August 03, 2021

Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Gaslighting

It amazes me how many of these exist.  Not only that, but how many I have personally encountered, and by “encountered” I mean that I have had to deal with them due to either a personal or a working relationship.  

Narcissists have an over-inflated sense of their own importance.  They believe the world revolves around them and often have a great need for attention.  A lot of times they have problems with having empathy for anyone else and they are typically lacking in self-confidence, although they cover it up.  I’m not talking about conceit, but more like extreme conceit.  

Psychopaths are actually suffering from a mental illness.  They lack the ability to display real emotions, such as happiness, love, or empathy.  Many don’t have a lot of friends, or at least no friends that will stick around for a lot of years or when the going gets tough.  Believe it or not, there’s actually a list of about 20 signs of a psychopath.  Some of these are:  Superficial charm; grandiose sense of self-worth; prone to boredom; pathological lying; manipulative and/or cunning; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect or emotional range; lack of empathy/callous; failure to accept responsibility for own actions; and several other markers.  Psychopaths can also be narcissists.  

Think back on your life and you may realize some of the people you know or have known fall into these categories.  Have you ever questioned your reality or sanity after dealing with one of them?  It’s not you, it’s them.  

Gaslighting is manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity, or skills.  Gaslighting is a “tool” used by the narcissist or psychopath to mess with you.  It develops gradually, so gradually that you’re not even aware of it.  In fact, if you are being gaslighted and try to fight back by questioning the person, you may find them responding by saying they don’t know what you’re talking about, or by asking a question that has you doubting yourself.  Gaslighting is actually a form of abuse.  If you’re always apologizing or wondering if you’re going crazy because you’re apparently so confused, or even wondering if you’re being too sensitive, then the truth is you’re probably being victimized with gaslighting.  You start questioning your reality.  

When I look back on my own life, I see it clearly now.  My husband (who has had to deal with his own psychopath and resulting PTSD diagnosis) claims I’m immune because I grew up with a mother who would probably come close to qualifying as a psychopath, if not a full blown one.  She would tell lies and believe them.  For example, when I smoked during high school, she found my cigarettes hiding place in my room (because she regularly went through my stuff).  If you asked her to her face, she would tell you I didn’t smoke.  However, she would often come into my room to “borrow” one or two.  She would also say really insulting things to my face and if I called her on it, she would tell me not to be so defensive.  

Throughout my school years, I definitely encountered a few, particularly in high school where (in hindsight) I even had one for a teacher.  In that instance I had marks that showed I was apparently doing well in that course, yet I failed.  When I questioned the teacher about why they failed me, I was told that I hadn’t shown any evidence of having learned anything.  Huh?  

All too soon I was in the working world.  I was relatively lucky for the most part as I was able to direct my career so that I worked with really great people.  I pretty much accomplished this simply by leaving a job if I wasn’t happy.  This worked well enough in the big city, but when I left to move to smalltown Ontario, the story changed.  Not being from the area originally, nepotism definitely worked against me.  I looked and looked, I even placed ads on Kijiji, and was finally approached by a woman about working for her hearing clinic.  The thing was she only wanted someone part time and I was pretty clear in my ad and in my correspondence and conversations with her that I wanted executive assistant or office manager work and it had to be full time.  She finally offered me a full-time office manager position.  I started work.  My first day she was an hour late.  So, I basically sat in the receptionist’s area and she showed me around the office.  

The boss finally arrived and we went into her office.  I should have realized from that moment but I was so desperate for a job.  She told me she wanted to keep it quiet from the rest of the staff that I was coming in as ‘office manager’, at least until I had been there a while.  The second thing was that she wanted me to work at a reduced salary from what we had already (I thought) agreed to.  Stupid me, in my desperation, agreed.  

