Monthly Archives: June 2014

One thing that has surprised me when I’ve talked to friends about setting up this blog is how many begged me to include verbal abuse at work. Having experienced workplace verbal abuse I had planned to discuss the subject, but I didn’t realize how many people I know have also been in that situation. In some ways it can be harder to deal with, as leaving can do career damage and some fields are gossipy and have restricted opportunities.

A friend recently told me about an incident she had at work. The team Shari’s been working on has lost several people recently and her boss, we’ll call him Greg for now, has been expecting the rest of the team to take up the slack on the project. Greg informed Shari this week that he was giving her all the responsibility of one of these open positions, in addition to her own work. When she told him she was willing to try and help out while there is a gap, but that she cannot do the work of two people, and she doesn’t have training for part of the other position’s work he got angry. Greg told Shari that he owned her and she would do as she was told.

Seriously! Big mistake on his part! Shari stayed calm, restated her position, and went back to her office. She got over the initial shock, then she went to Greg’s supervisor, Bill, and later let his supervisor, John, know what was going on. She also learned another coworker had overheard the conversation and would back her up.

Both Bill and John handled the situation well. They assured Shari she would only be held responsible for doing her actual job. They also thanked her for coming to them. In this case both Bill and John were aware there was a problem with Greg because so many people left his projects. They either transferred within the company or left completely. But neither Bill nor John had been able to take action about Greg’s behavior. Why? Because not one of the employees that left Greg’s projects had filed complaints. Bill and John weren’t sure what the problem was, just that people kept leaving Greg’s projects.

Documenting and reporting workplace abuse is always the first step. Document, so you’ll have a record of what happened, when, and who else was present. Report what happened. No, not all supervisors handle verbal abuse well, many of mine were part of the problem. But you have no chance of resolution without reporting. It also creates a trail and establishes patterns if you have to take stronger action later.


Bad Advice, From Those Who Don’t Know

If you’ve already ended the relationship with your abuser (and even if you haven’t), you’re probably getting all kinds of great comments, like:

  • Now that he’s gone, you should be enjoying life again!
  • Get out there and date/look for a better job/climb Mt. Everest!
  • It’s been a week/month/full moon cycle already. What the hell is wrong with you?
  • If you don’t feel like your old self within a month, you’re depressed and should see a doctor.
  • Take a bubble bath. Get a pedicure. Work out six days a week. You’ll be fine.

Which piece of advice is correct? If you answered, “None of them,” you’re absolutely right.

The New Normal

The truth is that you’re not going to be back to your pre-abuse self really soon. Those people who are expecting you to snap back like a rubber band have no idea what they’re talking about. Here’s why: verbal and emotional abuse cause your mind and your body to respond. When abuse is happening, you’ll instinctively react like you’re being threatened – because you are – and your body will go into fight-or-flight mode. Your adrenal glands (located on top of your kidneys) release cortisol, adrenaline, and a smaller amount of noradrenaline, while neurons in your brain start firing like it’s the Fourth of July. Your heart pounds, your breathing gets more rapid, and your body prepares to flee or begin combat. If you’re in an abusive relationship, this kind of thing happens a lot. Eventually, it will happen even when abuse isn’t actually taking place: when you anticipate your abuser’s arrival, when you’re replaying the incidents in your mind, or when you worry about future episodes. If the abuse becomes chronic or escalates, you’ll probably spend most of your time in a state of chronic, battle-ready stress.

Exhausted and Fried            

Over time, your adrenal glands become overtaxed and pretty much fried. You may very likely develop adrenal burnout. Many abuse targets develop PTSD – which is not just about having flashbacks and nightmares. You feel drained, mentally foggy, and have zero drive and ambition to do all those things you fantasized about while still with your abuser. If you sleep, you don’t sleep well or wake up feeling rested. Maybe you have nightmares, midnight panic attacks, or get up to check the locks one more time. You likely have a spare tire around your waist, despite whatever exercise and dieting you might be able to do. Any stress makes you feel overwhelmed, and your coping mechanisms are on a beach in Tahiti having a Mai Tai. You may feel disconnected from others and emotionally shut down. You zone out during work or routine tasks. You’re unable to follow through on the plans you do make. You wonder what the hell is wrong with you and why you aren’t bouncing back immediately. It’s OK. You won’t – and you don’t need to. Give yourself permission to stop living according to your abuser’s unrealistic expectations (and everyone else’s).

