Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice?

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Does “closure,” a favorite term in pop psychology (and one I have used), really exist?

Drake University sociology professor Nancy Berns, author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us (2011), questions the very concept of closure as an accepted fact. In a Q&A with the Boston Globe (link here), she states:

The idea of closure [is seen] as a new emotional state for explaining what we need and how we’re supposed to respond to trauma and loss. But closure is a rhetorical concept, a made-up term . . . .Closure is not something that we can simply find or something we need. It’s a frame used to explain how we should respond to loss.

She is especially concerned when people impose the idea of closure upon others who are grappling with grief or trauma:

…(I)f the concept of closure helps them in sharing or thinking about their own story, that’s fine, that might help them. But a concern is that they try and turn around and tell other people “you need closure,” or when people assume that everyone understands closure the same way they do and that everyone experiences it the same way.

Application to abusive work situations

Dr. Berns is coming at the topic largely from the perspective of dealing with personal grief. Nevertheless, her words may resonate with those who are processing the experiences of bullying and other serious injustices at work.

Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance. After all, the more we learn about trauma, depression, and other conditions that can be prompted or exacerbated by severe work abuse, the more we know that “getting over it” can be a very challenging process.

True, some bullying targets manage to achieve a sense of closure relatively quickly. I’ve seen this happen when there has been a fair and decisive organizational response, or when the individual has managed to move on to a better situation.

For others — many others, I believe — “getting over it” comes in stages, often with emotional relapses. When the relapses become less frequent and less intense, we see progress. Rarely does one reach a point where they declare from some virtual mountain top, “I have achieved closure. I am over it.” Rather, it’s a quieter realization that they have been able to move on.

Some may continue to struggle. This is most likely when the acute conditions — such as ongoing mistreatment or a bad career setback — have not been sufficiently addressed, or when someone is otherwise consumed by their situation. For these folks, progress definitely remains possible, but they may be in a difficult place for the time being.

***

This post was revised in June 2016.

18 responses

  1. It might be possible in a situation where the bullying is stopped and the target feels they can trust again. In my case the layers of trauma are many and my total personality has been changed. I have lost almost everything I love including my ability to work. Then on top of all of this is the injustice from the court system, the abuse from the board of licensing and social scars. I now have to live in subsidized housing owned by a corporation that made our lives a living hell this summer because being on disability lowers ones income to a point that there are no options about where to live. It is either live here or be homeless. Then there is the inability to get treatment of any kind for PTSD in rural Alaska, in fact many MHPs have been downright abusive that I had the audacity to even try to get counseling. I could go on and try to find a way to live my life with my disabilities if I could just get justice in some way, but the courts in Alaska and the government are so dysfunctional and corrupt I doubt that is possible.

  2. Excellant post as usual Mr. Yamada.
    Is closer possible? After struggling with being the target of workplace bullying followed by unjust, blatant, unethical, illegal loss of my hard earned job, which, had I the monetary funds would in a NY second FOUGHT in a court of
    law. For my rights and the maintenance of my personal and professional hard earned integrity.

    Despite being encouraged to look at ourselves at not what we “do”, ie our profession, most of us do i.d. with what we are trained, hopefully love to do and are skillful at for 1/3 of our awakening days.

    I have done numerous amounts of reading on the subject. Including the perspective of the targets and do not recall reading one case scenerio where closure was obtained.

    Instead, as in my own case, read
    numerous accounts of those left with distrust, lack of self esteem, anger at the pure insanity of being the butt of uneccessary emotional whiplash, financial hardships post UI from either an unjustifiable termination of employment, or purely out of the need to resign or face further mental turmoil with the accompanying health risks.

    Closure in my case, will happen when pigs fly OR, I pass on to another dimension (called death).

    Or, if for some miracle, my former employer DOES somehow reach the conclusion they lost a damn good employee who DID not do anything unethical. Who, instead was a HARD, dedicated.COMPETENT employee who was an asset.

    Again, if THIS were to occur, not only pigs will be flying, but so will elephants.

