Roundup on gaslighting

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Among the most popular posts on this blog are those dealing with gaslighting. I’ve gathered a cluster of past blog entries on gaslighting at work and related topics.

On gaslighting specifically

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers (2018)

Reissued for 2018: Robin Stern’s “The Gaslight Effect” (2018)

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Inauguration Week special: “Gaslighting” goes mainstream (2017)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

Related posts (most mention gaslighting)

Workplace bullying: Blitzkrieg edition (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Toxic systems and the eliminationist mindset (2017)

Workplace bullying and mobbing stories: “Do you have a few hours?” (2017)

How insights on abusive relationships inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing (2017)

Workplace mobbing: Understanding the maelstrom (2016)

Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

Targets of workplace bullying: The stress and anxiety of figuring out what the h**l is going on (2014)

The Kavanaugh confirmation as a mirror onto America

(image courtesy of getdrawings.com)

Here in America, we have just endured an extraordinarily ugly and partisan confirmation process for a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Events leading to the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court now comprise a terrible episode in our political and legal history. This will reverberate on many levels for a long time.

Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge, was nominated by Donald Trump to fill a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. Late in the confirmation process, several women accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was in high school and in college.

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford was the first and most prominent accuser, alleging that during high school, a drunken Kavanaugh and his friend attempted to rape her. She and Kavanaugh both testified about these allegations before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 27. The debates over these allegations and Kavanaugh’s suitability for confirmation have dominated the national news coverage and everyday conversations across the country.

I make no claim to objectivity on this topic. I was among some 2,400 American law professors who signed a public letter expressing concerns about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial temperament and urging the U.S. Senate to reject the appointment. However, my purpose here is to pull back on the camera a bit and examine the destructive impact of this episode on America’s civic, political, and legal culture. Here are some of the key dimensions:

A deeply divided country

If America needed yet another painful reminder of its deep political and ideological divisions, this was it. It’s too early to predict exactly how this will affect future national elections, but it will play a major role in shaping political discussions.

Trauma and abuse

For trauma survivors, especially women who have experienced sexual assault, these events may have been alternately re-traumatizing, empowering, sorrowful, clarifying, angering, depressing, and validating. It has been a very difficult and trying two week period for many. It remains to be seen whether this will galvanize a movement to call greater attention to sexual assault, psychological trauma, and the rights of abuse victims.

Toxic masculinity

The mocking and trashing of women who courageously gave credible accounts of sexual assault was horrific and outrageous, especially when it came from men in positions of power. It’s time to mainstream the term toxic masculinity and to understand that this behavioral dynamic is very much a part of American culture.

Getting to the truth

Thanks to boundaries set by the White House, the FBI’s investigation into allegations against Kavanaugh was grossly inadequate and gave all appearances of providing cover, rather than searching for the truth. Neither the accusers’ allegations nor Kavanaugh denials were subjected to a thorough vetting, and numerous possible witnesses were ignored.

High school

Believe me, a lot of people people experienced vivid flashbacks to high school during these events. For some this was accompanied by uncomfortable memories and contemplations about behavioral excesses during adolescence and early adulthood.

Class privilege

Matters of class privilege played out prominently. Media coverage of student life at elite private high schools and Ivy League career networks gave detailed, snapshot examples about how such advantages manifest themselves early in life and continue through adulthood.

Public job interview

My own impressions of Kavanaugh notwithstanding, I would not wish upon anyone this equivalent of a job interview in the form of a public ordeal, with millions of people watching the proceedings and discussing very personal and normally private aspects of an applicant’s life. It made for a tawdry spectacle.

Institutional credibility

The reputations of both Congress and the Supreme Court took well-deserved hits. And thanks to Kavanaugh’s highly partisan language and angry, threatening tones towards his opponents in his September 27 testimony, his credibility as an impartial judge is forever suspect. With that suffers the credibility of the Supreme Court as a judicial body.

Bullying behaviors

Accusations of bullying behaviors flew back and forth between both sides. While few incidents rose to the kind of virulent bullying discussed often on this blog, the proceedings were rife with incivility and name calling.

Conservative bloc

The Kavanaugh confirmation gives the conservative bloc of the Supreme Court the votes it needs to advance a sharply right-leaning legal agenda for years to come. We are very likely to see reversals in civil rights and workers’ rights as a result.

