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.
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.