Psychopaths, sociopaths, and narcissists: What’s in a label?

In countless discussions about workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse, we often speculate on whether the chief aggressors may have narcissistic, psychopathic, or sociopathic tendencies. These conversations may be informed by some clinical knowledge of the symptoms of, and differences between, these personality disorders. Other times, they’re based on bits of information picked up from the media and popular culture. In any event, given the relevance of this general topic to workplace mistreatment, I thought it might be useful to appeal to some experts in taking a closer look.

For starters, if you have 12 minutes for an informative and fascinating video, check out MedCircle‘s interview of Dr. Ramani Durvasula (Cal St U-Los Angeles), “Narcissist, Psychopath, or Sociopath: How to Spot the Differences.” Here are a few highlights:

  • A lot of people “are using these terms interchangeably,” but they shouldn’t.
  • “One rule of thumb to remember right off the bat. Every psychopath is narcissistic, but not every narcissist is psychopathic.”
  • A narcissist “lacks empathy, is grandiose, is entitled, is constantly seeking validation, is arrogant . . . it’s a disorder of self-esteem.”
  • Narcissists do feel shame and guilt when they do bad things, but psychopaths feel no shame or guilt when doing the same, they “don’t care who gets hurt.”
  • The “sociopath is a lot like the psychopath: They do bad things and they don’t care. . . . Here’s the key difference: A psychopath is born, and a sociopath is made.” However, Dr. Durvasula recognizes that the influences of genetic and environmental factors may be difficult to distinguish.
  • Unfortunately, psychopaths and sociopaths rarely seek treatment, unless it is court-ordered.
  • “Psychopaths and sociopaths and narcissists make great chameleons.” Psychopaths and sociopaths, in particular, “view the world as an instrument to fulfill their desires.”

Narcissistic personality disorder

In a piece for PsychCentral, Dr. Steve Bressert summarizes the symptoms of “narcissistic personality disorder” this way:

The symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder include: grandiose sense of importance, preoccupation with unlimited success, belief that one is special and unique, exploitative of others, lack of empathy, arrogance, and jealousy of others. These symptoms cause significant distress in a person’s life.

Dr. Bressert reports that research studies on the causes of NPD are inconclusive, leading him to suggest that biological, genetic, social, and psychological factors may all play a role. As to treatment of NPD, it “typically involves long-term psychotherapy with a therapist that has experience in treating this kind of personality disorder.”

Antisocial personality disorder

PsychCentral‘s founder, Dr. John Grohol, echoes and expands upon much of what Dr. Durvasula says about the differences between psychopaths and sociopaths, and explains how the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) combines psychopathy and sociopathy under the single clinical category of “antisocial personality disorder”:

The common features of a psychopath and sociopath lie in their shared diagnosis — antisocial personality disorder. The DSM-5 . . . defines antisocial personality as someone have 3 or more of the following traits:

  1. Regularly breaks or flouts the law
  2. Constantly lies and deceives others
  3. Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
  4. Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
  5. Has little regard for the safety of others
  6. Irresponsible, can’t meet financial obligations
  7. Doesn’t feel remorse or guilt

Two peas in a pod?

Can antisocial personality disorder be treated? Read between the lines of this PsychCentral piece by Dr. Donald Black and you may reach the same conclusion as I did, namely, that psychopathy and sociopathy do not easily respond to psychological and psychiatric treatment. In fact, Black concludes:

Incarceration may be the best way to control the most severe and persistent cases of antisocial personality disorder. Keeping antisocial offenders behind bars during their most active criminal periods reduces their behaviors’ social impact.

The “almost psychopath”

I’ve periodically referenced Dr. Ronald Schouten’s (Harvard Medical School) work on the “almost psychopath,” i.e., individuals who fall short of a clinical diagnosis of psychopathy, but who demonstrate some of the most disturbing psychopathic behaviors. In their co-authored book, Almost a Psychopath (2012), Schouten and attorney James Silver acknowledge that although they have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, whom they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Almost is bad enough

Relevance to workplace abuse

Well, I’m now stating the obvious: We’ve known for a long time that, on an individual level, psychopathic, sociopathic, or narcissistic traits are associated with bullying, mobbing, harassment, and other forms of workplace mistreatment. They also fuel the organizational cultures that enable such abuse and protect the abusers.

