TBM 254: Self-Gaslighting and the Doubt Loop
Are you gaslighting yourself?
Many of the dynamics we deal with at work are not overtly toxic or unhealthy. We know people mean well and do their best, even when nerves fray and things don't pan out. However, left unchecked, these situations (and how you respond to them) erode your sense of self-worth and sap your self-awareness. They can ultimately be even more damaging than acute toxic situations.
The negative effects sneak up on you, and it is especially hard for people sensitive to how others respond to the situation. Not everyone can (or should) block things out.
It's easy to beat yourself up. "If only" we could be stronger, have better control of our emotions, understand people better, lead better, make fewer excuses, show up better, manage up better, or have a better presence, we can be better. There's always a way—just set goals, be your authentic self (but don't show your fear or your too-quirky side), lean in (but not too far), and make it happen.
The firehose of "highlight reel" content in our industry doesn't help either; even the stories of struggle have heroic endings.
At a certain point, you start to doubt your overall ability. Maybe I deserve this situation? Maybe anywhere that would hire me is like this? We stop asking whether having a different manager might help us be more successful or if working at another company (or on another team) could be a better fit. We stop asking if we are genuinely fulfilled. We accept things as they are because we believe we're the problem, or are incapable of dealing with the problem.
Before you know it, your options are limited, and your career narrative becomes a self-reinforcing loop of stagnation and self-doubt. You can get to the point where nothing feels real, and you're self-gaslighting. This self-gaslighting is in addition to whatever institutionalized form of gaslighting your organization supports—where stoking self-doubt and testing for the response ("grit and resilience") becomes a path, a gate, for promotion.
But you have to remember, some things are real. You cannot forget that.
When we experience joy and pride at work—the moments when we feel fulfilled, and our needs are met—we are experiencing something real. We aren't second-guessing ourselves or spinning ourselves in circles with "maybes" and "buts." This feeling is objective ground truth and a reliable North Star. Sometimes, you get so wrapped up in the cycle of doubt that you don't ask yourself how many times you've smiled, celebrated, or felt genuine appreciation for your work in the last couple of days, months, or weeks.
In contrast, the low-level dysfunctions, cognitive dissonances, and pressures you face are real. They add up. While it's easy to default to self-blame, it's important to acknowledge their presence.
Also real is that most of the time we expend energy, heartache, stress, and anxiety it doesn't move us forward. Of course, this sounds as memey as all the other vanilla career advice and leadership books (and frequently gets hung over people's heads with statements like "you're being too emotional" or you need to be "thicker skinned").
I’m not talking about building a thick skin, accepting crap, or figuring out how to "become numb to situations because not caring gets you ahead." Rather, I'm pointing out that if we can find a way to 1) show up as we want to show up and 2) learn how to divert that energy somehow (in a way we feel good about), we can preserve more energy to make sure our needs are met. This is also an objective ground truth.
Another truth from interacting with many people at different companies and levels is that the people you are dealing with are overwhelmed, experiencing high cognitive load, and not necessarily operating at their best. They may be highly skilled at projecting outward calmness, strength, and competency. They may also harbor the sociopathic tendencies required to "get ahead." But behind the scenes, they feel the same things you are feeling.
So the same people telling you to step up, arrive with solutions, not problems, deal with ambiguity, and be more strategic are being told those things by their managers. It is almost comical—like a big bi-directional cascade of people questioning their worth and chops, but causing others to question THEIR worth and chops. The theatricality of it all is comforting on some level.
Joy and pride at work signal true fulfillment.
Save energy for what truly fulfills your needs.
Even "top performers" face similar challenges and doubts.
Companies often have a chain reaction of doubt and pressure.
If you're struggling with self-gaslighting, perhaps work through these questions and reflect.
When was the last time you felt a genuine sense of accomplishment at work, and what sparked that feeling? How do your actions set you up for more of those moments?
Have you noticed a pattern in the situations that cause you to doubt yourself, and what do these situations have in common?
How might you be minimizing or invalidating your feelings and experiences at work?
How do the polished, success-focused narratives you often hear in professional advice contrast with the realities of your daily work experience? What does this disparity tell you about the authenticity of such advice in your career journey?
How do your habitual responses to stress and anxiety at work align or conflict with your ultimate goal of meeting your personal and professional needs?
What small, actionable steps can you take to establish boundaries that protect you from absorbing the low-level dysfunction in your workplace, and how might these boundaries help you maintain your well-being and focus on what truly matters in your job?
In what specific ways does your work environment foster self-doubt, and what might be the underlying reasons for this dynamic? Who benefits?
How can you dig deeper into the 'that's just how it is at this level' claim you hear at work? What can you do to chat with folks in other companies or industries to see if they're dealing with the same stuff or if it's just a 'your company' thing?