Overcoming Internal Conflicts: How To Face Gaslighting, Stay Clear, and Support the Collective Good

Why is this so hard?

Those of us who try to promote collaborative narratives, goals, and methods often find ourselves defending our reputations and ideas from the attacks of competitive players. Because they see us as “opponents,” they brand us — and our strategies to share power instead of grab it — as misguided, inefficient, and weak. Worse, if we engage with their attacks and become defensive, we perpetuate this power struggle in ways that do more harm than good. Mindlessly responding to attacks in kind undermines our own ideals of collaboration.

This is not to say that there aren’t times when we choose to respond in kind. But we role-model collaboration when we learn how to de-escalate the situation and stay connected to our own conviction that everyone’s voice matters.

Overcome Gaslighting with Confidence

In competitive terrain, gaslighting is fair play. In a war scenario it is perfectly acceptable for someone who considers you their enemy to do whatever it takes to convince you to second-guess yourself. That’s their goal: to get you to stop trusting your own point of view and adopt their version of reality. When collaborative thinkers see opportunities to include multiple points of view that might impede their attempt to dominate, they feel threatened.

To weather this kind of gaslighting, we must build our confidence that collaboration better avoids harm than scorched earth competitive schemes. Deciding to trust what we know in our bones about collaboration will inspire others to trust us as well. But it’s hard to trust yourself when competitive narratives portray a collaborative worldview as inefficient, unfocused, or —worse — counterproductive. For many women (myself included), such confrontations even trigger oversized fears from earlier traumas. To be honest, I went into therapy to prepare for the publication of this book, and some days I still wake up feeling afraid. I know speaking up for women’s narratives about power will invite attacks, but now I am prepared.

Strength in Solidarity 

Convincing those in power to reallocate resources to pursue moral outcomes as well as competitive outcomes will require high levels of solidarity. It is up to all of us to summon the courage we need to ensure collective narratives become at least as important as competitive narratives.

Learning how to inoculate ourselves against attacks against our more inclusive narratives starts with good strategies for staying sane, staying present, and maintaining forward progress. It’s important to remember that avoiding harm is not the same as being risk averse. We have to illustrate this difference to prevent the kind of escalating competitive perspectives that motivate winner-take-all reasoning. Just keep in mind that disturbing cherished competitive gamesmanship may ignite defensive emotions and make you a target. Strong women are attacked, undermined, belittled, and marginalized when we challenge the validity of win/lose narratives.

Learning to Trust — Yourself

So many of us have been trained to fight or hide when attacked that we may need to practice standing strong. Learning to trust yourself is an inside job. Mental rehearsals help: at times, I’ll use my imagination to practice letting calm confidence show in my eyes, posture, tone, and timing. I want my body language to reflect my unwavering faith that it we’re well past due for power on all levels to take steps that protect collective well-being.

One of my touchstone memories comes from a budget meeting, when a combatant male general yelled at a female lieutenant, “Why don’t you just grow up?” Her answer was priceless. In a tone that was simultaneously cool and warm, she asked, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but could you be more specific?” That is what a woman who trusts herself sounds like: unflustered, calm, and strong. Compared to the female lieutenant, the male general sounded like the bully he was.

Mixed Feelings are Fine

What about when we have mixed feelings? I once had a discussion with a woman who went to the aid of a shooting victim. She said, “I felt bad for getting involved, and then I felt guilty for feeling bad.”

Monitoring multiple narratives will naturally produce internal conflicts. I think that’s why so many women feel conflicted about the very word “power.” I also suspect this is why dominant men label a desire to compromise as “wishy-washy.” If you feel embarrassed about having mixed feelings, please let that go. There is a difference between being unfocused and being multi-focused. When we refuse to categorize people as either good or bad in order to see all sides, we invite more complexity for the right reasons.

The truth is, there’s power in your ability to tolerate ambiguity. Mixed feelings prove you care about both competition and collaboration. Ambivalence is an inevitable part of learning how to balance contrasting paths that protect individual gains as well as collective well-being. That is why for many women, the word “power” activates an internal struggle between two narratives: we did this versus I did this. Building your perceptual agility to toggle back and forth is a vital talent that activates both collaborative and competitive narratives. Embracing these ambiguities need not activate self-doubt — it’s a sign you’re agile enough to see several points of view at once.

Focus Isn’t Tunnel Vision

We’ve been fed the myth that embracing ambiguity signifies a lack of focus. But only focusing on competitive goals is a dangerous form of tunnel vision. Embracing the ambiguity of contrasting yet complementary narratives reveals the sweet spots that tend to both individual and collective wellbeing. Creative solutions can be found in the gray area in-between.

And heads up: These situation specific creative solutions are often so well-adapted to local conditions and a participant’s emotional reasoning that they can look random or “out of control” when evaluated by standards of conformity. Inconsistency is not always a bad thing. It naturally happens when people participate in coming up with local solutions. 

Balancing the Paradox

Common gaslighting tactics are designed to convince collaborative thinkers that we are crazy, indecisive, too weak or too strong. But intimidation only works if we genuinely begin to doubt ourselves. Tactics to discredit women’s voices have been so effective that sometimes women play small just to avoid them. Don’t betray yourself that way. The gaslighting is not going to stop, but you can be better prepared.

Toxic men will continue to marginalize and belittle women’s points of view. Some men get off on dominating strong women. Our challenge is to find a healthy way to soothe our defensive emotions so we can nullify the games instead of engage in them.

It’s not easy. De-escalating territorial games takes a lot of self-discipline. There will be times when you must restate your position and give a second, or even third chance for a game player to do the right thing. Every now and then, we are clever enough to say the perfect thing right up front, but more commonly, de-escalating territorial games requires perseverance and resistance. Faith in ourselves and in each other can build a bigger narrative. Personally, I persevere because I genuinely have faith in you and all of the women and men who share collaborative perspectives. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.


Annette Simmons is a keynote speaker, consultant, and author of four books including The Story Factor, listed in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. She got her business degree from Louisiana State University in 1983, spent ten years in Australia in international business, got an M.Ed. from North Carolina State University (1994), and founded Group Process Consulting in 1996. Her new book is Drinking from a Different Well: How Women’s Stories Change What Power Means in Action. Learn more at her book’s website.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Annette, for your valuable thoughts on this topic. I have been gaslighted by a narcissistic colleague and although I consider myself as a mature and strong person, it caught be by surprise. We need more awareness and reflection on the toxic narratives that surround us in the workplace.

    1. One of my mentors – someone who taught me so much – gaslighted me too. I remember when I asked him for an endorsement on my first book, Territorial Games. He wrote “This is a book to read.” I didn’t call him on it. It took me years to notice it wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. I was thirty years old. I wonder if thirty something women still deal with undermining “compliments” that steal joy? I hope things are better now.

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