Over the next eight weeks or so the receptionist showed me how to do invoicing, how they like the phones answered, how the filing system worked, and started showing me how to clean hearing aids or change the batteries.  One of the clinicians spent time with me to show me how to contact clients who had not been in for some time and what I should say on these calls.  Then the clinician supervised as I made a few of these calls, before leaving me on my own to make them.  Well, for whatever reason, the boss (who was rarely in the office) called me in to tell me I was making those calls all wrong.  She also said I was not grasping how she wanted the invoicing done.  She said not to let the receptionist teach me, that she would teach me the right way, but then she never did.  The result was that I started to doubt my abilities, wondering what I was doing wrong as far as the invoices went, or calling the clients, because the two individuals who were showing me this work thought I was doing well enough to manage on my own.  I got the receptionist to show me again with the invoicing.  I was doing it the way she had shown me.  I listened some more as the clinician and the receptionist both made contact with clients who had not been in for a while.  I was doing it just like them, but the boss didn’t think so.  

I did everything I could for her:  I came in early and I worked late, despite having a child to get home to or pick up from the sitter, and having a husband who worked shifts.  One night she asked me to stay after everyone had gone so we could chat.  From her demeanor, I thought, “Finally! We’re having a breakthrough.”  She said to me, “You’ve been here and observing for two months now.  If you were going to change things to improve the office layout or the client experience, what would you do?”  She and I spent over two hours discussing the office and its procedures, how it might be rearranged to make it flow better, you name it and we talked about it.  I went home to my husband feeling very good about that meeting.  The next morning at 8:30 she invited me into her office and let me go!  The really awful and mean thing she did was on my separation papers she listed me as “receptionist” under job function, and under reason for termination she wrote, “I don’t believe she is really suited for reception work.”  

I couldn’t believe it.  It was easy enough to figure out.  She wanted the knowledge and input without paying for a consultant.  She never intended to keep me.  She never intended to make me office manager.  She was using me.  That’s it.  And because I was actually good at the work, she made up things that I was doing wrong in order to justify her treatment of me.  

Now, part of me wonders if small towns breed these gaslighting psychopaths.   It took me about a year to find my next job.  This time I was offered the position of executive assistant with a mental health and addictions agency.  The boss told me at my second interview that she was very anal about the work, so I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  What she neglected to tell me was that by anal she meant micro-manager.  Over the course of five years, she gradually wore out my confidence.  I would often rant to one of my coworkers that I had good skills but just couldn’t seem to get it right.  The coworker kept trying to reassure me.  The only light at the end of that tunnel was that the boss was 15 years older than I and would likely be retiring, and after five years she did.  But what a rollercoaster until then.  (Ironically enough, part of my duties was to answer the phones. In my whole 9 years with that agency, I never had a single complaint about my “reception work”.)  

At my initial interview, the boss had indicated she wanted someone with specific skills (which I had) but in reality she didn’t actually seem to want the person (me) to utilize those skills.  I had been told that she wanted to create a staff newsletter and that it would be my responsibility.  Hot damn!  I had totally and quite successfully done this before.  So, I created a layout, came up with ideas for regular columns, created a name for it, sourced out related cartoons that we could get the rights to publish.  I asked her for some time to discuss it and when we did meet, she shot down every idea I put forth.  In flames.  It ended up languishing in a folder in my desk for almost nine years.  

I regularly planned large all-staff functions.  I was not allowed to even decide on the flavour of soup that would be served.  Every decision had to go through her.  No wonder the woman worked 80 hours a week.  Half the time she spent procrastinating and the other half was spent wasting her time on the minutia of any work produced (like deciding what soup to have).  I couldn’t even contact the landlord to say the elevator was acting up.  She either made the call herself or I had to let her approve my written note ahead of time. 

When she finally announced her retirement and a replacement was hired, I heaved a huge sigh of relief.  That is until she “helped” him conduct my performance review.  She had stuck around for several months in order to help him transition into the position.  Despite the fact that he had been working with me and observing my work for six or seven months, she decided he needed assistance in my review.  How the review process worked there at the time was that the staff member (me) filled out the form, complete with rankings on skills like “exceeds expectations”, “meets expectations”, and “needs improvement”.  The boss filled out the same form.  Then we would get together and discuss the review before creating a final form that included all our comments and that we both agreed on.  I didn’t realize she would also be filling out one of these forms. 