***

The events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation process will be studied and discussed for many years. Kavanaugh’s votes and judicial opinions will be scrutinized closely against the backdrop of how he was confirmed. I don’t have much optimism for the civic aftermath of what we’ve just experienced, but I hope that I’m wrong.

A lot of deniers are simply playing a sick, sociopathic game

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

Denier behavior occurs at many levels and in many situations.

There are those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, claiming that millions of souls never perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Those are those who deny that innocent children were gunned down at Sandy Hook, claiming that the victims’ parents are participating in a big ruse.

As we are witnessing at this very moment in America, there are those who deny the realities of sexual assault, claiming that the victims are making it all up.

In my own work, I see those who deny that people can be bullied out of their jobs and livelihoods, claiming that the targets (not the aggressors) were the problems, or chalking it up to “personality differences.”

Truth is, I think that many of these deniers don’t actually believe what they’re saying. They know what’s going on.

However, they wish to perpetuate vast power differentials and dismiss suffering, abuse, and injustice by claiming that nothing happened.

For some, it provides a sort of sick, sociopathic satisfaction in watching victims, survivors, their loved ones, and bystanders experience even more anguish when their realities are denied and even mocked. It’s a next-level form of abuse.

Abuse survivors can draw inspiration from John McCain’s life story

Here in America, the death of U.S. Senator John McCain is dominating the news, and rightly so. He has been a major political figure for several decades, marked by a penchant for outspokenness and independence that formed his trademark public image. Most of the McCain remembrances are looking at the broad arcs of his life and career, but upon reading Robert D. McFadden’s feature-length obituary for the New York Times, another thing hit me: He was a trauma survivor.

It’s a well-known part of McCain’s story that he survived more than five years as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain was a fighter pilot, and during a mission over Hanoi in July 1967, his plane took a missile hit. He managed to eject, but he suffered two broken arms and a shattered knee in the process. He was quickly captured by the North Vietnamese, who immediately set upon him. McFadden writes:

Mr. McCain was stripped to his skivvies, kicked and spat upon, then bayoneted in the left ankle and groin. A North Vietnamese soldier struck him with his rifle butt, breaking a shoulder. A woman tried to give him a cup of tea as a photographer snapped pictures. Carried to a truck, Mr. McCain was driven to Hoa Lo, the prison compound its American inmates had labeled the Hanoi Hilton.

There he was denied medical care. His knee swelled to the size and color of a football. He lapsed in and out of consciousness for days. When he awoke in a cell infested with roaches and rats, he was interrogated and beaten. The beatings continued for days. He gave his name, rank and serial number and defied his tormentors with curses.

After two weeks, a doctor, without anesthesia, tried to set his right arm, broken in three places, but gave up in frustration and encased it in a plaster cast. He was moved to another site and tended by two American prisoners of war, who brought him back from near death.

This was only the beginning of years of continuous torture and beatings, including two years of solitary confinement.

McCain had chances for early release, thanks to his father’s status as a high-ranking U.S. Navy admiral. He refused:

When Admiral McCain became the Pacific Theater commander…, his son was offered early repatriation repeatedly. Commander McCain refused, following a military code that prisoners were to be released in the order taken. He was beaten frequently and tortured with ropes.

(Think about it: How many of us would decline repeated chances to jump the line while facing ongoing torture?)

With the Vietnam War coming to an end, McCain was finally released in March 1973. After a long convalescence, he would return to active duty in the Navy. Eventually, of course, he decided to enter politics.

Trauma survivor and critic of torture tactics

When John McCain was convalescing from his years as a POW, our knowledge of psychological trauma was in its infancy. Among other things, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder would not enter the psychiatric nomenclature until the 1980s — informed strongly by the experiences of Vietnam veterans.

Thus, it’s fair to surmise that much of the focus of McCain’s recovery was on his physical health. But make no mistake about it, he was also a trauma survivor. Despite the horrific physical and psychological abuse that he endured as a POW, he would go on to lead a full and rich life, including long, distinguished service as a U.S. Senator and the Republican Party nomination for President in 2008.

It is worth noting that throughout his political career, McCain was an outspoken critic of the use of torture tactics to interrogate prisoners and those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities. This criticism did not sit well with many people during the post-9/11 era, but McCain persisted. He knew damn well what it felt like to be on the receiving end.

