Bullies at Work
When people are in fight/ flight/ freeze, they don’t have reliable access to higher level brain development. Driven by competition, fear and survival, it’s “us against them”. We can know these are trauma responses, yet still have a hard time staying connected and not shutting down. We need clarity and to be strategic.
I’ve had enough. I hate that people act the way they do. Why does it have to be a competition?
I just want to be happy and enjoy myself. Why can’t we get along and focus on our work?
I want my workplace to be fair. Why does my manager let that slacker get away with it?
This isn’t healthy for me. What are my options?
Someone in a fight response is scary. They can blow their top, say mean things, and make us feel bad. Lashing out when emotionally flooded is very different from appropriately expressing anger. Someone else’s anger or bullying at work is unwelcome and is activating to our nervous system.
People walk on eggshells around people who are explosive. It harms everyone involved, including the person who isn’t emotionally regulated at work. No one is productive when we’re in fight/ flight/ freeze mode.
When someone with power over you is angry at you, what happens inside you? Are you afraid of their anger?
Are you afraid of feeling or expressing your own anger? What would happen if you let yourself fully feel your anger? Or if you ever let it out?
If you weren’t allowed to feel or express anger as a child, do you still preemptively control yourself to avoid feeling or expressing legitimate anger?
How do your childhood experience and strategies play out at work? We might be emotionally flashed back to the way we felt as a child.
Once you’re regulated again (this might be later after you’re out of the situation), assess what happened. Is this a regular occurrence? Is the person doing this your manager, colleague, or subordinate? What is your history with this person with anger? If you have a history of being the target of someone’s anger in the past, you will be more affected by the current situation. It will feel more threatening.
Notice if thinking about it puts you back into a fight, flight or freeze response. Use the slow motion walk through to self-regulate and bring yourself back to the present moment.
People are predictable. If someone has blown up at the office before, they likely will again. Bringing some possible scenarios to mind helps us to see ahead of time what might throw us off track. This inquiry is not the same as catastrophic thinking, where we go into a hole of worst case thinking. When we prepare this way while staying emotionally self-regulated, we won’t be as hijacked or reactive if it happens again. Anger in the workplace feels like a threat. When we work with images and sensations ahead of time, it helps us to stay steady and take appropriate action.
For the rehearsal, you can use an example when you were the target or when you witnessed bullying. You can also use an example from your personal life.
Who are the major players in the scenario and how are they/we likely to react?
Pause, assess and self-regulate at each step. Begin with softening your back body. Let your shoulders release. Take a few deep breaths. Look around the room you are in now for cues of safety. Use some of the tools to relax. https://lynnfraserstillpoint.com/emergency-practice/
Visualize yourself just before the altercation began. Were you seated with several others? Were you bored or engaged? Were you sensing trouble coming? What was your posture?
See yourself in the picture. Do you look at ease, tense, or afraid? By seeing ourselves in the picture, instead of looking at the scene out of our own eyes, it helps us remember we are looking at an image. We’re not actually there.
Notice changes in your body as you look at that image of yourself before the blow up. Did you start holding your breath? Tighten your shoulders or clench your teeth? Pause here and regulate — tap on your forehead, box breathing, long exhales, hold your own hand, etc. Once you’re feeling relaxed and breathing smoothly again, visualize the next step.
The aggressor’s voice gets louder with a hard edge. Your colleagues are shifting in their seats, looking away. The person stands up, pointing their finger at you.
Bring to mind what happened next. It might be words, the tone of voice, or the look on their face. Take some time here. Tap on your forehead, bring your attention away from the image, and to the sound and sensation of the tapping.
Bring up the mental image, put it in a frame on the wall, and take your eyes around the empty space on the outside of the frame a few times in each direction. Stand up and shake it out. Do box breathing or long exhales. Walk yourself slowly through the event, keeping yourself regulated. If you feel emotionally flooded, take a break and come back to it later. For intense situations, we may need to do this in smaller chunks or with someone to help you stay aware of your safety in the present moment.
