workplace emotional abuse: my shock, shame, and silence.

Becoming a victim/survivor of work-related emotional abuse was a surprise to me. I was ill-equipped to truly notice any red flags. When it happened, I had no idea how to respond to it or how to recover from it.

Now, sometime after it happened, I’m trying to re-connected pieces of my pre-abused self, I decided to open up about my personal experience of being abused and humiliated — both emotioanlly and intelectually. This post is my first attempt to get my head around how it all happened. I broadly refer to a couple of instances of emotional abuse* I experienced in the space of several years.

I always believed that being a hard worker provides you with some sort of ‘bullying immunity’.

If you just overwork yourself, stay an overly enthusiastic can-do person, a bully would not bother to pick you as their target. I was wrong. In this post, I focus on my personal experience of work-related emotional abuse — as an early career researcher, a creative soul, and a human being.

You know when something (e.g. a situation, person) doesn’t feel quite right. Your intuition whispers into your ears, giving you clear signs that the person you’re about to deal with will probably harm you — you just don’t know how and when.

In my case, a clear warning sign was my abusers’ disregard for other people. My abusers used ‘us versus them rhetoric’ as a way to get me on their side. “These people just don’t know what they’re doing”, “I’d never work with this person again “, ‘You just can’t trust anyone anymore”, “ I need to do everything on my own”. These never-ending laments about other people would lead to my abusers’ emotional outbursts. I sat down. I listened. I empathised. I took on the emotional labour to make them feel good and appreciated. I was useful to them.

I — the enthusiastic workaholic — wasn’t going to become one of their disappointment stories, right? (spoiler alert: I did).

I continued to ignore my gut feeling. I convinced myself that my doubts were simply my insecurities. I mistook signs of panic attacks and anxiety for excitement. I was convinced that if I’m just passionate hard-working enough, things would get better. Things didn’t get better. I continued to blame myself for not meeting my abusers’ expectations.

I was shocked (but not surprised) when the first major abusive incident happened. It made me feel like a little girl. It shook me to my core. My sense of self was shattered. I was devastated, helpless, and speechless. I felt worthless and had nothing to prove otherwise.

Like many victims/survivors of emotional abuse, I was convinced that the incident was my fault.

The shame crept in after the incident took place. It was overwhelming and difficult to point down. Was I ashamed because I didn’t meet my abusers’ expectations? Was I embarrassed to admit that I got myself into this situation? Was I feeling guilty for not being able to read my abusers’ mind? I just couldn’t work it out.

I also couldn’t believe that I got myself into these situations as a thirty-something adult. These type of stories were happening to other people — not me, right? Analysing these things over and over again became an obsession of mine. My shame became intoxicating. In effect, I didn’t know who I was and what I was standing for anymore.

Still, I continued my work. I threw myself into my research and art — obsevily trying to regain the things that I lost. I was super active on social media. I ran events, I participated in them. My face was all over the Internet. I was visible, and yet I was silent.

I was visible and loud, and yet I was silent.

I wasn’t able to do the things I loved the most — writing, making art. I could feel my abusers’ breath over my shoulder. What if they see it? Will they point at it and tell others about how much of a disappointment I am? I kept asking myself these questions. You’d think that these anxieties fade away with time, but in my case, they don’t. I continue to self-censor, doubt myself, and don’t allow myself to come up with original ideas — beacuse, as I’m abuser would have said — I should leave to the real intellectuals and creative thinkers out there.

Is opening up about experiencing emotional abuse a sign of weakness or strength? I’d love to hear yourh thoughts.

Finally, I’d like to be able to offer some wisdom or advice to others, so they know how to deal with similar situations. However, as I’m writing this text, I’m still anxious about how it might be perceived by others. Despite all of the work I’ve produced in recent months/years , I continue to feel somewhat inadequate and out of touch with my free-thinking, creative self. Saying that, being able to write this text feels like progress — so, fingers crossed that is the case.

  • I’m using the word ‘abuser’, not ‘bully’. This is in line with the following definition of emotional workplace abuse: “the conscious, repeated effort to wound an employee with words is designed to undermine those employees’ accomplishments and rob them of their self-confidence”

Dr Alicja Pawluczuk (AKA hy_stera) writes about digital humanities, feminism, and social justice → www.alicjapawluczuk.com + www.hystera.online