By the time Ben joined them, Steve, though initially shocked, had been won over by Ben’s swift flattery and insinuations
Robin crossed the cafeteria to them. “Hi, you two got a moment?” Briefly there was an awkward silence. Steve exchanged a look with Ben, who gave a slight conspiratorial smile, now that the transaction was done and the sport under way. “Yes, we were just talking about the paper. By the way, I did see your email, but if you look at the paper thoroughly, I think you’ll find that everything is correct.” Steve replied with a smug look that “I’m with Ben on this one”. Robin was floored. “You can’t be serious? You’re happy for it to go off to be reviewed with all these serious errors? Our reputations will be left in ruins.”
He decided to make a stand. He asked for his name to be removed as a co-author but was exasperated to learn that it was sent off to the journal anyway. More frustratingly, it was published. Meanwhile, the workplace became a source of stress for Robin as he struggled to cope with the backlash from colleagues who saw his intervention as an attempt to sabotage their work. People avoided him and, when they did talk to him, the conversation was stilted.
Eventually Robin arranged a meeting with Ben to have it out once and for all. But Ben took control of the agenda. “Robin, I have to be honest with you, many of your colleagues are unhappy about the way you handled things and some have made complaints. They don’t trust you to conduct yourself professionally after you attempted to sabotage their hard work. Mercifully the reviewers saw what a fine trial we’d conducted and didn’t get wind of your attempted slur.
“We can’t afford to have a saboteur on the team. So I’ve discussed this with the dean and he agrees there is no future for you here, and there’s no other way to deal with this. You’ve got to go.”
Any phase of this story sound familiar?
The gaslighting effect
In the story above, the actions of Ben and Steve have a ‘gaslighting’ effect on Robin. Gaslighting is a systematic attempt by one person to erode another’s reality.
The syndrome gets its name from the play and films of the same name in which a murderer strives to make his wife doubt her sanity and get others to disbelieve her.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented in such a way as to make the target doubt his/her memory and perception. Psychologists call this “the sociopath’s dance”. It could involve denial or staging of strange events.
This is Machiavellian behaviour of the worst kind. And anyone can become a victim of the sociopath’s gaslighting moves: parent and child, in-laws, friends, groups of people including work colleagues.
Psychotherapist Christine Louise de Canonville describes different phases that the abuser leads the relationship through:
- the idealisation stage, where the sociopath shows herself in the best possible light – but this phase is an illusion, to draw her target in
- the devaluation stage begins gradually so the target is not alert to the sociopath’s transformation to being cold and unfeeling, but will begin to feel devalued at every turn; the more distressed the target becomes, the more the sociopath enjoys her power, and her abuse can become more extreme
- the discarding stage – the target is reduced to an object to which the sociopath is indifferent, seeing the game as won; the sociopath rejects any connection, moving on to the next target.
Gaslighting does not happen all at once so, if you suspect in the early stages of a relationship that you are being gaslighted, you can protect yourself by walking away.