November 9th, 2010

Self-defeating stigma an integral part of workplace bullying

In a recently completed Nov. 2010 WBI Instant Poll with 1069 respondents (of whom 98% are typically self-declared targets of workplace bullying), we asked if any personal shame or stigma was attached to being bullied at work. The results were as follows: 35% believed that “somehow I might have deserved the criticisms”; 28% blamed themselves for “not being able to counter or confront” (the bully); 22% were embarrassed from “allowing it to happen to me”; while only 13% felt no shame, saying they “did not invite or deserve the assaults.”

Personal shame is made possible by a deep-seated lack of deservedness, as in “I don’t deserve the respect or love of others.” Individuals raised in abusive family environments readily accept the reality that love-depriving parents create. The destructive, hateful messages include: “You are not loveable and no one can love you, ever.” These are the origins of shame. In adulthood, when another person humiliates you, it reminds you of that earlier wound. The pain is re-experienced.

Now in adulthood, repeat same lie-filled script uttered by an abusive spouse or partner and you see how domestic violence induces shame — “you are worthless and unlovable.”

The intimidating, humiliating boss or co-worker says similar things — “you have no brain, why waste money training you when you will forget in a week anyway …”  See the pattern? The message is the same. You do not deserve good treatment because you are a bad, faulty, broken, worthless person.

As an adult who has had many positive experiences in the intervening years since childhood, you could know objectively how valuable you are to your employer and co-workers. You have been the go-to expert for years, the most technically skilled. If you were a vain narcissist like your bully, you would never let in any message from anyone telling you anything that did not reinforce that positive self-image as a valued, trusted, competent individual.

But if you are a target, you may not actually believe the lies spewed by your bully, but your humility compels you to allow for the possibility that there is a “kernel of truth” in the pack of lies. After all, you reason, everyone can improve and maybe this a**hole can actually teach me something to improve myself.

This door-opening, boundary-violating step is the top source of shame ( 35%) for survey respondents — that they might have deserved the criticism.

FACT: The bully probably completed some reconnaissance on you early in the relationship so some emotional buttons could be used later. The problem was made more likely by your willingness to disclose your personal history while the bully gave nothing personal away. The criticisms leveled against you are likely PERSONAL attacks and have little to nothing (depending on your bully’s ability to act shamelessly) to do with work itself.

FACT:  Bullying, just like all illegal forms of harassment, come uninvited. Can you imagine anyone rising on a workday and voluntarily declaring that “today is a good day to be humiliated!!! I’ll be sure to ask for it!!!”? Ridiculous, isn’t it? No one wants or deserves the abuse that is workplace bullying.

The second most frequent source of shame was not being able to confront or counter the bully (28% of survey takers). If you could have, you would have confronted. You were not able for a couple of reasons. First, the bully uses surprise to her or his advantage. It’s the unpredictability and bushwhacking nature of bullying that poses the trauma threat. Bullies not only decide who to target but when and how to attack. Despite their lying rationalization that the target “made” them do what they did, no rational target actually says “bring it on.”  Second, you could not defend yourself because you are not blessed/cursed with a snappy comeback, insulting style of your own. You are quieter, more reflective, more reticent to say the first thing that comes to mind (which serves you well in most circumstances except when under attack). Your inner a**hole stays buried when faced with aggression. Bullyproof people let their inner a**hole fly and the bully backs down, recognizing one of their own kind.

The response that was claimed by 22% of respondents — embarrassment from letting the bullying happen — is also stigmatizing. But it is more likely guilt than shame. Guilt derives from doing bad behaviors. Shame is being a bad person. Bullied targets often ruminate guiltily over being controlled as if they sought it. It is important to re-characterize “letting it happen” to “working with a hyperaggressive person who ignores my professional boundaries.” It is not the responsibility of the invaded person to stop the invader, especially a more powerful one. Invaders must be prevented by their host institutions (employers).  Since the majority (72%) of bullying is done by someone who outranks you, control is in their hands. You have little to say. Couple their title power with surprise and it is remarkable that you can hold on to the amount of personal dignity you have to date. The bully had unilateral decision-making power. Rarely can you stop it.