Rules of the Road

  • Be patient and kind to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a child who has been through a traumatic event.
  • Meditate every day when you wake up and when you go to bed. For instructions, see Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet, chapter 1.
  • Focus on one thing at a time. A pilot friend gave me some great advice shortly after I left my abusive marriage and was floundering in a sea of panic-driven paralysis: “When a pilot knows the plane is going to crash, the first thing he does is take a deep breath and a sip of coffee. Then, he can assess the situation.” Take a deep breath. Take a sip of coffee or green tea or whatever. Figure out what the next thing is you need to do – and do only that.
  • Use Martha Beck’s Three B’s: Bag, Barter, or Better. When your To-Do list is longer than your car, Bag as much as you possibly can. Barter the things you really hate doing (my son and I recently swapped chores because he hates dishes and I hate laundry). Try to make the remaining tasks Better (I burn incense and play “Wallop the Cat” by the Wicked Tinkers when I have to deep-clean my stove, for example. Then, I eat ice cream).
  • Ignore the nasty voices. Next time that critical voice (yours or someone else’s) starts to tell you what you “should” be doing and feeling, tell it, “I’m making good decisions and treating myself well. Shove off!” This takes practice. Keep at it, and eventually you will listen.
  • Lower your expectations. Your “old self” will resurface eventually, but only if you give it time, sleep, good food, exercise, and a lot of TLC. Until then, figure out the three most critical things you have to get done each day – and then quit. Some days, you may only be able to manage one thing. That’s fine, too. Praise and reward yourself for getting it done, and don’t automatically expect yourself to do twice as much tomorrow.

Recovery is a process. Just as your abuser tore you down over a period of time, you will need a period of time to build yourself back up again (fortunately, recovery doesn’t have to last as long as the abuse did). Until then, be nice to yourself – and don’t listen to those who tell you what you “should” be doing.


Once you’ve decided to leave an abusive relationship there are a few things you need to be prepared for. Because abuse is about control, having the victim leave is threatening for the abuser. A victim leaving is the ultimate loss of control. It’s not something an abuser can cope with and he/she will usually try to regain control of the situation, which can mean a dangerous escalation. It doesn’t mean you should stay and be abused but you should be prepared. Here are the common responses I’ve seen.

The Penitent

The abuser may or may not admit to having a problem but he suddenly becomes attentive and there is a drop in the daily instances of abuse. The changes will remind you of why you entered a relationship with this person to begin with. This can be confusing, as it seems like the abuser is trying to change and save the relationship. Unlike someone who truly wants to change, however, the Penitent will go right back to the abusive patterns as soon as he or she feels secure again. In other words, once you decide to stay and give the relationship another try. The Penitent will often try to woo a victim back after they leave as well.

The hard part of dealing with the Penitent is that you end up leaving while he’s being attentive and wondering if you’re doing the right thing. Don’t wonder. Look at the history of the relationship and keep going.

The Sulker

Guilt is the key to the Sulker. He or she is trying to regain control by making you the bad guy. By expecting child or spousal support you are going to put him on the street. You’re taking the furniture and making him sleep on the floor, even when you’ve split everything evenly. You’re lying and accusing him of things he never did. He or she has done everything to make you happy and there’s just no more he or she can do. You end up feeling like a horrible person. Either that or you want to put him in time out and tell him that whiners don’t get treats.

Each little complaint or accusation the Sulker makes is supposed to trigger your guilt response and make you feel like you are doing something wrong so you will stay and the abuser regains control. Just think of what it will be like to live without someone always trying to make you feel bad and keep going.

The Enforcer

This is the scary one. The Enforcer considers you property. You will leave over his dead body. Any hint of leaving and the abuse gets more intense. The Enforcer may very well escalate into physical violence in order to regain control. If your abuser has ever threatened you with physical harm, it’s likely he’s an Enforcer. Don’t think that because he’s never actually hit you he won’t. Don’t think that because he hasn’t hit you before he won’t land you in ICU the first time he goes that far.

Take every step a woman running from physical abuse has to. Unfortunately many shelters only accept victims of physical violence, so call and ask before you make your plan. You may need project submission until you actually make your move and get out. If that’s what it takes, do it. But get out safely.


Here are some precautions to take:\