Why is severe, malicious workplace bullying so traumatic for many targets? A 1992 book by University of Massachusetts psychologist Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma, offers valuable insights. According to Janoff-Bulman, victims of intentional, malevolent harm may find that the mistreatment they experienced fractured their core beliefs about human relationships. They now face unique and difficult psychological challenges:
Although the ruthlessness of the perpetrators may differ, survivors of intentional, human-induced victimization suddenly confront the existence of evil and question the trustworthiness of people. They experience humiliation and powerlessness and question their own role in the victimization. . . . These survivors are forced to acknowledge the existence of evil and the possibility of living in a morally bankrupt universe. The world is suddenly a malevolent one, not simply because something bad happened to the victim but because the world of people is seriously tainted. Trust in others is seriously disturbed.
Janoff-Bulman used “Shattered Assumptions” as the title for her book because the traumatization process involves the shattering of three commonly held, fundamental beliefs “about ourselves, the external world, and the relationship between the two”:
The world is benevolent.
The world is meaningful.
The self is worthy.
Few of us would be so naive as to think that work will be free of the normal ups and downs of human interaction. But workplace bullying, at least in its severe form (repeated, malicious, and health endangering), goes horribly beyond “normal.” Janoff-Bulman’s conceptualization reminds me of so many conversations I’ve had with bullying targets who characterized their experiences as a profound and stunning breach of trust. Understandably, they often approach their next jobs with a high level of alert and apprehension.
(Hat tip to Dr. Ruth Namie for suggesting this book to me several years ago.)