In a 2010 Today Show appearance, Nicole Williams, was asked to comment on a bullying story (provided by WBI). In studio, she stated naively that bullied targets have the “responsibility” to stop their bullies. She has never been bullied or has no empathy for what it is like to work under someone’s thumb on a daily basis. Watch the clip and see for yourself how wrong she was and is.

With respect to confronting or being targeted, you are not the reason that you were bullied. The motivation comes completely from the bully’s twisted, insecure, threatened mind.

The saddest result from the survey was that only 13% of bullied targets said that they had NO SHAME because they neither invited nor deserved the abuse. It seems that self-effacing, self-defeating explanations are held by the vast majority of bullied targets.

What cannot be ascertained by this simple survey is whether bullied targets had the shame and guilt prior to their experiences with bullying or changed from the prolonged exposure to it. That is, we know emotional and stress-related injuries from bullying change individuals. It is also likely that bullying lowers one’s resistance to shame (and personal self-elevation and self-validation abilities), resulting in shame.

The WBI commitment to public education about workplace bullying necessarily must focus on target perceptions about themselves in order to optimize their mental health for the battles ahead. Neither shame nor guilt helps one cope with bullying.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 9th, 2010 at 1:27 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Tutorials About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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  • Pat Navadomskis

    I get dizzy ,i used to throw up you nearly KILLED ME , with stress you mobbed me you imbesiles think this is funny

    companies fired us for being HARRASED
    this is so overwhelming

  • Nicole Nicholson

    THANK YOU for this article. I will be writing soon about workplace bullying, especially of those who have Asperger’s or who are otherwise on the autism spectrum. Because of some inherent spectrum qualities (i.e. trouble with social interaction and social cues, anxiety, our trusting natures, our tendency to take people literally and at face value), I have noticed that we seem to attract bullies. This article will prove to bhe a helpful resouce.


  • Stephanie

    I have and still am the victim of Workplace Bullying. This has been happening since July 09. I went to my supervisors, my union reps, my union President, the IG has been in to interview, and still nothing being done. I have paid a lawyer, and because of where I work he said I have a great case but not of winning because of who I work for.
    Letters have been sent to my home, my name has been trashed, people who used to talk to me don’t because of the bullies(7 of them). My car has been scratched, and I have been elbowed by one of them. All of the above incidents have been reported verbally and in writing. I have a diary I have been keeping. I don’t know where to turn, or how to end this bullying. This is a horrible thing to go through as an adult. I thank God my family life is strong, because without their support I don’t know what I would have done.
    What started this bullying was a question I asked that seven people took and made into something horrific. I would ask that same question again, even if it meant going through this bullying again. It hasn’t stopped and I don’t think it ever will. I have supervisors who would rather believe seven people then believe one. When all of this is over, one day I hope. I will start a STOP BULLYING CAMPAIGN within in my job or possibly on Monday !
    A thing people have to realize is the Workplace Harrasment, the Labor Relations, the EEOC they don’t help those being bullied. They help those with a sexual harassment, or race/religion/pregnancy. So bullying is just like that when you are in second grade, except as an adult they target not only you, but your family, your property, and your work ethic.
    IT HAS TO END!!!

    FED UP WITH WORKPLACE BULLYING and the spineless people who do the bullying.

    • Ava

      Hi Stephanie,
      I know exactly how you feel. It started for me in May 2009 and it is still going on. I was accused of fraud, I was ostracized, made to feel worthless. I was out sick for nine months due to the emotional duress. When I returned to work in August of this year, I was placed in another unit. In October I was served with the charges and was advised that the agency is looking to terminate. Are things different in the new unit, NO. It just goes on and on. Hang in there, my prayers are with you. Feel free to contact me. We all have to stick together and support one another.