Standing up to a bully at the U.S. Naval Academy

Stories of McCain’s rebellious streak at the U.S. Naval Academy are apparently the stuff of legend. He piled up a mountain of demerits and disciplinary measures as he resisted the strictures of officer training. Tucked into that colorful history of barely escaping expulsion is a story of standing up to bullying, as recounted in an Arizona Republic profile of McCain by Dan Nowicki and Bill Muller:

It’s 1955 in Annapolis, Maryland, and Midshipman John McCain and his roommate, Frank Gamboa, were eating lunch at the mess hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. A first class man, a “firstie” in Navy parlance, began dressing down a Filipino steward.

Gamboa hardly noticed the exchange, but young John McCain was paying close attention. Since the steward was an enlisted man, he couldn’t fight back. The firstie was being a bully, a no-no at the Naval Academy.

The man outranked everyone at the table. McCain and Gamboa were barely past being plebes, the school’s lowest rank. Fearing trouble, other underclassmen ate quickly and left. The browbeating continued.

Finally, McCain could take no more.

“Hey, why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” McCain blurted.

There was a moment of silent shock at the table.

“What did you say?” replied the firstie.

“Why don’t you stop picking on him?” McCain said. “He’s doing the best he can.”

“What is your name, mister?” snapped the firstie, an open threat to put McCain on report.

“Midshipman John McCain the Third,” McCain said, looking straight at the upperclassman. “What’s yours?”

The firstie saw the look in McCain’s eyes. And fled.

Today we’d call it “bystander intervention.” Back then it was simply standing up to a person who is picking on someone else. I don’t know if McCain’s life story includes other instances of intervening in bullying situations, but this one account shows that even as he resisted the disciplinary conventions of Naval Academy training, he was guided early on by something more than simple youthful rebelliousness.

Summing up

Surviving severe, ongoing abuse. Recovering from that abuse to lead a full, meaningful life. Standing up to a bully on behalf of someone being targeted. 

Regardless of our respective political beliefs, there’s something that we all can learn from these chapters of John McCain’s story.

Psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists: What’s in a label?

In countless discussions about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we often speculate on whether the chief aggressors may have narcissistic, psychopathic, or sociopathic tendencies. These conversations may be informed by some clinical knowledge of the symptoms of, and differences between, these personality disorders. Other times, they’re based on bits of information picked up from the media and popular culture. In any event, given the relevance of this general topic to workplace mistreatment, I thought it might be useful to appeal to some experts in taking a closer look.

For starters, if you have 12 minutes for an informative and fascinating video, check out MedCircle‘s interview of Dr. Ramani Durvasula (Cal St U-Los Angeles), “Narcissist, Psychopath, or Sociopath: How to Spot the Differences.” Here are a few highlights:

  • A lot of people “are using these terms interchangeably,” but they shouldn’t.
  • “One rule of thumb to remember right off the bat. Every psychopath is narcissistic, but not every narcissist is psychopathic.”
  • A narcissist “lacks empathy, is grandiose, is entitled, is constantly seeking validation, is arrogant . . . it’s a disorder of self-esteem.”
  • Narcissists do feel shame and guilt when they do bad things, but psychopaths feel no shame or guilt when doing the same, they “don’t care who gets hurt.”
  • The “sociopath is a lot like the psychopath: They do bad things and they don’t care. . . . Here’s the key difference: A psychopath is born, and a sociopath is made.” However, Dr. Durvasula recognizes that the influences of genetic and environmental factors may be difficult to distinguish.
  • Unfortunately, psychopaths and sociopaths rarely seek treatment, unless it is court-ordered.
  • “Psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists make great chameleons.” Psychopaths and sociopaths, in particular, “view the world as an instrument to fulfill their desires.”

Narcissistic personality disorder

In a piece for PsychCentral, Dr. Steve Bressert summarizes the symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder” this way:

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: grandiose sense of importance, preoccupation with unlimited success, belief that one is special and unique, exploitative of others, lack of empathy, arrogance, and jealousy of others. These symptoms cause significant distress in a person’s life.

Dr. Bressert reports that research studies on the causes of NPD are inconclusive, leading him to suggest that biological, genetic, social, and psychological factors may all play a role. As to treatment of NPD, it “typically involves long-term psychotherapy with a therapist that has experience in treating this kind of personality disorder.”

