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Gaslighting at work: “I had the worst experience with my boss, but I learned one thing from it”

Gaslighting slowly erodes an individual’s confidence in themselves and their thoughts. Here, one woman describes how her boss at a new job slowly chipped away at her mental health.

A year ago, I started a new job, full of enthusiasm and promise, and with a very healthy bump to my salary. I decided to take a week off in between the last day in my (hectic) old job and starting the new one. That week, at home with my parents and with little more than the six pairs of knickers I’d packed in my carry-on luggage, I ended up starting my new job in lockdown

Not in a fancy new office in London but in my bedroom in the countryside with my mum’s 10-year-old Macbook. It wasn’t the first week I had envisaged, but I fashioned a makeshift desk by removing the drawers from a dresser in my room so I could get my legs in underneath, warned my dad not to wander in bearing cups of tea when I was on a Zoom call and generally just got stuck in. 

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Truthfully, I had had my reservations about leaving my old job, but the new salary proved an irresistible carrot, especially as most of the time I barely scrape by on my wages. As I now know all too well, money is not a good motivation to leave a job you love and it certainly didn’t make me happy. In fact, no salary on earth was worth it in the end.

Even as early as week one, I felt in the pit of my stomach, as women often do, that something was wrong. But it was a new job, with a big launch ahead – and all the while a pandemic raged around us – so surely it would get better, less frantic and less fraught in time? It didn’t. In fact, it got worse.

But at least I had my boss – the woman I admired so much when we crossed paths years ago, who saw something in me and politely poached me for this exciting new role. 

After the insanely busy 10-hour days we put in over my first few weeks, I’d stomp around the garden with a large glass of wine in my hand while she turned the air blue, venting and unloading down the phone, or ’debriefing’ as we called it.

We bitched and shared frustrations and concerns, as well as some pretty good ideas. We bounced off each other and laughed a lot too – sometimes that was all we needed to puncture the pent-up tension in the highly stressful situation we found ourselves in. Things were bad at work but there was a sense of camaraderie that we weren’t alone, that we’d get through this unpredictable and unprecedented time together.

As the weeks moved on and the pressure from the top on my boss, and in turn, on me, increased, I started to notice a change. All the things she loved about me in the beginning – my ideas, my enthusiasm, my willingness to stand up and voice my (sometimes unpopular) opinions seemed to start to grate on her.

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She got short with me and soon the phone calls to talk the ear off each other stopped. Instead, there were terse Slack messages and increasing eye rolls when I suggested the ideas and the badly needed changes at work we had seemed so aligned on at the beginning.

Quickly I started to notice that senior management didn’t want to listen to any feedback or concerns from their overworked staff. The team were worn out, people left because they were burnt out, underappreciated and unhappy (and left terrible reviews of the company and its top brass on Glassdoor), but still nothing changed. 

I went to HR because I couldn’t really believe how bad things were. I offered to help in any way I could, maybe by introducing checks, balances and systems to try and tackle the chaos and look after the team’s mental health more but I was told that the people at the top had heard it all before and it wasn’t a priority. 

It got to a point when I was waking up in the middle of the night feeling like someone had parked a truck on my chest. I was being gaslit, told to get on with it, and it soon felt like my one ally was not there to help.

I became irritable, despondent – nothing I did felt good enough, no hours worked were long enough and there were new unmeetable demands daily, impossible targets raining down with no support on how to actually achieve them.

Eventually, I snapped. I woke up one Monday morning about two months in and knew something was very wrong. I went to the doctor that day and he told me I needed at least two weeks off and that he was going to prescribe me an antidepressant and an ‘emergency’ medication for my anxiety. I bawled my eyes out leaving his surgery, crying out of shame and frustration but maybe also a teeny bit out of relief. 

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My boss did say some of the right things when I told her about the doctor’s note. “Nothing is more important than your health”, she said, but it came with unhelpful comments and inferences – “We all work crazy hours”, “This is what life at a startup is like.” She once hinted that she wished she could get two weeks off. I tried to explain I wasn’t taking holiday, that I was having the worst mental health experience of my life and that I was following doctor’s orders but I very much got the message that she felt I just wasn’t cut out for the job.

After two grim weeks, mainly in bed and zombified from the meds, I picked myself up and started back with a new attitude. “I can do this,” I told myself, half believing it. As the three-month mark approached my probation meeting was scheduled and I knew, at least I thought I knew, I would pass with flying colours. I had never had negative feedback on my work, was praised for my instincts, work ethic and initiative by members of other teams and my boss… the two weeks off was the only ‘blip’ on my record.

But when my boss joined the call with HR and would barely make eye contact, I knew something was about to go down. They were letting me go. They blamed Covid as I sat there, jaw open and staring only at her in disbelief. The week in the run up to the meeting she had been dodging me, only replying to direct questions. Now I knew why. 

I felt in shock, like I was watching Brutus ready the knife for my own Shakespearian stabbing. My closest colleague and confidante had turned on me. And what hurt most was the plot was formed when I was out of it (signed off work by a doctor for stress and anxiety). I lay in bed most days wondering if I could get up to brush my teeth. Over my fortnight off, her allegiances had changed. She no longer saw me as a workhorse with thick skin who she could throw anything at; now I was a weak link and a troublemaker for trying to speak up for myself and the young team. So, she set about getting rid of me – conveniently on the very day that my probation expired so I wouldn’t even get a notice period.

The days that followed were a blur, but the gaslighting continued. Off the “official” work channels, my boss love-bombed me via Whatsapp, telling me how brave I was to stand up for what I believed in at meetings and in asking our employers to take action to stop the toxic atmosphere. Those messages, which I now understand were actually intended to make her feel better rather than me, made me feel even worse. 

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At the end of the day, I’m a big girl and I’ll recover. But even today, it hurts that she lured me to a ‘big’ job on the promise we would do great things together then dropped me like a hot potato the minute I showed a sign of ‘weakness’.

All that was a year ago, and I’d love to say I’m over it but I am not. I shake with anger sometimes when I think of the duplicity, the cut-throatness, the unnecessary nastiness. I still get sad too, because I thought of her as a role model, and stupidly, maybe even as a friend. I feel obliged to end with a silver lining, so I’ll say this – I did learn something from her – mostly how not to treat other people. 

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