I filled mine out.  One of the criteria was typing of 65 wpm with accuracy.  I checked “exceeds expectations” because I was easily typing over 100 wpm at that point.  When we got to this part of the review, the former boss stated that she needed to correct something.  She went off to her computer and came back with the now-revised form.  She had removed the 65 wpm criteria and stated that I “meet expectations”.  I protested, but the new boss let that pass.  In going over comments, hers were fairly negative but he had obviously seen something she didn’t because his comments were largely positive. 

One thing she said, which completely baffled me, was that she basically had an issue with my work ethic because I had not attended two large functions which I had been key in planning.  After the meeting I was allowed to take their version of the review and add my final comments to it before signing off.  Well, I guess she didn’t realize I kept all my timesheets in a spreadsheet each year.  That comment about missing a couple of key events had me really scratching my head, so I looked at my timesheets compared to my daily appointment books.  It turned out the only two events I helped plan that I ended up missing were after hours social events. 

The first one (which was two years before and shouldn’t even have been a consideration for this year’s review) was the retirement party for a long-time staff member.  In point of fact, he largely planned it himself and all I did was facilitate payment.  And as to why I missed it?  It was scheduled for a Monday evening.  My husband, who as I previously mentioned in this post has PTSD, had a really, really bad weekend.  I had spent the entire weekend not sleeping.  I stayed dressed and with my shoes on.  I kept all the car keys in my pocket and had hidden all knives.  I was very worried he might try to kill himself.  So on the Monday when I finally got him talking again and he settled down, I called in sick to work.  I told the boss exactly why I was taking the day off.  I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  You’d think a mental health and addictions agency boss would understand.  She said she did at the time. 

A year and a half after that, the second event was her own retirement party.  I spent a lot of time working on the planning and had plans to be there.  Unfortunately, I got really sick.  I mean really sick.  So sick that I came into work on the day of the party and she and the new boss immediately sent me home.  After realizing these were the two incidents she meant, I wrote my rebuttal notes.  In the signature section there were two checkboxes, one to say you agree with the review and the other to say you acknowledge having received it.  I added a third one to say I disagreed with the review and that’s what I checked. 

Four years after that the agency amalgamated with two other local agencies to form a new one.  A new CEO was hired and this one was the worst psychopath of all.  He displayed all the traits of a narcissist as well as a psychopath.  One by one he eliminated the senior managers who dared disagree with him or stand up for the clients.  As he got rid of them, he had junior managers assume their duties…often in spite of the fact that they weren’t yet ready to move into senior management roles.  He displayed clear evidence of playing favourites as well.  He lied regularly to staff, to the management group, and to his board of directors.  As his executive assistant I was witness to it.  Sometimes it was overt lying, other times it was lies of omission.  I sincerely doubt he had ever given policies more than a cursory glance, in particular the governance policies, and I know he never read the agreement with the main funder because he acted contrary to that agreement in so many ways.  He made large (tens of thousands) financial commitments without consulting the finance manager, or anyone really.  Who knows, maybe he had a Magic 8-Ball.  The finance manager left as she was very concerned that she would be blamed for so many of his actions.  She provided 8 weeks of notice and two days before her last day he stopped in at her office on his way out of town for a two-day meeting and told her he was sorry they hadn’t had time to get together for an exit interview.  Then he just said goodbye and left.  I know this because I was there and witnessed it.  I was let go a month later and I believe it was because I kept trying to get him to adhere to policy, although he simply said I was let go because we were “incompatible” and he didn’t think I was happy there.  

The lesson here is to pay attention and if you feel yourself starting to doubt yourself where there was confidence before, then it’s time to take a step back and examine what is truly going on around you.  If it’s a personal relationship, get out.  I mean it.  Get. Out.  If it’s a business relationship, same thing:  Get Out!  If you can find another job or transfer within the company, do it.  If you are in a position where you can’t, then document the hell out of everything.  Put it in a folder safely at home and call it “CYA” which means Cover Your Ass.  You just might need it someday.