Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely)


One of the very, very hardest challenges in dealing with workplace mistreatment is, well, dealing with it. By this I mean not letting it consume us. The fight or flight response ratchets up, and soon the situation rents way too much space in our heads.

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Given the title of her piece, one might question whether it applies to forms of workplace mistreatment. After all, severe bullying, mobbing, discrimination, and harassment are not varieties of conflict, but rather forms of intentional abuse. However, I suggest that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the neuroscience and that Hamilton’s descriptions of the triggering response are spot-on.

Her advice on calming your brain in the midst of these experiences will sound familiar to those who do mindfulness practice. One point, however, may be especially hard to process:

Step 2: Let go of the story.

This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.

Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment.

But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.

That said, the triggering response can be a powerful one. It has an unfortunate way of focusing our attention and emotional energy with a laser-like intensity. As I’ve written before, targets of workplace bullying have described the experience as a nightmarish “game or battle.” It’s not easy to put that on one’s emotional shelf.

So herein lies a challenge: How do we keep the narratives of workplace injustice alive, without letting them consume us personally? This is one of the most difficult intersections of individual recovery and social change, and for many it is an ongoing work in progress.


Related posts

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Getting unstuck (2014)

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014)


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10 responses

  1. I hope one day you will discuss defamation and wrongful termination. I have been pushing professional nursing organizations to ad these to the agenda of a future conference. I am just beginning to get a maybe from one.

    • I experienced wrongful termination due to bullying in a different occupation and could have sued. Instead I exposed everything the bully did in my second book, Dirty Secrets of the World’s Worst Employee. I will not be bullied into silence.

  2. I want to say that all that I did was that I reached out for help to stop being treated with disrespectful behavior, but the focus was shifted to look for problems with me.

    When it started happening, I didn’t understand what was going on. When I mentioned it to my family and friends, people asked what I was doing to provoke it. I might have wondered the same, if it wasn’t happening to me. When I started researching it, I found something that is a growing threat to businesses, especially to healthcare.

    From my research, I found that the responses that I received are the classic responses for bullying. Additionally, I found that the motivation for the bullying phenomenon as well as the response to it, to be fear.

    People encounter something that triggers insecurity, consciously or subconsciously, and they try to protect themselves. People start spreading rumors, or belittling, or menacing the source of their discomfort. Most of the action is done when no one else sees it, and it takes a while for the target themselves to catch on.

    When the person who is being targeted confides to someone else what is happening, the confidante takes the stance that there must be something going on to instigate the behavior. It is very confusing to the targeted person since they have no idea what they have done to be targeted, and now someone they approached as a friend seems to be blaming them.

    Their friend, however can’t understand why someone would act so disrespectfully without some reason, so they insist there must be a reason. The reason, of course, is the threat that the perpetrator feels. Others are not aware of how the perpetrator feels though, so it seems like there is no reason.

    The fear the friend has is subconscious: If being mistreated like that can happen for no reason, then it could happen to them as well. Therefore the friend tries to protect them self by denying that it is happening for no reason.

    Similarly, a business being made aware of bullying occurring, responds in disbelief, and so must look at what the target is doing to cause such a problem.

    Thus, censure of the target becomes the focus of the business, contrary to the actual cause of the problem.

    Barbara Bjarnason

    • This is what happened to me, I recognised it straight away & continually called them out on it. I told them they always focus on me rather than the problem I am bringing to their attention & do no allow them to censure me.
      It’s a battle, a game & a total mind fuck that has taken it’s toil on me but I refuse to give up without a fight.

    • You have perfectly summed up the story of what happened to me. I wasn’t able to get my situation resolved so I left my job. A couple of years later I was able to help a friend who was going through something similar at work because of my experience. It’s about stopping the story you tell yourself and not getting hijacked by the biology of your brain. Awareness is key.

      • Wow, ladies I know exactly how you feel! I went through it too and ended up writing a book about it. It’s classic narcissistic behavior and it’s more common than people realize.

  3. For those with professional licenses that retaliate, bully, defame, terminate, they should be subject to dicipline. When a court rules in favor of the victim there is a record of these offenders. Can anyone name cases in which they were at least investigated by their state boards? There needs to be accountability or these behaviors will continue.

  4. Thank you. The first challenge to letting go even for a minute in a threatening environment is finding a safe environment to let down one’s guard. There is little that is more jarring than being injured because one was caught “off guard” so to speak, especially when one knows of the threat (“I should have known…what is wrong with me…it is my fault”). At the same time, I agree it is essential to find a safe space to decompress and regroup. That said, I’m going to share this with my daughter-in-law who managers an inner city preschool affiliated with the public school system. All too often she sees physical injuries to her four-year-olds that must be reported. Add the severe emotional injuries many of them experience and it is heartbreaking. Recently the principal eliminated nap time for these four-year-olds, replacing it with more learning time in the name of more academics. For many of these little ones nap time is the only time they can safely rest their heads. My daughter-in-law sees this as one of the most important times in their day…a single opportunity in their day to experience and learn what it feels like to build trust and be able to let down one’s guard and rest. Without that they will not be “ready” for school let alone life. So, although your post was about workplace bullying, I’ll be sharing this as additional evidence of the need for safe downtime for my daughter-in-law’s class. Thank you.


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