Being bullied by a nasty boss helped Wendy Squires learn to stand her ground


Wendy Squires

Could remote working finally make the office redundant?

Could remote working finally make the office redundant? Photo: Stocksy

"Oh, don't tell me you are going to cry again. I really will have to question if you are up to this job if you burst into tears every time I offer constructive criticism."

When my boss said this, I clicked to what was really going on. You see, I had never cried in her presence. Not that she hadn't caused me to in private - she had, too many times. But I had not given her the satisfaction of seeing me do so. And so, I realised I was being lied to. Again.

I naively thought she would eventually come around and recognise that I was good at my job ... But I was wrong and hell, did I pay for it. 

It was a pattern. My boss would tell me I had done something wrong that I hadn't, or would pass on word that someone else had accused me of incompetency. But when I followed up on my alleged mistake or confronted the alleged complaining colleague, I would always discover there was no error on my behalf, nor had anyone criticised my work. I ended up a confused, frustrated and emotional mess.

Wendy Squires.

Wendy Squires. Photo: Mike Baker

There is a term for what happened to me that has been around since the 1960s, but has come back into vogue - gaslighting. Wikipedia describes gaslighting as "a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted or spun, selectively omitted to favour the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity".


The term is derived from the 1938 stage play Gas Light and subsequent film adaptations, the most famous being the 1944 version starring Ingrid Bergman as a victim of systematic psychological manipulation by her husband. (The title refers to the sporadic dimming of house lights, something the abuser tells his wife is all in her imagination.)

While it is nice to have a buzz term for this mental manipulation, I prefer to call it what it is: abuse. Most of us will encounter it in a romantic relationship, or from a passive-aggressive family member, but it is also common in the workplace, with experts citing 3 to 4 per cent of those in senior positions as displaying psychopathic traits.

I blamed the fact that I had ended up working with a horror boss on myself. I should have known better; I should have followed my gut, which had screamed "trouble" the first time I met her. I knew she was peeved because she had little say in my being hired and was threatened by my appointment. But I naively thought I could make it work; that she'd eventually come around and recognise that I was good at my job and didn't want hers.

But I was wrong and hell, did I pay for it. For too damn long.

The day she accused me of crying is the day I ceased to be her whipping boy. Instead, I stood up and called her out on her behaviour. And she didn't like that one little bit. Her face grew blood red until I felt it might burst and for a second, I thought her head would start spinning 360 degrees - like Linda Blair in The Exorcist - until it ended up hovering above her body. The last time I saw her she was running towards the big boss's office, steaming with rage.

By the time I was called in to explain our "disagreement" to HR I had decided it was untenable for me to continue in the role under her - it would always be her word over mine. I was sick of having to justify myself, of second-guessing myself, of being constantly and intensely unhappy. Driving home in tears each day is no way to live. So I resigned.

It was a decision I will never regret because no job is worth being abused. No relationship that deals with Machiavellian manipulation and malice is going to suddenly improve. Like so many battered women constantly hear, you must get physically away from your abuser. They won't leave you. It may not be fair, but it's true.

Escaping my gaslighter meant risking professional and financial insecurity but, looking back, I realise taking that leap into the unknown was exactly the shake-up I needed to show me just how strong I really am. It was a blessing in disguise because, suddenly, my blinkers were off and I saw limitless possibilities.

I now work for myself and would rather eat my own eyeball than return to corporate life. It is just not for me. You can call me sensitive, I call myself self-aware. As for my tormentor, she's gone from strength to strength. Be afraid, people. But more importantly, be aware. •

I'm wearing ... beanies. They keep me warm and hide the need for a haircut while supporting Carrie Bickmore's fundraising for brain cancer.

I'm watching ... Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. My hero Tina Fey co-created this series about a woman rescued from a doomsday cult.

I'm planning ... to paint my house ... myself. I reckon it will cheer up my home no end and get me off the lounge and exercising to boot.

I'm thinking ... about how ashamed I am that we still don't have marriage equality in this supposedly progressive young country.