On Gaslighting Yourself At Work

The problem with constantly second-guessing yourself.

Lately, I can’t tell if I’m any good at my job. For a while, my confidence in my ability was unshakeable. The facts: Someone picked me because I met the requirements and my work is up to par. Someone picked me because they liked my voice. Someone picked me because they saw that I was capable and because of what I can do. But recently, tiny cracks in the firmament have appeared, deepening and splitting my resolve.

“I gaslight myself at work every day,” I tweeted once, as a joke more than anything else. But, the more I thought about what I’m actually doing at work — the way my mind works, the frenetic patterns it traces over and over again, I realized that this is actually true. To be the victim of gaslighting—a form of mental abuse—at the hands of another person is horrible but recognizable. The same manipulation played out at work is more subtle: It’s second-guessing every move I make. It’s thinking that with each passing day, I am somehow getting worse at my job. It’s anxiety, turned up to eleven and set free to rattle around my brain.

To gaslight yourself at work is impostor syndrome, writ large; self-doubt played out on a grand scale. What you previously thought was true is now slowly made false in your mind, via your own thinking or the actions of others. When asking someone a simple question, for example, and finding his or her reaction so outsized that you begin to question your own intentions becomes an everyday occurrence, that’s gaslighting.

“What I asked made sense,” you think to yourself. “So I don’t understand why they seem upset?” The spiral that follows is maddening, though the temptation to follow it is very real. Indulge in that temptation if you must, but understand that the consequences are hell.

How do you know if you’re bad at your job? Benchmarks of success are often hard to come by. An annual review — sitting across a conference table from your boss, drinking a free seltzer and fretting — is nothing more than an elaborate construct to ask for a raise. Any other insight on actual job performance gleaned is a fun bonus, much like the raise you’d requested and were gently denied. Really, the only insight you have on your job performance and whether or not you should be there in the first place is the day-to-day. Do you do a good enough job? Are you well-liked? Do you speak with the intention of being heard? Are you doing a good job based on the standards you’ve set for yourself because there are no standards in place for you to achieve?

A laissez-faire workplace with a loose structure meant to empower employees to achieve their own goals is a fiction, written by people who don’t really like to manage and are bad at stepping up and taking authority. Career insecurity is a natural byproduct of an environment where structure and process fall by the wayside. No one likes being told what to do, but some need it more than others. How is anyone supposed to know what they’re doing is right if no one has an opinion at all?

Everyone processes frustrations in a different way. I rail against incompetency, and nothing makes me angrier than seeing change that needs to happen but not being able to do anything to fix it. To know that things are decidedly out of my control is my least favorite feeling. I am working on acceptance, and like eating less pizza from the place across the street, it’s a tough habit to break.

Recently, a co-worker intuited that my job satisfaction was low and gave me some advice.

“Don’t care so much,” my co-worker told me. “I’m not emotionally invested enough to care. I just do as good a job as I can and go home.”

Much like flinging oneself wildly into the path of an unwilling suitor, there’s a specific kind of desperation to trying in the workplace, especially if your efforts go unnoticed. Why does it feel like the natural impulse to fall in line with the people we work with if their work isn’t up to par? I am proud of my work ethic. Out of all the jobs I’ve had, none of them have been a perfect fit. But I still put in the effort.

People want to please—some more than others. As much as we worship those who go against the grain, pissing into the wind and taking names on their way out, identifying a lane and staying in it is the easiest way to get through without sacrificing your own ambition. Succeed in your lane. Be as good as you can be in your lane. Set your own standards so quietly in the hopes that someone will eventually notice.

It’s hard to figure out if you’re good at your job or not, especially in a workplace that doesn’t provide the kind of feedback people need. Career gaslighting operates on secret levels. Insecurity is normal; impostor syndrome is a fact of life. Letting those two forces operate hand in hand will be your downfall.

Megan Reynolds is an associate editor at The Frisky. She lives in New York.

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