Antisocial personality disorder

PsychCentral‘s founder, Dr. John Grohol, echoes and expands upon much of what Dr. Durvasula says about the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, and explains how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) combines psychopathy and sociopathy under the single clinical category of “antisocial personality disorder”:

The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-5 . . . defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:

  1. Regularly breaks or flouts the law
  2. Constantly lies and deceives others
  3. Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
  4. Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
  5. Has little regard for the safety of others
  6. Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
  7. Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt

Two peas in a pod?

Can antisocial personality disorder be treated? Read between the lines of this PsychCentral piece by Dr. Donald Black and you may reach the same conclusion as I did, namely, that psychopathy and sociopathy do not easily respond to psychological and psychiatric treatment. In fact, Black concludes:

Incarceration may be the best way to control the most severe and persistent cases of antisocial personality disorder. Keeping antisocial offenders behind bars during their most active criminal periods reduces their behaviors’ social impact.

The “almost psychopath”

I’ve periodically referenced Dr. Ronald Schouten’s (Harvard Medical School) work on the “almost psychopath,” i.e., individuals who fall short of a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy, but who demonstrate some of the most disturbing psychopathic behaviors. In their co-authored book, Almost a Psychopath (2012), Schouten and attorney James Silver acknowledge that although they have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, whom they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Almost is bad enough

Relevance to workplace abuse

Well, I’m now stating the obvious: We’ve known for a long time that, on an individual level, psychopathic, sociopathic, or narcissistic traits are associated with bullying, mobbing, harassment, and other forms of workplace mistreatment. They also fuel the organizational cultures that enable such abuse and protect the abusers.

Among the bottom-line points that resonate most strongly with me are that narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths are (1) unlikely to seek treatment; and (2) treatment may not make much a difference anyway. A good number of these folks occupy positions of power in society and thus significantly impact working conditions for millions of people.

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers

If you’re interested in whistleblowing and gaslighting behaviors, then I strongly recommend a piece by Retraction Watch, “How institutions gaslight whistleblowers — and what can be done.” It features an interview with Dr. Kathy Ahern (U. New South Wales, Australia), author of a new journal article on how whistleblowers are traumatized by institutional betrayal and gaslighting.

I’m going to share some snippets of the Retraction Watch interview with Dr. Ahern here, but it’s definitely worth a full look:

Whistleblower gaslighting entails officers of an institution using their authority to deceive a whistleblower so that he stays engaged in a process designed to harm him.  Employees have an expectation of support derived from social norms regarding workplace interactions and formal policies. Whistleblower reprisals have a sting of betrayal that is largely imperceptible to outsiders because gaslighting institutions use deception to exploit the employee’s trust in his employing institutions.  

***

One gaslighting strategy is to use this trust to force the whistleblower to repeatedly defend himself against bogus disciplinary charges presented as genuine complaints.  Eric Westervelt describes whistleblowers at the U.S. VA who were subjected to investigations of unspecified charges such as “creating a hostile work environment” or “abuse of authority”, although subsequent FOI requests yielded no details of the charges.  As a gaslighting strategy, the dual purpose of false charges is to both discredit and exhaust the whistleblower.

***

Descriptions of whistleblower experiences and outcomes in the literature show a constellation of symptoms that are very similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) typically found in survivors of child abuse.  It is hypothesized that the abuse by a trusted, more powerful adult leads to a general distrust of self and others. Adults with C-PTSD have trouble regulating intense negative emotions, and feel disconnected to other people. 

***

The other symptom I see in targets of whistleblower gaslighting is a desperate urgency to be believed.  This looks a lot like an “obsession,” but as with the “paranoia,” it is not the result of a mental disorder.  It is more like the normal response of someone who spent 10 years in jail for crime he didn’t commit. Such a person is indefatigable in pursuit of having his name cleared, as are targets of whistleblower gaslighting who also are intent upon clearing their names and reputations. 

Folks, there’s so much here that will resonate with individuals who have experienced or witnessed institutional responses to whistleblowing. For those who want to read Dr. Ahern’s scholarly take on this, please look at her journal article, “Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting: Why Whistle-Blowers Are So Traumatized.”

In short, this is very important work.

If you’d like to read more about gaslighting behaviors generally, Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro) is the best general treatment of the topic.

And here are some of my previous entries on gaslighting:

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

***

Hat tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the Retraction Watch piece.

%d bloggers like this: