Respectful Culture: Gaslighting As a Macroaggression

By Dr. Karyn Trader-Leigh

This is the second 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 in the series.)

We are all familiar with microaggressions, everyday slights or insults—intentional or not—that negatively target people in marginalized identity groups. Macroaggressions are a different order of magnitude. These are big systems of oppression initiated from a power platform with false legitimacy and systemic impact. Macroaggressions as defined by Osanloo, Boaske, and Newcombe (2016) are not only purposeful and deliberate, they are meant to be oppressive and debilitating to the intended targets.

The Colin Kaepernick case is a classic example of a macroaggression launched from a power platform (the White House), which colluded to engage the NFL in suppressing speech acts of its African American players (70 percent of its workforce). Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback, was blacklisted and repeatedly insulted by presidential tweets in speeches at campaign rallies. The chief insulter convinced NFL owners and encouraged NFL fans to participate in gaslighting. 

Here the specific intent was to isolate, humiliate, and foster racial animus by presenting civilized protest by African American players as unpatriotic. The goal was to shame and make a mockery of this protest of the social justice issues facing black males who encounter the criminal justice system. So what do you do when it is the president who gaslights the body politic? At a minimum, one must recognize dysfunctional and manipulative behavior.

Why are some people compelled to find the weakness in others and exploit and inflict harm through manipulation and narcissism? And what can we do when we find ourselves in gaslight relationships?

These relationships are unhealthy whether it is with a lover, a parent, a boss, or the president. Attacks on a person’s being, feelings, pride, self-worth, or identity designed to humiliate are insidious, cruel, and damaging emotional abuse. When it is someone we trust or care about, someone who speaks with certitude and authority, we tend to think that person must be right. Susan J. Elliott states that “Gaslighting causes you to think that up is down and down is up. It is sowing very real seeds of doubt in your ability to believe in you and what you are experiencing.”

When someone is gaslighting you, they exert power over you and seek to bend you to their purposes.

Dr. Robin Stern states that if one’s partner is manipulative, self-centered, low on empathy, and has a vested interest in always being right, the person might have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. 

The point here is not to go around diagnosing people, which you may not be qualified to do, but to recognize the situation you are in and what steps you might take. Bounce the situation off a friend, family member, or trusted adviser. Dr. Sterns notes that gaslighting occurs often in dating relationships. She offers the following questions that you can ask yourself to assess if someone is feeding doubt and undermining your confidence and judgment.
Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Is your partner or boss feeding your self-doubt intentionally?
  • Do they try to persuade you to doubt your facts and evidence of your senses and what you are thinking and feeling?
  • Do they try to convince you that what you believe is wrong, and that their views and what they believe is right?
  • Do they like to put people down?
  • Do they react badly or with hostility if you do not accept their version of the truth?
  • Are they extremely persistent and sometimes keep the argument going long after you have asked them to please drop the issue?
  • Do they attempt to bully you into admitting that they are 100 percent right, and you are completely wrong?
  • Are the facts always twisted so that they are the victim, and you are always at fault?
  • Do they twist and turn the truth and make such long and complicated arguments to prove their points that you are left thoroughly confused?
  • Are they reluctant to give you credit no matter what you do but take disproportional credit for themselves?
  • Are they unreceptive to the smallest criticism but blame others for failings and critique everyone else? 

Gaslighting is a mind game that is difficult to recognize and even harder to break free from. It plays in to our fears of being dismissed and our need to be understood, appreciated, and valued. Next week, we’ll focus on learning to stand up to abusers and managing your feelings so you can empower yourself and become a survivor.

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

Top photo: Bigstock

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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