    Instead, these bullies know we, the little man do not have a leg to stand on and unfortunately will merely continue to treat tthe common worker unfairly, just because they can, and continue to get by with doing so sans the laws to PROTECT workers from such brutal treatment. Yes, BRUTAL.

    Bulling etiology ranging, as we all know, from a multitude of factors. From petty causes such as not having
    POORLY, BIASED trained
    management and bully peers simply not liking our looks, our basic unchangegable but not monstrous
    personalities, our perhaps different,
    yet REASONABLE and POLITICALLY
    CORRECT approach to our tasks which may not be like the majority’s
    approach but none the less, completing tasks JUST AS EFFICIENTLY and EFFECTIVELY,
    to having more gray matter and being a THREAT to their (both peers and
    management’s) ever tender egos.

    Or, being overly boistrous and
    speaking the truth when injust treatment of workers or poor
    perhaps unsafe working conditions
    prevail.

    Essentially keeping your mouth shut, with nose up southern orafice and being a corporate puppet being the underlying and unwritten rule.
    A Stepford Wife. Follow the leader and remain a mute only to open one’s mouth to say “Yes Mam or Sir”.

    No, this target does not foresee closure. At least in this lifetime and dimension.

    Not unless I get hit in my head by a freak flying bolder and sustain a very good case of amnesia will I truly ever have closure.

    I have not walked the yellow brick road in many realms in life, but this entire experience WILL go down as one of the most trying.

    .

    • One of the most common positive scenarios that I see involves being significantly and sometimes profoundly changed by it, including in some ways for the better, in the same way that recovering from life’s other adversities can force us to grow and develop. “Moving on” may include a new job, a new career, etc., but it typically marks a separation from the bad experience.

      That’s not closure in the way we’re taught to think of it, which perhaps goes back to the critique lodged by Dr. Berns in the first place. The more I think about it, that traditional idea of closure rings kind of shallow to me, suggesting that we simply can turn off a bad experience because we’re ready to close that door for good and go back to who we were before all this happened. Abracadabra!

      So, if not closure, Ms Bullied, then I hope to something better.

  3. Excellent post David. Closure and it’s timing is dependent on the mental health of the individual prior to the bosshole event, their mental state afterwards, the mental, physical and family support the target receives, and the amount of loss as a result of the psychological abuse, i.e., physical, mental, career, financial, etc., associated with the event.

    It can take a long time to recover. Meanwhile, everyday this behavior continues in multitudes of organizations. It is a shame that working in a career can be like going to war to earn a living.

    Kevin Kennemer
    The Chief People Officer

  4. I think “closure” is a sometimes-useful thumbnail sketch for a broad, one-size-does-NOT-fit-all concept, and therein lies the rub, as you observed. In its current pop culture usage, it does seem to take on the implication that you can just “shut off” the Bad Thing and move on…and if you haven’t, then it’s your fault.

    Some people’s Bad Things have more tentacles in them than others. Some move out cleanly and quietly, but others leave nasty surprises behind the couch, in the closet, in the file cabinet. Some change you profoundly–it’s hard to ‘close the door’ on the wrecking ball that took the door, and half the wall, with it.

    We could all use new language for describing and understanding loss. Good job, as usual.

  5. Closure will ONLY happen when workplace bullies are held financially accountable for the pain they inflict on their victims. They need to pay for the victim to have time to heal emotionally, meaning they cannot run out and find another job. I am SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO gun shy about starting another job for fear this will happen again I need a lot of counselling first and foremost and I cannot do that if I don’t have the money to get the help I need.

  6. I don’t want closure…not yet. I want to leave this can of worms open and make it as obvious as I can in hopes of bringing attention to this critical issue. I’m not going away or closing the door until I am satisfied that there is no more value to be wrung from the whole wretched experience. I am determined that my suffering will not be in vain.

    That being said, the absence of closure is not destroying my life. I find I can move about, function adequately, and experience joy regularly without it. I will decide if and when I’ll put a lid (or a muzzle) on it!

