Why severe workplace bullying can be so traumatic

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.)

3 responses

  1. Hello,
    I am looking for some names of Doctors who specialize in Work place bullying and the related trauma and the Gary Namie site doesn’t specify. I enjoy both or your websites but trying to find someone who believe in this truth about workplace bullying and its effects is very difficult. Please help.



    • Walter, I’m afraid I do not have a list of suggestions for you. Doctors who are experienced in dealing with psychological trauma are obvious possibilities, but not all of them understand what workplace bullying is about and how destructive it can be. It may be helpful to obtain and print out some of the materials on workplace bullying to help educate them. I realize that is not ideal — to be educating the very person whose help you need seems somewhat backwards — but for it may be helpful.


  2. This exactly explains what I went through. I remember telling people that my worldview had changed and that I was afraid of people, instead of open to people.

    One thing that made the experience so disconcerting is that it happened in such an ordinary place. While my brain was screaming, people all around me were blithely unaware that anything was wrong. It was like being imprisoned in a Twilight-Zone episode where the mundane world isn’t the reality.

    Like others, my beliefs were shattered, but my new beliefs are more real and much more powerful:

    (The world is benevolent.) Evil people live, work, shop, and worship where we do. They delight in hurting us. BUT, most people are good and some are very good. For every demon, there is at least one angel.

    (The world is meaningful.) The world IS meaningful; our job is to defy evil and celebrate the light.

    (The self is worthy.) Good people, including myself, are worthy. The abuse was not my fault and I deserve happiness, as does everyone who cares about other people.

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