Among the bottom-line points that resonate most strongly with me are that narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths are (1) unlikely to seek treatment; and (2) treatment may not make much a difference anyway. A good number of these folks occupy positions of power in society and thus significantly impact working conditions for millions of people.

Institutional gaslighting of whistleblowers

If you’re interested in whistleblowing and gaslighting behaviors, then I strongly recommend a piece by Retraction Watch, “How institutions gaslight whistleblowers — and what can be done.” It features an interview with Dr. Kathy Ahern (U. New South Wales, Australia), author of a new journal article on how whistleblowers are traumatized by institutional betrayal and gaslighting.

I’m going to share some snippets of the Retraction Watch interview with Dr. Ahern here, but it’s definitely worth a full look:

Whistleblower gaslighting entails officers of an institution using their authority to deceive a whistleblower so that he stays engaged in a process designed to harm him.  Employees have an expectation of support derived from social norms regarding workplace interactions and formal policies. Whistleblower reprisals have a sting of betrayal that is largely imperceptible to outsiders because gaslighting institutions use deception to exploit the employee’s trust in his employing institutions.  

***

One gaslighting strategy is to use this trust to force the whistleblower to repeatedly defend himself against bogus disciplinary charges presented as genuine complaints.  Eric Westervelt describes whistleblowers at the U.S. VA who were subjected to investigations of unspecified charges such as “creating a hostile work environment” or “abuse of authority”, although subsequent FOI requests yielded no details of the charges.  As a gaslighting strategy, the dual purpose of false charges is to both discredit and exhaust the whistleblower.

***

Descriptions of whistleblower experiences and outcomes in the literature show a constellation of symptoms that are very similar to complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) typically found in survivors of child abuse.  It is hypothesized that the abuse by a trusted, more powerful adult leads to a general distrust of self and others. Adults with C-PTSD have trouble regulating intense negative emotions, and feel disconnected to other people. 

***

The other symptom I see in targets of whistleblower gaslighting is a desperate urgency to be believed.  This looks a lot like an “obsession,” but as with the “paranoia,” it is not the result of a mental disorder.  It is more like the normal response of someone who spent 10 years in jail for crime he didn’t commit. Such a person is indefatigable in pursuit of having his name cleared, as are targets of whistleblower gaslighting who also are intent upon clearing their names and reputations. 

Folks, there’s so much here that will resonate with individuals who have experienced or witnessed institutional responses to whistleblowing. For those who want to read Dr. Ahern’s scholarly take on this, please look at her journal article, “Institutional Betrayal and Gaslighting: Why Whistle-Blowers Are So Traumatized.”

In short, this is very important work.

If you’d like to read more about gaslighting behaviors generally, Dr. Robin Stern’s The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life, (2018 pb ed. with rev. intro) is the best general treatment of the topic.

And here are some of my previous entries on gaslighting:

Gaslighting at work (2017, rev. 2018)

Is gaslighting a gendered form of workplace bullying? (2013)

Gaslighting as a workplace bullying tactic (2012, rev. 2017)

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Hat tip to Dr. Kenneth Pope for the Retraction Watch piece.

Forthcoming article: “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy”

Dear readers, later this year the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, will publish my article, “On Anger, Shock, Fear, and Trauma: Therapeutic Jurisprudence as a Response to Dignity Denials in Public Policy.” Here’s the abstract:

This article asserts that when policymaking processes, outcomes, and implementations stoke fear, anxiety, and trauma, they often lead to denials of human dignity. It cites as prime examples the recent actions of America’s current federal government concerning immigration and health care. As a response, I urge that therapeutic jurisprudence should inform both the processes of policymaking and the design of public policy, trained on whether human dignity, psychological health, and well-being are advanced or diminished. I also discuss three methodologies that will help to guide those who want to engage legislation in a TJ-informed manner. Although achieving this fundamental shift will not be easy, we have the raw analytical and intellectual tools to move wisely in this direction.

