Tag Archives: emotional abuse

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.


Who’s Been Jerking You Around?

Do your conversations with “Person X” leave you feeling as though your head has been trapped in the “Spin” cycle of your washing machine? Are you too busy trying to keep track of the rapid-fire changes and 180-degree turnarounds to even think of a coherent response? Or maybe whenever you try to have a pleasant exchange with Person X, you find yourself frantically backpedaling to re-do that last thing you said because now they are insisting they said something entirely different and they are… mad. At you. Again. Confused? If not, you will be, because you’ve just entered the arena with a master of verbal whiplash. You will not win. And it will not be pretty.

Example of Verbal Whiplash

I recently had such an exchange with a man I met online. I thought we’d get along well because we were both writers – at least, his screen name and profile strongly suggested he was one. So, my messages focused on “writing.” We discussed it quite pleasantly for a while, then things derailed suddenly:

Me: (going on about how I love writing and how great it is that anyone can become a writer/author).

Him: “Kind of snob about the work, i will admit. Lots of folks talk about [writing] and seem to think that amateur [writing] is the same as the professional world, it's not and I find that interesting.”

Me: I'm aware that professional [writing] and amateur [writing] are two different worlds.

Him: “…the truth of the matter is anyone can say they are a [writer] and there is no real way to say no, you're not. I just read a long stream on facebook by some “writers” who feel the need to justify and tell the world how hard it is and how much work goes into it. I never hear doctors say that because we all know how much work goes into being a doctor and not everyone can do it. But, people are part time “writers” which means … anyone can do it.

Me: None of that is meant to demean anything professionals do, nor imply that you are not a consummate, hard-working artist who brings decades of skill and devotion to your work. Obviously, not anyone could do what you do.

Him: No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it. I started [writing] and then trained and became a professional. We all start somewhere. Anyone can be a [writer]. I am also curious that, without knowing me or even reading my work, you assume that not anyone could do what I do.

Me: (What the heck just happened)??

The conversation got even less civil – at least until I changed the subject to chinchillas, and home brewing.

What just happened here?

Verbal whiplash takes its target by surprise because she doesn’t expect it. It often happens after the target lets his guard down and engages in what seems to be a normal, rational conversation. Then, BAM. Person X will say something exactly the opposite of what she said five minutes earlier. Then, she will insist she said/meant something completely different, and get offended at you for responding to the first thing. Why would anyone do this? Simple: it’s a power play – one that disarms you, leaves you looking and feeling confused (and maybe stupid), and reinforces the abuser’s superior position. So, how do you avoid getting flogged when the verbal whiplash artist is playing her game?

Rules of Disengagement

Whiplash often comes at high speed; abusers don’t give you time to take mental notes and compare their statements. If you can, slow the conversation down enough to figure out what’s going on. If you think whiplash is happening, your best response is to end the discussion and get out of there: “Gee, that was fun, but I’ve got to get my infected toe cleaned out. Catch you later!”

If you’re stuck, follow the rules of disengagement. Refuse to let the abuser suck you in. Don’t try to reiterate their original position; the abuser will just insist that’s not what he said or meant, or that you got it wrong (again). Don’t try to backpedal and fix your response (as I did in the above example); that will just give the whiplasher more ammunition (the “No, I meant what I said, anyone can do it” line). If you’re a captive audience (maybe the whiplasher is your boss), try to have witnesses around, take notes, or give them a neutral response like: “Oh. Thanks for clarifying that.” Even better: “Ah. I see.”

If the whiplasher demands you explain, clarify, or respond in detail, disengage again by using neutral responses, changing the topic, or saying, “I don’t feel like arguing/having a discussion/continuing this conversation.” Wash, rinse, repeat until they leave you alone and go in search of more satisfying targets.



There’s a problem, but what – or who – is it?

You know something’s wrong. Your spouse/relative/co-worker/boss/friend is “difficult.” Maybe he randomly explodes in anger. Maybe she constantly accuses you of cheating. Maybe your boss puts you down in front of the entire sales floor. In the beginning, you had a great relationship, but now, not so much – and you can’t figure out what you’ve done wrong, or how to avoid setting him/her off in the future.

Let’s call this individual “Person X.”

You wonder if it’s just you – everyone else might think Person X is wonderful. “What a great person,” they gush. “So sensitive and generous. You are so lucky to have a (fill in the blank) like him/her!”

You’ve cruised the internet and the self-help section of your local bookstore, perusing titles like, Getting Along with the Boss from Hell, Saving the Toxic Marriage, and Women Who Love Men Who Behave like Rabid Weasels. You’ve read advice blogs, attended workshops, and tried every suggestion, yet a normal relationship with Person X has completely eluded you and you’re left with a strong desire to hide on a beach in Cancun. Person X may tell you that you are the problem.

It’s Not You

Someone in your life may have used the word “abuse” to describe your interactions with Person X. You, of course, thought, “That’s crazy! Person X doesn’t hit me/hit me all that often/hit me with a closed fist/send me to the ER regularly. He/she can’t possibly be an abuser!”

We’re reluctant to apply the label “abuse” to whatever it is Person X does. There are good reasons for this:

  • We’ve heard the term used often on The Jerry Springer Show, usually in reference to people clad in wife-beater tees and gold chains.
  • We don’t want to think badly about Person X. Abuse is a serious word.
  • Person X has often told us that we are responsible for the behavior or that we abused him.
  • We’re used to Person X’s behavior, so it seems “normal” (kind of like tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis are normal).

Recognizing the Red Flags

Follow the ABC’s – especially if Person X is unleashing several of these behaviors on you. Abusers:

  • Accuse you
  • Blame you
  • Control youby ordering, decreeing, manipulating, threatening and raging
  • Have Double Standards that benefit them (but not you)
  • Have an Entitlement mentality
  • Use Fear to control you (and then blame you for being afraid).

Abusers want power and control over the relationship and over you. Think back to the last time you interacted with Person X in an unpleasant way. What did Person X get out of it? If Person X walks away from the encounter with a clear victory and you lie on the floor emotionally bleeding, wondering, “What just happened here?” it’s a pretty good bet there’s abuse going on.

Trust Your Gut

Finally, pay attention to your reactions. Do you wince every time Person X enters the room? Do you spend a lot of time trying to figure out what sets him off so you can avoid it next time? Do you mentally relax when she leaves town for a few days? If thinking about Person X leaves your stomach tied in knots, your mind in a fog, and your hands sweating, you can be sure there’s something wrong – and that it’s not you. It’s verbal and emotional abuse.