Workplace bullying, psychological trauma, and the challenge of storytelling

(image courtesy of

(image courtesy of

Why is it that some targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing have difficulty telling or jotting down their stories in a straightforward, chronological manner? And why do they often launch into what sounds like a War and Peace version of their story, when all that’s needed (for now) is the quick elevator speech?

It can make for a long, rambling account, laden with emotion.

We should not blame this on the target. Work abuse situations are often complex and hard to summarize. Equally significant, the effects of psychological trauma may have a lot to do with the “word salad” narrative.

I’m currently preparing a couple of short talks on how emerging insights from neuroscience inform our understanding of workplace bullying and mobbing, along with accompanying challenges that may confront targets who are trying to harness legal protections or secure employee benefits such as workers’ compensation.

In The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014) (which I praised here), pioneering trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains the latest research on how traumatic experiences may impact the brain, including sharp cognitive impairments that undermine an individual’s ability to present information in an ordered manner. Put simply, an individual dealing with psychological trauma may be able to share emotions and impressions about the experience, while being unable to tell the essential story behind it.

I have been interacting with targets of severe workplace bullying and mobbing behaviors for some 18 years. I have witnessed, over and again, how some individuals encounter great difficulty explaining specific timelines and events. Many of them tell me that they are experiencing symptoms consistent with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The effects of psychological trauma relate directly to legal advocacy supporting targets of bullying, mobbing, and harassment. Effective legal advocacy is built around a story of what happened. Where legal representation is involved, the process of developing this story starts from the very first meeting between attorney and client. What happens when the experience of psychological trauma makes it difficult for a lawyer and client to build a coherent understanding of a prospective legal case or claim for benefits? How can an individual’s wrought emotional state make it difficult to put together a basic chronology and description of events related to a legal dispute and the resulting harm, including pain & suffering and emotional distress?

I now understand how insights from neuroscience help to explain why some individuals face such difficulties in providing coherent narratives of their abusive work experiences. My forthcoming presentations will present my initial ideas for further research and writing on this topic.


Related post

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries (2016)

8 responses

  1. You have touched on an extremely important . It is critical that bullying targets express the issues in concise legal language as Attorney’s do not deal with emotional issues. And on the clock attorney’s lose money from other cases if they are drawn into an emotional discussion with a client who has been bullied.
    It would be huge to put in legal speak all the bullying issue e.g. Is abuse of power by an Executive a legal issue or just bad management; if an employee resigns and no longer has status in the organization
    does that negate a whistleblower case; does an abusive board violate any legal issues toward an employee or does it all fall under bad morals/bad behavior etc
    How do bullying victims articulate a case that negates an employers right to at will terminations??
    Hope this helps

  2. You are 100% correct! I’ve been there and done that and actually still doing it. Going on over 15 yrs now. Been away from the stressor for 4+ years now, but still in freeze mode! These books are very helpful Thank you for your dedication to this topic.

  3. Dear David,
    Thanks for the great blog and essentially never giving up on the target/victim’s perspective. With that, please send me the addresses of people who would like to read the some 200 pages I sent to the local Grand Jury, all laid out systematically, chronologically, and with a table of contents and email documentation. Ha!!
    Seriously, I am conversant with a lot of the mobbing literature, and my example has got to be great resource material for the serious researcher. I have a couple of master’s degrees so I’ve tried my academic best to be clear, honest, and fair. I also have a couple of more succinct versions available.

    I think you have my email; go ahead and give it to interested researchers.
    Thank you David for being a wonderful inspiration.

  4. My experience is consistent with what I have read about this topic and my observations working with other targets’ to produce their stories for the “Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying” project. If you are teaching a unit on poetry, students are engaged in reading, listening to and discussing poems for a solid week before the writing process begins. Pre-writing is the most important step – think/discuss/make notes. This is followed by a first draft and a peer editor. This step is repeated until the author and editor are …. mostly satisfied. After being bullied, targets are often reclusive and few friends and family members have the stomach or patience to listen to their story. It takes one friend to say, “Are you sure you didn’t do something?” or “I followed your story, but now that you say your own union did not support you, I am having a hard time believing this” to utterly shut you down. A writer needs to tell their story several times before they write it. Do to the content and the limited audience ( probably with no one who understands the “science” of bullying) this just never happens. The lawyer may be the first one the target gets to tell their story to. It is a collage of images, moments, non-linear, probably vignettes ordered starting from the most horrific. The target wants the lawyer to finally be the one after all this time to validate and empathize. The lawyer does not have the time (especially if they are not being paid by the hour) nor patience for this, which the target easily picks up on. The lawyer just wants the timeline, bullets points, evidence. It will take time to heal from the rebuffs, the utter steal courage to go through emails to construct a timeline, the searching online to read others stories, before the victim can even attempt a very rough first draft. For most models in the project, I listened to their stories over the phone. For some, I made notes and constructed a barebones first draft from our conversations which I emailed to them along with stories from other models. For others I received the written collage and follow up emails with details, dates, flashbacks. I would cut and paste these documents into a linear form with just the most critical description of events and evidence. Drafts would go back and forth a few times. I would receive more supplemental emails to weigh and weave in, but often the emails contained information I already had. I felt the pain of memory, the anxiety to get it right, the struggle to revisit the scenarios of psychological violence, the anger, the questions (Why me? I was the best worker. ) the constant injuring of the brain to seek answers for the illogical to try to make sense of the senseless. Many times when I write, I have to take naps because even 3 years later my mind hurts, the frontal lobe where logic is processed, is constantly being reset or turned off, in order for me to continue the narrative. In fact, my head hurts now.

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