If you’d like to read my author’s draft of the piece in a pdf, you may download it without charge from my Social Science Research Network page, here.

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

On the dynamics of “puppet master” bullying at work

image courtesy of free.clipartof.com

In 2012 I proposed a type of work abuse that fits somewhere between workplace bullying and workplace mobbing. I called it “puppet master” bullying and described it as a form of “multiple-aggressor abuse at work that may stand at the fault lines between common conceptions of bullying and mobbing.” Here’s more:

In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

Even in cases of peer bullying, one aggressor can use intimidation and persuasion to turn others against a peer-level target.

One of the key indicators of puppet master bullying, all too infrequently realized, is what happens when the master is removed from the scene. Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.

To be honest, my learned colleagues who are researching and theorizing about work abuse haven’t exactly jumped on board with this concept, so perhaps I should heed the silence. However, I see the puppet master dynamic playing out in so many situations — including organizations and communities — that I’m still using the term. As I often do with this blog, I’d like to take a few minutes to share how my thinking about it has evolved, drawing on ideas and authors that I’ve discussed in previous posts.

Who are the players?

As I suggested in a post last year, it’s important to think about workplace bullying and mobbing in the context of human and organizational systems, whereby the following players play their roles:

Thus, a typical campaign of severe bullying or mobbing at work involves multiple players, including but hardly limited to:

  • The main aggressor(s);
  • The supervisor or boss of the main aggressor(s), in order to ratify and sometimes further the abuse;
  • On frequent occasion, peers recruited/pressured/incentivized to join in on the abuse;
  • Human resources personnel to bureaucratically process the abuse through review and discipline of the target;
  • Legal counsel to provide cover for the organization and sometimes direct additional intimidation toward the target.

This certainly applies to puppet master bullying. So let’s take a closer look at these players.

Chief abusers

Puppet master bullies are often pretty evil. Not only are they prone to treating others abusively, but also they are willing and able to enlist others to help do the job. The latter uses fear and intimidation, promises and incentives, or some combination of all.

When I envision the classic puppet master bully, I think of the opening to Dr. Martha Stout’s invaluable The Sociopath Next Door (2005):

Imagine — if you can — not having conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern for the well-being of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.

OK, I understand that not every workplace abuser is a genuine, clinically diagnosable sociopath. However, the key message of that passage seems to apply to so many people who mistreat or exploit others at work: They don’t have a conscience, or at least not much of one. In fact, in discussing with others the challenges of anticipating and responding to the hurtful actions of nasty, abusive employers, I often suggest: Think like a sociopath. Then you’ll get it. And so it is with comprehending many puppet master bullies.

The puppets: Foot soldiers, defenders, followers, and bystanders

Puppet master bullying necessarily involves the willing/coerced/incentivized participation of many others. In talking to bullying and mobbing targets, one of their most common, anguished laments runs along these lines: How could they have gone along with this? Don’t they have any sense of decency? They had to know this was terrible and unfair, and yet they went along or turned the other way.

It is on this note that I draw insights from philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt, whose writings on the nature of Nazi Germany help us to understand abuse in many other settings, including the workplace. Here’s what I wrote in 2014:

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

In puppet master bullying situations, the enlisted individuals typically go well beyond HR and the legal department. They are recruited from virtually any setting in which the target works and interacts with others. They are the puppet master’s everyday foot soldiers in conducting the bullying.

In addition, successful (I hate using that word in this context) puppet master bullying campaigns require co-employee bystanders who look the other way when they witness or otherwise become aware of the mistreatment. It’s a variation on see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. They may not be actively partaking in the bullying, but they’re not going to do anything about it either,

Target perceptions

Some may believe I’m exaggerating, but to be on the receiving end of puppet master bullying (or genuine mobbing) is to experience terrorism on the job. And that exactly is what many of the chief abusers want to convey. In either form, it looks and feels like a mob on the receiving end. As I wrote in my 2012 post on puppet master bullying:

From the standpoint of the target, the distinctions often matter little in terms of the experience of being on the receiving end. Whether it’s someone surgically directing or controlling her minions to bully an individual, or a true mob descending upon a lone target, it sure as heck feels like a mobbing.

