despite past discussion and seeming agreement, to spinning previously approved budgets as being “seen for the first time”. Solving workplace problems gets mired in shifting accounts of what the real issues are. If you can’t seem to convince someone of your point of view despite repeatedly setting out the facts and evidence, and if your interlocutor responds by presenting issues that seem to be constantly shifting red herrings, you might be getting gaslighted.

Crucially, even when concerns are raised about the gaslighter’s conduct or motivations, perpetrators flatly deny any wrongdoing or poor intent – even in the face of directly contravening evidence such as emails, data, or past conversations. The idea that they, as reputable academics, would seek to inflict mental disintegration on a colleague is fanciful, they insist, and only reflects others’ paranoia or desperation.

From counselling hundreds of self-confessed gaslighters, Yale University psychoanalyst Robin Stern learned that the behaviours reflect a deep compulsion to control relationships, extinguish conflict, ease inner anxiety, and feel in charge.

Within academia, perpetrators focus on harnessing their power to assert that they themselves are the only people who can be trusted. More insidious than instantaneous, gaslighting is like the fable of the boiling frog; it relies on steady, relentless progress that cumulatively leads to overwhelming isolation and erosion of self-trust.

In gaslighting situations, Stern advises people to recognise and accept that a power struggle is occurring. Maintain your self-care and don’t lose confidence – these will be vital to getting through. Our personal sense of injustice can be powerful: why don’t others see what’s going on for what it is? It is tempting to dwell endlessly on what and who is right and wrong, but you cannot control others’ views, even when you believe you are right.

As Stern reminds us, when interactions lead to ever deeper self-doubts or disruptive emotions, preserving your psychological safety should be your priority. Analyse carefully where the truths and distortions are in the denial of your experience. Write about your thoughts and feelings to reflect on and better calibrate your own perceptions. Talk to trusted colleagues: have they experienced similar behaviours? Get a reality check from their views of your situation. 

Ultimately, the best means to eradicate the gaslighting is to disrupt power. This could entail walking away decisively from an otherwise valued job or role, long-term relationship, or project. While this may mean giving up something important to you, crucially it allows you to stay aligned with your values and protects your wellbeing and self-worth. This removes the underlying dynamic that fuels this growing and insidious form of bullying.

Bailey Sousa is director of the Peter Lougheed Leadership College at the University of Alberta. Alex Clark is associate vice president research at the University of Alberta.

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