Respectful Culture: Gaslighting – Dealing with Insulters/Finding Solutions

By Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh

This is the third in a series of three essays exploring the issue of gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse that is not uncommon in the workplace as well as in relationships. While this behavior may be a character flaw in both leaders and lovers, we don’t want to be victimized by it. (Click to read the first article and the second article in the series.)

Gaslighting is a mind game that is difficult to recognize and even harder to break free from. This type of emotional abuse is common in the workplace as well as in relationships. We fear being dismissed, and our need to be understood, appreciated, and valued is undermined. Now we learn how to stand up to abusers and manage feelings, becoming empowered and a survivor instead of a victim.

We all have insecurities, but not all insecure people insult. Insults are toxic. It is also worth noting that insults and criticisms are two different things. Well-meaning criticisms can be done constructively as feedback. Insults are a contaminating energy designed to humiliate and harm someone’s inner space.

Eva Jajonie, a clinical psychotherapist who has written on the psychology of insults, says insults affect people in different ways. This depends on who the person doing the insulting is, the environment, and the stakes involved. People who are assertive and learn to be in control get in touch with their feelings; they also can assess the situation and consequences, remove themselves from the situation, and deal with it calmly.

On the other hand, people who are reactive and resentful tend to refrain from their emotions and drastically lose their sense of logic to resolve the situation. Although you have no control over what other people think or do, you can have complete power over your reactions if you get in touch with your feelings and stay focused. Jajonie says, “Keep in mind that insults will affect you but cannot enter your mind and generate certain reactions unless you allow them to.”

Of course, these insults may be hurtful. You can shake them off, ignore the insulter, detach, show respect without having to agree, or you can move your mind and spirit to a higher place and not feed into the insulter’s negative energy.

There are no easy solutions, but it is critical to challenge abuses that leave you questioning yourself, your intelligence, and your mind. Here are tips from different authors focused on dealing with difficult people.

Take Charge of the Situation
Do not allow the insulter to manipulate you or take charge of your feelings. You can react without retaliating. Tell the gaslighter how he or she makes you feel.

If it’s a family member, have a conversation with your aggressor. For example, if you are being repeatedly insulted by a parent or family member, it might be time to sit down and have a conversation about the abuse. Be direct: “I feel hurt when you make those comments. It hurts my feelings. Please don’t do that.” This could change the dynamic.

Stay Calm and Clarify
Take a deep breath, be assertive, and say: “I want to understand. Did you just say [repeat the insult]?” Then you look at the insulter straight in the face and wait for an answer. Ask what he or she meant. Try to understand why the person is insulting you. What’s the motivation? Maybe the person doesn’t understand you or the situation very well. This is key to resolution, but it also takes the steam and power away from the insulter if they know you will challenge them.

Step Back
Pause. Make eye contact and pause instantly. Take a moment, breathe. Assertively say “Let’s stop—this is not constructive.” If the insulter repeats the insult or is intensely aggressive, take the energy away—simply walk away.

Don’t Go Into Attack Mode
It’s okay to feel angry; anger gives you the fuel to act, but don’t use that to escalate and go into a counterattack. In the workplace deescalate; react only when necessary. Have a private meeting, one on one. State what the issue is and how the behavior is impacting you. Listen respectfully so you can respond to the underlying issue.

Cultural Considerations
Cultural interpretations may lead to differences in meanings of expressions across cultures. Words and behaviors can be interpreted differently by individuals, depending on their values and cultures. Ethnicity, gender, or nationality may impact how we understand what is said. Checking to make sure what you understand is what your communication partner means may avoid unintended offense.

The Last Word
Clearly, gaslighting harms relationships. The strategies discussed remind us that we don’t have to stand for manipulative or narcissistic people who disrupt the workplace and take satisfaction from disempowering and crushing others. These experiences leave people embittered and withdrawn. Smart leaders know that it is essential to neutralize toxic people in the workplace. Companies often avoid dealing with superstars who are abusive. The results of these so-called superstars may not be worth the conflict and stress. Leaders must remind even their best performers there is zero tolerance for abusing others. In today’s team-driven environment, smart leaders understand their duty to protect the company culture.

Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh, an author, a Diversity and Organization Development Consultant, and an Executive Coach, is a Sr. Consultant with NewPoint Consulting. A Global Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Leader, she has a passion for cultivating integral leadership that builds and empowers people and organizations at every level. Karyn served as the lead NewPoint consultant to the US State Department’s Employee Relations training for US and Overseas Foreign Service professionals. She has had a 25-year consulting practice as CEO of KTA Global Partners, LLC, working with a range of federal agencies, private sector businesses, and international and US nonprofit organizations. Her article Identifying Resistance in Managing Change, a global study, has been downloaded over 5,000 times.

Karyn’s broad international experience includes capacity building in war-torn economies in Africa, living in China, lecturing in the Middle East, and cross-cultural consulting in Eastern Europe. Karyn is an executive coach and runs an International Coaching Certification (ICC) program in the Washington, D.C. area, CoachCraft ( She has a master’s in International Transactions from George Mason University and a doctorate from Pepperdine in Organization Change.

Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, co-founders of NewPoint Strategies provide Next Generation consulting, classroom and on-line digital learning solutions in High Risk EEO issues including diversity/inclusion/unconscious bias, harassment and assault prevention. TRAINING. EMPOWING. EDUCATING. Creating SAFE SPACES at Work

We welcome your thoughts and comments. Each contributes to the conversation, which is the key to understanding and culture change.

Top photo: Bigstock

About KHubbard LRevo-Cohen GCrider Chris Kilmartin Maria Morukian (34 Articles)
Since 1984, the founders of NewPoint Strategies, Karetta Hubbard and Lynne Revo-Cohen, have built a strong reputation for delivering extremely effective prevention training in high-risk issues such as sexual harassment/assault. Contributing Author and Lead Consultant, Chris Kilmartin, Ph.D, Emeritus Professor of Psychology from the University of Mary Washington, is an expert in Sexual Harassment and Assault Prevention, specifically Male Violence Against Women, Gwen Crider, a diversity and inclusion strategist with over 20 years of leadership experience in non-profit and private sector organizations, and Maria Morukian is an internationally recognized diversity expert