    Like so many other things in life, I view this as a process. I don’t know that it’s realistic to expect to finish all the projects we embark upon…so long as we are not consumed by them.

      • I don’t know if or when I will not be spending energy on the issue (informed and motivated by my experience). I think it’s wise use of some of my time. Things change, and I don’t know whether I will continue to have the same priorities as I have currently. I’m not attached to them…there are other important things I could choose to do at any time.

        For now, I am passionate about the issue of workplace bullying, and consequently spend more of my time and energy focussed on it than I do about homelessness, national debt, global warming, elder abuse, illiteracy, disaster relief, and all kinds of other equally real problems!

  7. Kachina, I really like your attitude! I know at this point in my life a lawsuit without the HWB even passed, will only damage me further. I have a friend who won a lawsuit in Australia. BUT, it cost her so much of her mental and physical health that it delayed healing. Lawyers do not want to touch mental issues. Even though the first two signs of massive stress on the body are hypertension and gastrointestinal issues. I have both (ulcer). Physical, but caused by mental angui
    sh over the bullying.
    I too am passionate about this bill. Unfortunately, my feelings are that our governor is not! The lawyer agreed. We have a long way to go………..
    I had someone I dearly love say “It is done and over with. Let it go and move on” Right! It doesn’t work that way. After 2yrs of being a target, asking for assistance from my manager, HR and CEO, they all failed me. Then I was fired after 13yrs of excellent service to the company a week after contacting my CEO. Go figure.
    I am so damaged now I am filing for disability until my therapist and I decide when I am ready and able to work again. I have worked for 34yrs straight, never fired. I try and fight back following all the policies and procedures and was fired for it.

    • I know there was a point at which I wanted nothing more than for the whole complicated mess not to have happened. I pined for a return to the job and work I had loved. I heard and recognized words of wisdom from various sources, and returned to them again and again until I realized incrementally that not only was it not going to happen, it couldn’t happen, and eventually I came to believe that it shouldn’t happen. Which left me wondering what could and should happen…and possibilities I had not imagined entered the picture. Nothing earth-shattering or magical, just possibilities that I can consider and pursue or not, as I choose. I’m back in control of my life and myself. I had to cultivate patience…mostly with myself…to get this far.

  8. I am so aware of the thoughtfulness, reflection, and difficult experiences that inform the comments that people are sharing in response to this article. Thank you.

  9. To me, reaching closure means forgetting about a feeling. That’s like asking someone to forget about something else that they have processed through their senses. Can we forget a sight, sound, taste, touch, smell? As soon as we come in contact with it again, there is recall. It’s a survival mechanism. When someone tells me to “just get over it” or “move on”, I feel that the person has devalued my feelings. I don’t consider these comments helpful at all; it makes me distrustful and I no longer want to share my feelings with the person because they have no empathy.

  10. What I have come to understand is that Complex PTSD is a chronic injury. A person may “look fine” but situations that make you feel unsafe can trigger your mind/body in moments even if the last event was years ago. Most targets who are bullied and offered little to no protection under the law, will fear for their safety (physical, mental and economical) while actively being psychologically abused at the workplace. Once removed from the workplace, reduced financial resources, render many targets on financial assistance and/or homeless. A target’s safety is again threatened. So while they may have had funds to initially begin to heal and actively participate in therapy; they become miserly and the first to go is their healing practices. Now their focus is basic survival- budgeting $20.00 for food instead of a co-pay. As far as listening to others comments of “just get over it”, it is not their fault because unless one has experienced this you can not fully understand, not to mention ignorance and fear. Do not open yourself up to this. It is best not to discuss your situation with anyone but caregivers, other targets and your notebook. When people ask “How are you?”, you can respond, “Can’t complain” (because you won’t understand), and quickly turn it back “How about you? You look great! What have you been up to?” If they ask what are you doing, you can make a joke such as “I’m on a gap year” or “I’m taking a victory lap”…and again turn it quickly around.

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