Protect yourself from gaslighting

Mar 22, 2021

Freelancing provides many liberties that salaried roles don’t. It also lacks safeguards designed to protect employees from harmful behaviors, like gaslighting.

Babita Spinelli, LP, defines gaslighting as psychological manipulation used to create doubt and questioning within a victim. “It is usually in a power dynamic and instills fear of losing the relationship, whether in a personal or professional setting,” she adds.

Gaslighting can happen to anyone, but it’s more likely to be directed toward BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and female-identifying individuals in professional contexts. It can happen in verbal or written communication, on issues ranging from payment to project scope.

Left unchecked, gaslighting can undermine a person’s reality and threaten their sense of self, as well as affect their bottom line. “Ultimately, one starts to end up in a cycle of paralysis or inability to negotiate decisions with a clear head,” Spinelli says.

My first encounter with gaslighting occurred in my first month of full-time freelancing. I’d signed a short contract at an agency, and aside from the owner’s power-fueled rage and condescending behavior, another man in the building regularly antagonized me. He commented on my appearance, asked me personal questions, and called me “feisty.” Not only was it uncomfortable, it was distracting. One day, I’d had enough. I politely asked him to leave the room.

That’s when the gaslighting started: My boss (who’d been out of town) and a male employee said I overreacted — no one was bothering me. My boss downplayed the situation, calling me too sensitive and unprofessional. I learned the man who’d antagonized me was wealthy and interested in hiring the agency, but refused to do so until I apologized for my “rude” behavior. I apologized, but only because I planned to quit: I couldn’t bear the constant distortion of my reality.

As a freelancer, I was more susceptible to this behavior than a full-time employee might be because there was no Human Resources department or code of conduct. Instead, I was left to wonder: Had I overreacted? Should I have stayed quiet and remained in my place? I was confused, manipulated, and out of a job.

In the past five years of freelancing full-time, I've never forgotten this gaslighting experience because it showed me how easy it is for clients and agencies to wield their power against freelancers, eroding their mental health and livelihood.

How to Spot Gaslighting

Gaslighting can be insidious, but learning what it looks like is the best way to protect yourself against it. Spinelli says key signs of gaslighting include:

  • A client trying to convince you of a reality that’s different from what you remember
  • Inconsistencies with what the client initially said they wanted, creating doubt
  • A client that’s never satisfied, despite the freelancer’s attempts to please them

Freelance writer Patrick Icasas noticed a red flag when an agency expected him to spend extra time on tasks, like attending meetings, without payment. “When I objected, they said those were their expectations of me as a professional, and expressed disappointment that I wasn't living up to their standard.”

This is a classic sign of guilt tripping, a common gaslighting behavior. If you suspect someone is guilt tripping you, they might ignore your efforts to improve, give you the silent treatment, or expect you to shrink yourself, Spinelli explains. She adds that a gaslighter can undercut your reality in a more public way, too. “The gaslighter may make attempts to tarnish the freelancer's reputation or make negative or passive-aggressive comments in a group setting such as a group email.”

You might also never feel good enough for a gaslighter, even when you did what was asked. And if you challenge them on it? They’ll verbally attack. Liz VanSchoyck, owner of Elizabeth Ivy VA, worked with a company that abused her time, then blamed her. “Towards the end of my relationship with the company, [the client] told me I would ‘never be as successful on my own’ if I decided to terminate our agreement and quit working with them.”

How to Cope with Gaslighting

Gaslighting is confusing and hard to pinpoint — especially when it feels like there’s no one else advocating for you — but you’ll usually get a gut feeling when something is off. “Don't just hear it — listen,” freelance writer Kat Boogaard says. “As freelancers, it's tempting to write off a ton of red flags because we want to grow our businesses.”

A contract helps outline expectations (especially when it comes to payment), and provide a reference point when project scope gets murky. But what happens if you already signed a contract that keeps you legally bound to a gaslighter? You can still take back control with the following steps:

1. Practice Healthy Distancing

Instead of surrendering your power to a gaslighter, keep it simple and engage only when necessary.

“Always have your line in the sand.” Icasas says. “They will try to push you and see if you are willing to bend your own rules. Once you do, they'll continue to abuse [your boundaries].”

Distancing yourself from the person and project can help you take the back time and energy you need to reclaim your agency. It’s also a good idea to take a deep breath and ground yourself before responding to a manipulative message.

2. Take a Reality Check

“Go back to the facts and data to remind yourself of what is real and not a distorted reality of the gaslighting situation,” Spinelli suggests.

Another idea is to check in with someone you trust to gain objective opinions and validate your experience. Keeping a paper trail of written communication with the gaslighter can remind you of your reasoning and keep you grounded in reality.

3. Affirm Your Worth

Gaslighting can cause stress and anxiety, so it’s important to feel confident in yourself and your work. Spinelli suggests keeping a log of your personal and professional achievements to reaffirm your worth to yourself.

Lastly, if you strongly believe you need to walk away to protect yourself, do it, she adds. “Know that if the work situation is too toxic, you can choose to distance yourself accordingly. Your mental health is a priority.”

Michelle Polizzi

Michelle is a freelance writer and essayist passionate about mental health, nature, and equality. She’s currently pursuing an MFA and pens Sunday Drive, a newsletter of creative nonfiction stories.