Once you’re feeling relaxed and breathing smoothly again, bring the same images into the frame. Repeat tapping, tracing etc until your response is less intense.
We use experience from the past to predict safety in the present. If we’ve experienced a demeaning boss in the past, we’ll be sensitized to the threat of it happening again. If our ideas were scorned as stupid when we were a child, we’ll be reluctant to speak up. Our system is warning us to play safe.
You decide to speak up. If this is a current and recurrent work situation, practice until you can make it through in relative calm.
There are many options to address the situation. You might go to HR or your supervisor, see a therapist, or talk with a trusted mentor. You might decide to meet with your boss privately, or bring an HR or union rep with you. There are real risks to our career when we confront a boss, and there are real risks to our mental health when we don’t.
Come back to the rehearsal. There they go again in the meeting, making you feel stupid. Your boss finishes yelling and gestures impatiently for your response. You take a deep breath, stand, and look them in the eye. What might you say that is both assertive and polite?
We spoke about this privately after the last time you yelled at me in a meeting. I told you then that you need to stop yelling and talk to me with respect. Are you able to do that?
I won’t listen when you talk to me with contempt. Rephrase the question please. What is it you want to know?
I won’t sit here while you yell at me. I’m taking a break (and leave).
Do the dress rehearsal, practicing self-regulating at each step. Memories of a parent or past boss might come up. Work with them in the somatic mindfulness inquiry, until the intensity reduces and you’re able to come back to the present situation.
There are no right answers when we’re in this dilemma. We decide and try it.
Upstander or Bystander: When Someone Else is the Target
We all experience the threat. Our nervous system reacts. We feel for the person being yelled at and we’re also afraid. Will the bully turn on us if we do nothing? Almost certainly they will if we speak up.
Where are you on the ladder of fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn? You might be angry on the person’s behalf. You likely wish you weren’t there (flight). You might be sitting frozen in your chair, overwhelmed and barely breathing.
The first thing is to regulate our own nervous system. Secretly do box breathing. Do the 5 4 3 2 1 senses practice. Hold your own hand. Connect visually with your allies.
If we’re seated next to the person being targeted, we could move a bit closer, touch their arm or shoulder. We could try to catch their eye so they know they’re not alone.
After, we could speak (on or off the record) with our manager or HR about the incident.
We could let the person know we feel it was unfair, and offer emotional support. This also helps reduce the shame they feel. There are consequences when we speak up and when we don’t. Each situation is different. We need to be emotionally well regulated when we make decisions about our approach. The health of our work environment is important to us, and impacts our whole life.
There are no right answers when we’re in this dilemma. Assess the situation when you are calm, and come up with some short and long term strategies:
Learn more about bullying in general and in the workplace
Learn more and practice reliable regulating tools using sight, touch, breath and movement
Set smaller boundaries at home and work to increase your confidence
Establish that you are not an easy target by paying attention to the dynamics at play and speaking up early
Understand and work with healing your past experiences with anger
Look for allies and establish support systems
Come back to noticing you are safe in this moment: breathe deeply, relax your body, clear your mind. Say to yourself:
Making a mistake does not make me a mistake
It’s not personal, I am not unworthy
I am an adult now and can protect myself in many ways
I notice when I feel shame, an inner critic attack, or powerlessness
I move into self-compassion
I am strong enough to support and care for myself
I commit to seeing clearly, loving myself, and being on my own side
We bring our nervous systems to work. Some people are calm, emotionally regulated, and fun to work with. Some are more easily dysregulated, and are tense and anxious. Others lash out and abuse their authority. In the short term, we don’t control who we work with. Longer term, we can accurately assess the situation and take action.
Join us in our community class Sunday 10AM Eastern or Insight Timer Live at 11:30AM. In our community class at 10AM, we inquire then break into smaller groups to explore together. Links here.