  • LB

    The “problem” with bullying as I see it, stems from the fact that, at least in workplaces, bullying is condoned and in some cases,sanctioned.
    If you are a sensitive person who is quiet and focuses on your work, and doesn’t participate in office politics, then you are likely to be targeted. Bullies do not like anyone or anything that is different, especially if you do not act or look like them. Difference, and especially competence, threatens bullies, and when bullies feel threatened, they attack and try to destroy the threat, why ? because bullies are basically afraid and have a very low self esteem, so they try to control and destroy that which exposes them for what they really are, cowards.
    But, for the target, it doesn’t change the effect bullying has on them. Dealing with your bully, depends on the context of your job and place of employment. My personal feeling is that if you are a target of a bully, one thing is for certain, they are relentless and can be very brutal and do not care one iota about how you feel, they are only concerned with how “they” feel.
    Characteristics of targets usually fall into a very similar category containing the qualities bullies envy, but haven’t a clue how one obtains them, those qualities are people who possess, tolerance, competence, integrity, social skills and above all are non-judgemental, among others.
    Personally, in my particular case, I just can’t get over the fact that the administration turned a blind eye when I made formal complaints, nothing was ever acted upon, and in fact the bullying increased in intensity until I resigned, which in hindsight I think was the ultimate purpose of the bully boss.
    I never felt that I deserved the treatment I received, but during the experience I felt ashamed of myself for reacting the way I did and for allowing the bullying to progress to the point of my resignation decision, but as any target knows, that while one is being bullied, rational thinking is not an option, that is the insdiousness of the experience.

    • stop the bullies

      Bingo! You could not have said it any better. Descent hardworking people are harassed and lose work while the self-centered, abusive people get away with it.

  • Kachina

    I guess I’m not a rational target. I actually did say “bring it on!” and asked for a facilitated meeting with my back-stabbing slanderous co-workers. The facilitator made several valid and valuable points about how immature and immoral the behaviours I had been subjected to were, indicated that I was “owed an appropriate response”, and also indicated that he would refuse to work the horrendous schedule I was required to work.

    I thought that getting the complaints on the table would allow us to move forward as a group…nope. The only thing that changed was the bullies and mobsters got bolder when there was no management response following the meeting. Sucks to be me.

  • The experienced one

    Started new job and co-worker informed me that another co-worker instigating “write ups” and this “bully” was asking to write me up! Co-worker ?’d What for? “I want her out of here”. I confronted this “bully” with the manager of the department and it was totally denied in my presence. I said,”Oh is our co-worker not credible?” My mistake was that I informed who told me, and then this “bully” moved to management position and the “bullying” started with “admonishments” and the above sup. who placed this “bully” in the position is going along with the “bully”. Due to the economy most people would leave, but I wanted to stay for retirement. I am legally obtaining a diary and will take the time and money to take this “bully” to court along with administration for allowing “bullying” to continue after stepping up to the plate to confront this behavior. Now a “reprimand” was placed on me from this “bully” regarding non-sense. The sad part is which was mentioned in your blogs that human nature people are afraid to lose their job. I believe that once you are targetted and you either speak up or not the outcome is the same. The “bully” wants to strut their power and you will go out on a leave, resign or be terminated. For myself I believe that I have the qualities to “legally fight this “bully” esp. in this particular workplace. I am fortuante that I have years in my professional practice that I am clinically competent. This retaliation on a co-worker will be addressed legally because as I am writing this, the trying to terminate the co-worker alleging “false” allegations due to this “bully”

    • Dr. Gary Namie

      My chief concern is your health through all of this. If retirement is close, you might be able to hang on. But, if not, I worry. Also you might try to find the highest up person not connected to the bully and state clearly that by stopping the assault on the innocent coworker the firm can save defending a certain lawsuit. Be careful, though, about threatening a lawsuit until one is ready to be filed. But find someone who can thump your bully’s boss. More power is the only way to confront the naked exercise of power. GN

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