Handling Emotional Abuse

You may not know it, but psycho-terrorists are lurking in our midst. These are people in organizations who exploit weaknesses in co-workers or subordinates, instill doubt in them and over time, erode and even destroy their self-confidence to the point where they feel submissive and powerless.


And according to Marie-France Hirigoyen, author of Stalking The Soul: Emotional Abuse and the Erosion of Identity, psycho-terrorists run amok in organizations that are too lax to deal with them. These individuals tend to thrive in poorly structured or disorganized companies without clearly articulated policies on how to handle them and their abusive actions.


It all starts when the abuser identifies a victim’s weaknesses and plays on these, inculcating self doubt in the colleague. Subtly and gradually, the victim’s defenses are lowered and annihilated.


For example, a bright woman hired for her grant-writing skills, is targeted because she threatens the boss’s competence. Privately, he begins to send her double messages to knock her off balance. He says, “The changes you make to the grants I write polish them nicely and we’ve landed some great contracts. However, I find your edits undermine my role and shake people’s confidence in me.”The new employee begins to wonder if she should make the changes required or avoid inadvertently “criticizing” the boss. Self doubt begins to pervade as she questions whether her edits do undermine her boss’s credibility. Wanting to please, she is stymied as to how to conduct this aspect of her job.


As the boss picks her apart (he implies her manner is overly critical, she doesn’t think about the implications of her actions, she undermines others’ confidence) she gradually loses self confidence and becomes confused. Soon, she feels she’s incompetent.


Usually, if these people resist, they are isolated – cut out of communications, excluded from meetings or made to feel they’re not part of the gang. If this doesn’t happen, the abuser follows up with hurtful remarks and finally emotional violence and outright hostility (name calling, public humiliation). The abuser’s aim is to either ensure that the victim is not a threat or to build himself up at another’s expense.


But how does one deal with being targeted by an emotional abuser at work? Here are five tips:


1. Recognize the Company’s Responsibility

The company is responsible for finding a solution to this problem, refraining from supporting it and creating a policy to stop it. The company is responsible for defining unclear roles and lines of authority that allow emotional abuse to flourish. Also, the company must remedy any lack of consultation so that decisions are made with the participation of interested parties. These are organizational responsibilities and the individual staff member is not responsible for a poorly run company.


2. Identify Your Experience

If you feel your dignity is being assailed over a long period, you are probably experiencing emotional abuse. It is important to document what is happening as it is difficult to defend yourself without clear proof. This is what the abuser relies upon-victims who cannot name what is happening and who doubt their perceptions. Even if you feel it may be “all in your head,” write down the events that make you feel devalued, disrespected or psychologically compromised.


3. Psychological Resistance

Psycho-terrorists are gratified when the victim shows signs of being affected by the abuse. So if you become angry, upset, tearful or sarcastic, you bolster the abuser’s case, according to the author, Marie-France Hirigoyen. She suggests that targets of emotional abuse appear indifferent and undisturbed by the abuser’s efforts. Smile and respond with humour and don’t play the abuser’s game. Stay calm and cool while observing and later recording the treatment. Remain beyond reproach- be punctual and as error-free as possible. The organization is watching and slips can give the abuser ammunition. Keep your files and agenda with you and lock your drawers. Stay away from reading too much into things. Take things literally and precisely. The subtleties of abuser communication can drive a target crazy when trying to decipher what was meant, why it was said and what will happen next. The victim has to remain serene and calm, believe she is right and that some day her problem will be heard.


4. Action

Ms. Hirigoyen advises members of families in which emotional abuse is prevalent to stop justifying themselves to end the abusers control. However, she suggests the opposite at work – counterattack abusive communication. If things aren’t clear, seek clarity relentlessly until the directions, expectations, roles and responsibilities are clear. Ambiguity leaves room for abuse. At this point the abuser will know you are aware of what they are doing and may increase their attacks or lay low for awhile.


5. Legal Action

Consider approaching your union, an ombudsman, or even a lawyer to defend you, should a dismissal process be launched. Ensure you get an adequate settlement before you choose to resign. This can include monetary compensation, aid in finding another job, a letter of reference that is complimentary and career counseling.


Emotionally abusive work environments, when tolerated wreak havoc with staff health and organizational effectiveness. Preventing these kinds of environments form festering is key if organizations and their staff wish to remain healthy and productive.


Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com


Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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