For those studying these behaviors and trying to develop measures to curb them, however, the distinctions do matter. With puppet master bullying, removing the instigator(s) may be enough to stop the abusive behavior. With genuine mobbing, however, the remedy is even more difficult, because the emotional impetus to act has now infected an entire group.

In other words, with puppet master bullying, cutting the strings may be sufficient for the “puppets” to stop their onslaught of abuse. With genuine mobbing, however, the puppets are sufficiently enlisted to continue the mistreatment on their own.

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Obviously we have a lot more to learn about comprehending and responding to bullying and mobbing in the workplace. I hope this has been of some help to folks who are experiencing or trying to understand this particular sordid brand of psychological abuse at work.

Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

Ruminating, problem solving, and coping in the midst of work abuse

In an article recently published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (abstract here), researchers Abbas Firoozabadi, Sjir Uitdewilligen, and Fred R. H. Zijlstra pose their key question in the title: “Should you switch off or stay engaged? The consequences of thinking about work on the trajectory of psychological well-being over time.”

Basically, they wanted to explore how taking our jobs home with us affects psychological well-being, especially when it comes to how we deal with work-related problems. Their focus was the distinction between ruminating (in this context, repeatedly thinking about the negative emotional aspects of a work experience) vs. problem-solving (analyzing potential responses and solutions). As some readers can already see, this study has significant implications for those experiencing forms of bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work.

Study details and findings

As explained in the article abstract, the study was conducted with “123 participants with full-time and primarily mentally demanding jobs,” using the following methodology:

We conducted a 3-wave longitudinal study with a time lag of 6 months between each wave. At the first measurement moment, participants filled out a survey over 5 consecutive working days assessing work-related affective rumination and problem-solving pondering during evenings. Exhaustion and health complaints were assessed at the first measurement moment as well as after 6 and 12 months.

The researchers found:

The results showed that affective rumination is a significant predictor of increase in exhaustion over time. Problem-solving pondering was not found to be a significant predictor of change in psychological well-being over time. These findings demonstrate that work-related rumination during evenings may lead to health problems over time depending on the type of rumination. It suggests that unlike affective rumination, problem-solving pondering during evenings has no influence on psychological well-being over time.

Bottom line, slightly boiled down: Ruminating about work challenges will likely have negative health effects, while thinking about work challenges in problem-solving mode is a typically a break-even proposition in terms of health.

Applied to workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Over the past 20 years, I’ve heard or read hundreds of stories about severe work abuse. I’ve concluded that for targeted individuals, ruminating over these terrible experiences is one of the most common and debilitating thought patterns. It is a form of ongoing re-traumatization.

Researchers Firoozabadi, Uitdewilligen, and Zijlstra were not specifically studying the psychological health effects of bullying-related behaviors, but their research has significant implications for those who are experiencing work abuse. Their study results dovetail with what many have observed or experienced: Ruminating about workplace mistreatment can create and exacerbate health problems, while operating in problem-solving mode is less likely to have such impacts. In fact, the latter may even improve psychological well-being by injecting needed doses of hope and empowerment.

If one could easily flip the switch from rumination to problem-solving, well then, a lot of problems would be solved, right?! However, in many cases of work abuse, it’s more complicated than that, especially when psychological trauma enters the picture. All too often, trauma and rumination go hand-in-hand. Targets of work abuse often ruminate about what happened and how it has affected them. It’s harder for them to shift the focus toward potential responses and solutions.

This may very well be a neurological effect, not necessarily a personality trait. As research has found, traumatic experiences can cause the side of the brain governing emotions (the so-called right side) to go into hyper-active mode, while the side of the brain governing logic, communication, and decision making (the so-called left side) shuts down. As I’ve written before, this understanding helps to explain why many targets of work abuse ruminate about the experience of that abuse and its effects on their emotions, while finding it difficult to develop an ordered narrative of relevant events and engage in problem-solving.

