This month’s topic is so important to talk about, because the issue of workplace abuse is pervasive, and yet so difficult to identify. It sometimes takes years to identify toxic relationships and environments, so I am hoping that this will help create empowerment, freedom, and validation for those of you who may be experiencing this.
Disclaimer: We are focusing on emotional and psychological abuse, so if you have experienced physical or sexual abuse at your workplace, please seek professional help in identifying your options, and of course contact emergency or law enforcement if you are in immediate danger.
First of All- What is Workplace Abuse?
Let’s call it what it is. When someone at your workplace uses their position of power or other means to manipulate your emotions or behavior- that is called abuse. When a professional relationship is so toxic that it is impacting your self-esteem, self-confidence, hopefulness, freedom, or any realm of your personal life, there is a good chance that you are experiencing an abusive workplace.
Recognizing the Abuse
We would call out emotional or psychological abuse in a romantic relationship if a partner was using degrading language to control or manipulate the other’s behavior. So why do we have such a hard time seeing it at work? I think it has something to do with believing that when we put our professional selves forward, we leave behind the muddiness of our personal selves. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! Work can feel highly personal, and the dynamics we enact in our personal lives are likely present professionally as well. But we don’t know to even look for these things, because most people generally assume that their colleagues will bring their best selves to work and that work and life exist in two separate realms.
It can also be hard to recognize, because we might engage in self-blame. We might actually believe that what our employer or colleague is saying is true and therefore turn our anger inward. It can be really difficult to parse out productive feedback that may make us feel difficult emotions versus words or actions intended to make us feel bad. But there’s the difference: productive feedback is intended to lift you up and raise you to your highest potential. It should include actionable items or specific things to work on, and you should have a clear path to receiving support on these things. Workplace abuse is intended to bring you down. It may occur in the form of retaliation when someone feels hurt, undercutting in order to bolster someone else, or hazing-type behaviors (e.g., “I was made to go through hell when I first got here, so you have to go through this too”).
The Impact on Mental Health
Especially given the way that our identities, sense of self, and feelings of worthiness come from our work, workplace abuse can be incredibly harmful. It can make us feel stuck, worthless, as though our work or lives don’t have meaning or purpose, can impact self-esteem and confidence, may affect our relationships, can cause symptoms of anxiety or depression, may impact future opportunity, and there is a potential for suicidal or homicidal thoughts or actions.
What Can You Do?
I watched someone I love very much gradually shift from a happy, optimistic, hard working, motivated, loving, confident person to someone who was withdrawn, isolated, exhausted, and felt inferior to those around her. It wasn't until I recognized that her boss (who I also knew socially) was perpetrating the same emotional abuse she herself experienced. Despite running away from the abuse of her past, she continued the cycle with her employees through retaliation, undercutting, undermining, and manipulation. If you have noticed a similar shift in yourself or someone you love due to workplace relationships, I hope that you may find your light once again.
Sending everyone today light, love, and a reminder to take care of our hurtful pasts so that they may stop hurting ourselves and others.
Emily Wagner, trauma expert, yoga therapist, and mental health counselor provides education for anyone looking to improve their mental health.