Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”?

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

When it comes to folks who are dealing with severe workplace bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, or other forms of targeted interpersonal mistreatment, we sometimes see people who seem to be stuck in a place of rumination and obsession:

He just won’t move forward. I think he prefers to suffer and be a victim.

She just can’t move forward. She’s suffering and feels very victimized.

On the surface, these two characterizations may not sound all that different. But dig even a little deeper, and the contrasts illuminate.

“Won’t” suggests that a traumatized individual has affirmatively chosen, for the time being, to stay in this bad place and not move forward. True, on a more hopeful note, it also assumes a power and ability to choose to get better. That said, there’s a judgmental ring to “won’t” as well, sounding a bit like victim blaming for a present “refusal” to proceed with recovery and healing.

“Can’t” suggests factors, internal and external, that limit a traumatized individual’s ability to recover, heal, and move forward. It implicitly suggests medical and external reasons for why someone is stuck in place. But it also connotes, at least in this context, that maybe someone is stuck there for the long haul.

I admit that in moments of frustration, I sometimes have used “won’t.” But in the process of learning more about psychological trauma, I now understand that “can’t” is the more appropriate term. Trauma is bear of a thing to wrestle with, and oftentimes those who are dealing with PTSD, depression, and related conditions due to abuse can easily get stuck in place.

However, if we are going to use the more appropriate “can’t,” then we should add an important addendum: …at least for now. You see, the good news is that a lot of progress is being made when it comes to understanding and treating trauma.

In connection with a new course I’m teaching called the Law and Psychology Lab (described here), I’ve returned to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking, accessible book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014). In re-reading its chapters, I’m once again reminded of the complexities of trauma and the emergence of multiple treatment modalities for helping those who are experiencing it.

In essence, currently various trauma treatment approaches await those who are ready to seek and participate in them. Furthermore, I sense that we are still in the early stages of developing effective treatments. Thus, there is real hope for recovery and healing right now, and additional hope for even better treatments down the road.

Highly recommended

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Recovering from workplace bullying and other traumatic experiences: “Can’t” or “won’t”? | Stop Workplace Bullies...Now!

  2. Hi,

    I do think that there is too much aggression and calling out, but I also believe that when it comes to large corporations that mistreat people systemically, that they need to be called out, compared to an individual or peer who makes mistakes.

    The problem today is that many profit-driven companies thrive on systemic bullying their staff, incl managers into higher performance, which in the longrun backfires.

    I was bullied during bereavement which included Pret’s HR and former CEO Clive Schlee. I know it’s not the best way to speak out bluntly, but I almost lost my life and continue to seek independent investigation into staff suicides.

    Staff mostly dare to speak out in anonymity. I collected many reviews and complaints from review sites and social media, as Pret portrays themselves to be such an ethical company, while behind the facade it’s hell.

    I continue to raise awareness.


  3. I’ve experienced it and sadly, workplaces actually condone bullying and mobbing. Luckily, I was able to stay a few steps ahead of the bullies and get the hell out once a better prospect came along.

    I ordered this book, “the Body Keeps the Score”just last week, and it arrived today. Definitely sinking my teeth into this one!

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