(As a side note, I’ll offer some unscientific, indirect evidence of this dynamic, drawn from writing this blog since 2008: Blog posts on workplace bullying that validate the experiences of being abused at work tend to attract a lot more search engine hits and Facebook “likes” than those that are problem-solving or solution-oriented in nature.)

The ruins of rumination — and potential coping responses

In a 2010 Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Edward Selby provides a useful primer on rumination and its effects:

Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors, and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience (Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). Basically, rumination means that you continuously think about the various aspects of situations that are upsetting.

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What’s so bad about rumination though, it’s all about problem solving right? While it’s true that problem solving and planning are essential to overcoming a difficult problem, people who ruminate tend to take these activities too far and for too long. . . . Sometimes people will ruminate about the problem so much so that they never even develop a solution to the problem.

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The research is extremely consistent. People who ruminate are much more likely to develop problems with depression and anxiety, and those problems are hard to overcome for someone who fails to change ruminative thought patterns.

Fortunately Dr. Selby suggests how people break out of their cycles of rumination. He strongly recommends pursuing a genuinely enjoyable, distracting activity:

So how do you overcome rumination? Well have you ever heard the phrase, “get your mind off of the problem?” The answer is simple, to overcome rumination you need to engage in some kind of activity that fully occupies your mind and prevents your thoughts from drifting back to the problem.

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There are many activities that can be used to distract from rumination, and the best one to use is one that is personal for you. For example, some good activities include reading a book, playing a game, exercising, talking to a friend (but not about the problem!), or watching a movie. Of course you are only limited by your creativity and access to different activities. Importantly, you have to enjoy the behavior for it to work.

Losing one’s self in something good

Selby’s advice is congruent with pieces that I’ve written in this blog about the importance of immersive hobbies and pastimes, especially for those who are dealing with toxic work situations. In a 2015 blog post, “Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job,” I wrote:

For some, delving into a positive, engaging, and immersive activity may serve as a healthy alternative to ruminating over a terrible work situation. This may be in the form of a hobby, a personal project, an avocation, volunteer work, or creating a side business.

. . . Therapy or counseling, and mindfulness activities such as yoga or meditation, may be helpful for coping with bullying at work. In addition, consider the possibility of a meaningful, life-affirming endeavor in which you can lose yourself in a good way.

I emphasize words such as meaningful and immersive. I am well aware that this is not as simple as picking out a hobby or pastime from some random list. (In this context, “Why don’t you try collecting coins?” is about as helpful as “You need to get over it.”) Rather, it’s about connecting to a positive activity decoupled from work. It will not address the bullying itself, but it may well provide a safe and enjoyable space away from it.

In that post, I told a story about Dr. Shelley Lane, who was experiencing workplace bullying at a college where she had previously worked:

When Dr. Shelley Lane was experiencing severe bullying at the community college where she worked and recovering from foot surgery that limited her mobility, she retrieved the personal journals she wrote during a formative year spent studying abroad as a young undergraduate and turned them into a book project.

In the Preface to her eventually published study abroad memoir, A Stirling Diary: An Intercultural Story of Communication, Connection, and Coming-Of-Age (2010), she wrote:

Soon thereafter fate provided me with two reasons why I should read them [her personal journals] again: a new president at the community college where I worked who made Attila the Hun appear weak and timid, and foot surgery that had me in crutches for four months. I finally returned to the journals to keep my mind away from the workplace bully and to forget that I wasn’t easily mobile.

In Dr. Lane’s case, there were good outcomes on multiple levels. First, she left that college for a better job at a better school. Second, as I wrote last year, she would later author a book, “Understanding Incivility: Why Are They So Rude?,” for which I was privileged to write the Foreword.

Not the last word, but hopefully of help

Dear readers, this obviously isn’t the last word on rumination and how to deal with it, but I hope it is of assistance to those who are experiencing it. Moving from rumination to problem-solving can be an important step toward healing and recovery. May it be so for you if you are in this difficult place.

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Additional relevant posts

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely) (2016)

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times (2016)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

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

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