When dealing with abusive work environments, the terrible “ifs” may accumulate

When Winston Churchill was the First Sea Lord of the British Navy during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, he observed that “the terrible ‘ifs’ accumulate.” While fully admitting that I’m borrowing his quote out of context, I find the words ever so relevant to many of those who are dealing with abusive work environments, especially in the form of workplace bullying.

In nasty work environments, one’s mind may start to race with possibilities, and few of them are good. Hence,”the terrible ‘ifs’,” which also dovetail hard with the understandable tendency of many people in bad work settings to ruminate over their situations. As I wrote back in February:

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

The constant rumination may include imagining a parade of horrible possibilities…what if thiswhat if that. It may fuel a form of “catastrophizing,” whereby “we look to the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong,” as Dr. John Grohol explains for PsychCentral.com.

In some cases, the perpetrators of the abusive conduct may intend this effect. Overall, it’s about keeping people guessing, fearful, and always looking over their shoulders.

If you find yourself in such a workplace, try to keep your wits about you, even in the face of stress and anxiety. As I’ve written many times about bad work situations, this is much easier said than done. Nevertheless, while bad things can and do happen, rarely do all of the terrible ifs occur in unison. In some cases, it’s possible to mitigate the risks by assessing the options and taking smart actions.

12 responses

  1. And in some situations there is no possibility of mitigating anything when all of upper management was corrupt to the bone. When you have all the cards stacked against you and you know without a doubt that losing your job will cause you to have life altering consequences, rumination is unavoidable. The only thing good that came out of my rumination was that I never forgot the details of my abuse and it helped me to journal every bit of the abuse to the tiniest detail. When all was said and done it played out in my favor.

  2. The trauma of work abuse is ongoing and it is very difficult to not allow it to permeate all corners of one’s life when it’s happening. The feelings of vulnerability aren’t easily set aside. At the same time, it’s no secret that not being in one’s ‘right’ mind only makes one more vulnerable.

    It’s not enough to tell someone to not do something (i.e., ruminate excessively). Rather, it means so much more to help someone do something that will make a real positive difference to them. That’s where it gets difficult because it’s very hard to know what that might be for someone else when they are in trauma (sustained). For me, the most powerful help I received was that I connected with people who truly understood the feelings I was feeling and offered unconditional acceptance of them, including the ruminating. And did I ruminate. Those ruminations were my way of trying to ‘figure it out.’ Which, of course, was my way of trying to establish a foothold in what felt like a free fall.

    Is it possible that ruminating serves a different purpose for different people at different times? And that excessive ruminating doesn’t necessarily lead to depression and/or other negative consequences? I don’t know. To me, when someone is hurting and coping in ways they know how, is that the time to tell someone what not to do, but is it more the time to try and help them find what to do.

  3. Thank you, DR and Anna, for your thoughts on this. Based on both personal experience and that of talking to many, many others in abusive or highly dysfunctional work settings, I think one’s definition of rumination matters a lot. Linda Graham’s definition quoted above — “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again” — captures the heart of what I believe can be so debilitating to people, i.e., a repeating, deepening feedback loop. But other forms of wrestling with one’s situation, which may appear on the surface to be ruminating, can lead to more positive and constructive coping and action responses.

    To be sure, rare is the person experiencing severe bullying behaviors — especially of the indirect varieties that take extra time to unpack and comprehend — who does not spend a lot of time thinking about the situation. I wouldn’t necessarily call that ruminating under the definition I prefer.

    Another thought: For some, is a period of rumination a “natural” prelude or step on the way to engaging the situation more constructively? In addition, I will leave to those with more expertise questions of how rumination relates to conditions such as PTSD and depression — the clinical stuff is above my pay grade, but I certain recognize the connections.

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  4. Thank you SO MUCH for these writings. As I go into my second month post being horrifically bullied out of the job I loved, I feel more and more unable to pull myself out of the state managers at that evil company decided to push me into. I sincerely hope I can get to bedrock so that I can climb back out and live my life as a valued member of society again.

  5. Lately I have found that doing grief recovery work is helpful in understanding both the rumination and the effect that bullying has had on me. The problem with bullying is that the target suffers great losses that have no real closure because the bully and her world continue on the same as before. This means that there is an unending negative feedback loop experienced only by the target. I’ve also found that my ruminating has been about the very real harm the bully has caused. In my case, I had to quit my job due to stress illness and the bully kept harassing me so I could never find another job. It is possible to have someone dig a financial hole so deep for you that you cannot climb out. When people (i.e., new employers) do not believe your story or refuse to listen to you, this compounds the rumination because there appears to be no way to solve the problem caused by another.

