Workplace bullying as crazy making abuse

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893)

“Crazy making” is a term one hears a lot in counseling and psychology. It basically means what it sounds like: Behaviors and actions — often intended — that create stress, confusion, and anxiety, and sometimes make people question their judgment and even sanity.

There are lots of overlaps between workplace bullying and the concept of crazy making, in ways that validate bullying as a form of psychological torture. In this post I’m drawing on previous commentaries in an effort to understand those interrelationships.


Gaslighting at work can range from orchestrated, manipulative aggressor-to-target behaviors, to HR officers expressing faux incredulity in response to claims of abusive mistreatment. Wikipedia defines gaslighting this way:

…a form of psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory, perception and sanity. It may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

When I wrote a post about gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic in late 2012, I never imagined that it would still be getting dozens of “hits” each week from online searches today. But now I informally nominate it as one of the most pernicious forms of individually targeted, crazy making behavior in the workplace. If you doubt my assessment, do a search using “gaslighting” and “workplace” and you’ll see why I’ve reached this conclusion.


Ostracism is among the most stress-inducing of workplace bullying tactics. Imagine going into an office or plant every work day, only to be greeted by silence and avoidance from your co-workers. It’s a silent form of mobbing or “puppet master” bullying. Ostracism is painful to endure and can fuel paranoid, hyper-vigilant emotions, especially when experienced over an extended period of time.

Button pushing

Workplace aggressors are often experts at button pushing. They know how to get a rise out of someone, and if it causes the target to say or do something that gives the aggressors even more of an upper hand, then all the better. Under stress, targets can engage in self-defeating behaviors, and crossing the line in responding to abusive work situations is a frequent one.

Accordingly, button pushing is strongly related to our next topic…

Bullies as victims

Workplace bullies sometimes claim to be the victims of workplace bullying. And the smartest aggressors often are experts at doing this. The typical scenario is when bullying targets retaliate or act impulsively toward their aggressor(s) out of exasperation, fear, or anger. That response provides reason for the aggressor(s) to claim victim status. The target is put in the crazy making position of having to explain/defend his actions and being on the defensive.

Superficial civility

The organizational embrace of a superficial brand of civility can advantage those who engage in bullying, harassment, or discrimination at work. It often starts with mistreatment masked by a steady, calm demeanor. This may include behaviors that are calculated to be plausibly deniable, such as bullying by omission (e.g., exclusion and ostracism), “lighter” forms of harassment, or indirect discrimination.

An individual who protests such mistreatment, especially in loud or allegedly disrespectful tones, may be accused of violating unofficial or official codes of conduct and may be called to answer for “inappropriate” behavior.

Erasure and institutional memory

Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history and the individuals associated with them, especially whistleblowers whose allegations threaten their self-generated mythologies. Those individuals will be conveniently rendered “unpersons,” an Orwellian term for an individual whose existence is more or less expunged. Those who later try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being pushed out and turned into unpersons.


It takes a pretty twisted individual to engage in a campaign of crazy making bullying against another. I believe the most likely candidate for this type of aggressor is the so-called “almost psychopath,” a term coined by psychiatrist Ronald Schouten to capture those individuals who fall short of meeting the clinical definition of a psychopath but who nevertheless possess characteristics such as a lack of empathy and a willingness to engage in harmful behavior toward others. Almost psychopaths can function within the boundaries of society and often are very skilled at manipulating others and covering their behaviors.


Related posts

When superficial civility supports workplace abusers (and their enablers) (2014)

The bullied and the button pushers (2014)

When workplace bullies claim victim status: Avoiding the judo flip (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012)

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Do “almost psychopaths” help to explain the prevalence of workplace bullying and abuse? (2012)

Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory (2011)

Workplace bullying as psychological torture (2009)


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7 responses

  1. Pingback: Workplace Bullies | Monarch Programming, Gang Stalking, No Touch Torture

  2. I’d be careful of using the word paranoid when speaking of victims of bullying. It is not paranoid to be fearful of harm when someone IS actually harming you (by bullying you). It is not paranoia if you have reason to fear harm to yourself.

    • I agree that paranoid is a word to be used carefully, which is why I invoked it once in discussing how ostracism is used as a bullying practice that can fuel paranoid responses, i.e., irrational fears that something much worse is in the making. I’d add that this often is exactly the effect intended by the individual(s) orchestrating the ostracizing behavior.

    • It’s hypervigilance. The normal and expected consequence of defamatory harassment which needs to be criminally prosecuted. However it’s not because so many bureaucrats benefit and profit from it. Paranoia is a psychiatric disorder, I think.

  3. Pingback: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks | A "Lady" blundering her way…

  4. This experience in your entire description is an exacting depiction of my experience at my workplace at Costco. I was misappropiated as a bully and treated just as your blog describes. I have never had the experience of being repetitiously humiliated, attacked, belittled, dehumanized and criticized. Everyday was some new form of constructed, manipulated event resulting in my abuse and two options of doing nothing in response and the abuse continues or reacting and seemingly affirming their false assertion of whom they projected me to be.
    How does this happen?

  5. Pingback: Crazy-Making Times Require Different Muscles, Soul Muscles. – Cynthia Winton-Henry

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