The Abusive Relationship You Didn't Know You Were In

Does someone in your life:
  • Withhold information, then shame you for not knowing
  • Constantly change relationship expectations such that meeting them becomes impossible
  • Compliment you in person, but speak poorly about you to others
  • Remind you of your ultimate dependence upon them, especially when power/truth swings in your favor
  • Belittle your accomplishments, then take credit for them
  • Vacillate between feigning affection when you are needed, then becoming cold and distant once you have provided for them
  • Criticize and humiliate you in front of others
  • Generally make you feel like something on the bottom of their shoe?

Is that person your boss?

Boss as abuser may seem a bit far-fetched.  But think about it -- the average American spends 8.6 hours of the day working, more than any other single activity.   In fact, that's more than all of our other waking activities combined.  So even if you spent all of your non-work time with your significant other, the time with your boss, and opportunity for work-place abuse, is still higher.

My point?  It's NOT that workplace abuse is more important or even equal to domestic partner abuse.  In many ways, it's like comparing apples to oranges.   The physical and mortal danger associated with domestic partner abuse is reason enough to separate the two conversations.

But I do think that emotional abuse in the workplace is a largely silent epidemic that deserves greater attention.  It's not an issue that high schools, undergraduate or graduate schools are preparing students to face, yet it's a scenario many, if not most, will encounter.  And there are some important similarities between it and domestic partner abuse that could shed light on how to recognize such situations and how to get out of them with your dignity and financial security intact.

Evidence of this epidemic is all around us.  How many of us have suffered through the above scenarios as though they were legitimate management techniques that everyone must and should endure?  Or, take the entire happy hour industry, which is fueled by abused employees drowning the bad tempers, embarrassment, and all-nighters in a sea of booze.   The only thing "happy" about it is...


... I'll get back to you on that.

Then, there's the movie Horrible Bosses.  I didn't see it because it's the kind of film I'd only see with a particular group friends who were particularly drunk at a particularly late hour of night.  And they all live 400 miles away.  But from what I understand, three guys find themselves in horrendous working conditions, can't quit, and fall upon murder as their way out.  Laughter ensues.

Enough it is not.  But should it be?

From Psychology Today:

In many ways, emotional abuse is more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. ... Emotional abuse tends to happen every day. The effects are more harmful because they're so frequent.

The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it's easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle - saying or implying that you're ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you - you are more likely to think it's your problem. Emotional abuse seems more personal than physical abuse, more about you as a person, more about your spirit. It makes love hurt.

I'm convinced that emotional abuse in the workplace exists.  I've witnessed intelligent, industrious, valuable employees people be reduced to tearful shells of themselves by managers and employers.  While the employers and jobs have varied, the theme is the same: dignity is lost, productivity is shot, and constant fear of losing the one positive they cling to: their much too low paycheck.   That's no way to live.

That's no way to spend more than half of every waking day.

So, what to do?   My not-at-all-an-expert advice:

  1. Recognize the situation for what it is: Recognizing the situation is a temporary fix, but still important.  When you recognize abuse, you are less likely to internalize the negativity and allow it to weigh you down.  Recognition will also assist you with objectively documenting your interactions with your boss, which could prove useful should there be a dispute later.
  2. Make an exit plan: Remaining confident in your skills and worth are key to making your exit plan.  Getting out won't do you any good unless you also get into a better work environment that provides financial safety.  So you'll need a great resume that exudes confidence which must carry over into the interview process.  Also, don't be afraid to spread the word about how amazing your work is, especially if your boss is saying otherwise.  Learn everything that you don't already know about your field, especially as it relates to who's hiring, who they're hiring, and when.
  3. Find a trusted mentor or colleague outside of your workplace but in your industry/field: This person can prove to be invaluable on many levels.  She can teach you more about your field, advise you regarding best practices in other workplaces, and provide critical, yet kind, advice about your work.  She can also help spread the gospel about how great you are and give you the scoop on opportunities you might have otherwise missed.
  4. Lean on friends: Perhaps most importantly, reach out to your friends.  There truly is no need to suffer alone.  Find someone who will run through confrontation scenarios with you, who will listen as you rant, or will simply provide a much needed hug.

I get it: bosses and their employees sometimes butt heads.  It's the nature of a social infrastructure which demands the most out of everyone with the least amount of effort for the bare minimum in pay.  But that reality is no excuse for the demeaning, crass and and abusive situations in which so many of us find ourselves.  Life is just too short and we were put here to do so much more than be someone's whipping boy.

To learn more about workplace abuse, from surviving it to not dishing it out yourself, check out these books.  Or, keep the conversation going and let me know what you think about this concept in the comments.