  6. I so appreciate your writings, and your commentators speak so amazingly in tune with my own experiences: ruminating to remember the details of the abuse; to figure it out and establish a foothold in what felt like a free fall; getting to bedrock to be able to climb back out and live.

    At this point for me it’s about getting the help of others. Like DR says, “For me, the most powerful help I received was that I connected with people who truly understood the feelings I was feeling and offered unconditional acceptance of them, including the ruminating.” The real task is about trying to find the willing and wise others.

    I recall being bullied and mobbed in a legal-related foundation. I was pretty much going crazy with a narcissistic, manipulative, lying boss. I asked a retired judge if he would help me deal with it. We met several times at the local bookstore coffeehouse. This wonderful judge listened to me unconditionally, without any arrogance of position or presumption. The result was that he arranged for a new place for me to work and even loaned me money to keep my storage unit until I was flush again.

    When in the position of being a bullying target or victim, what is needed are connections to people that are connected, are leaders in your community, and can help provide solutions. I was lucky in being able to talk to retired Judge Joe. Good ears are hard to find. Every community has associations of retired attorneys, judges, psychologists, HR people, MD’s. etc.

    Given that targets of bullying are stuck with having no legal causes of action for the often debilitating, essentially tortious harm done to them, and still need help and solutions, why can’t there be some meta-coordinating, umbrella entities at the state or even national level where they have helped get the word out to retired associations of attorneys, judges, psychologists, law schools, etc., that their volunteer help in listening to the bullied could be a tremendous thing in taking up the no-cause-of-action slack and alleviating unnecessary suffering. The emphasis would be on pragmatic solutions like using their connections to help find a target/victim another job, or using their connections to diplomatically tamp down a bully’s brutality.

    Let’s say I could call, write, or email the coordinating entity–which would have the professional gravitas to make referrals and encourage participation of retired professionals in the program–make my situation known, and the coordinating volunteers would reach out to the particular county’s retired professionals and volunteers associations and try to find someone willing to help.

    Instead of leaving victims to ruminate, trying to find some way out of the morass by themselves, why can’t our volunteer-ready, baby-boom generation be enlisted to help?

  7. As you said it is far easier to recommend that people not perseverate and catastrophize than it is to get off that mental hamster wheel of worry and woe. After 2 years of bullying I resigned from the church I had been serving as associate minister. When I attempted to resolve over $5,0000 in unpaid retirement contributions my bully took the campaign viral by which I mean I got to experience the shift from workplace bullying to mobbing . I could describe all the things that went on and went wrong but what it ends up with is the familiar story for these situations with the target who attempts to receive help and makes a complaint to the right higher ups has the spotlight turned on himself so I was being reviewed as the problem and the nature of that process prevented my accessing additional remedies- it was dirty stuff.

    People may not know but certainly those in ministry and religious leadership have learned from reports that came out over the past several years that ministers report higher than average levels of depression and a sense of isolation and for the amount of education, and training normally expected the average clergy career was shockingly short averaging under 10 years. Something like 1 in 4 clergy had gone through a forced termination or negotiated resignation st some point and of them about 1/2 never return.

    So knowing that these figures had been much discussed by denominational staff and leadership I was surprised that when I first resigned there was no outreach or support aimed at helping and supporting me in finding another placement or even a church to attend since I was leaving the one I served. And so I remain interested and excited to learn about any work done or proposed to do such work.

    I read about something one religious body was trying which involved coaching for clergy after resigning from a call. The coaching had clear assignments that where part of the process so session one might have been to have the clergy person share with the coach 3 examples of having performed well as a minister then by session 4 perhaps the assignment was to set up face to face time to have dinner or coffee with 4 people who strongly support your returning to active ministry.

    I share this as an example of what IO think would help the most for many of us in trying not to worry and rethink on an an endless loop and that is to fill your self with times and opportunities that present you with reminders of your competence and support from people you respect. Not only can it help short circuit the worry machine but it seems it would also help pull you out of that isolated and cramped universe you get mentally locked up in after being abused relentlessly without relief or aid.

    • “…it was dirty stuff.”

      Indeed. Yours is not the first story I have heard about bullying in religious organizations. Unfortunately, it can happen anywhere, and just as some of the worst bullying appears in non-profits, so can it occur in faith organizations.

      I’m sorry that your situation was so terrible.

  8. Hi David. Would it be okay to post “When dealing with abusive work environments, the terrible “ifs may accumulate” on http://earthschool.life? We can provide an author byline and link to your website. You’ll also be entered into our quarterly writing contest (no entry fee). Thank-you for your consideration.

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