You’d be excused for thinking, on reading that headline, that I’m about to engage in some victim-blaming and shaming. Far from it. As a victim of workplace bullying myself I am intimately familiar with the devastation it causes. Putting it all on me, trying to make me the solely responsible party: that was exactly what my bully tried to do to me. Successfully, I might add – at least for a while. It’s what took me down. But as I’ve since learned in my own journey of healing and recovery: bullying is about us – but not in the way you may think.
It about you because a bully can’t bully you if it doesn’t feel like bullying to you. Say what? Let me say it this way. Bullying triggers our innate threat detection system. But if we don’t perceive the bullying as personally threatening, then we can see the aggressor’s behaviour for what it is – awful, mean, insensitive, aggressive, hurtful, manipulative or whatever – but not a threat to our sense of self and to our self-worth. Oh, make no mistake – that is exactly what the bully is targeting. They are absolutely trying to make it all about you. But when we truly know and believe that we are enough, then we can say “enough”. And learning how to do that: that’s the reason I coach!
It’s about them because there are three reasons why people bully and harass (see “Why the ‘Zero Tolerance’ approach doesn’t really work” written by Hadyn Olsen, a bullying expert and researcher. It’s a short, informative and helpful read – I highly recommend it). All three reasons come back to the bully’s own experiences and the story they are telling themselves about how they can get ahead in the world. Writes Olsen, those three reasons are:
And it’s about us, because our organizations and cultures at best tolerate, at worse actively encourage, bullying. Bullying will happen in any social system, because bullying reflects one of the constants of human nature. Given the right circumstances and incentives, any of us can be tempted to pursue our own agendas and needs regardless of the costs to others, and most especially where the costs to us of doing so are low or non-existent.
And so, there will always be bullies at work. Because most of our workplaces are structured to value individual performance and contribution over empathy, collaboration and team health and performance. Given this, there will always be benefits – at least in the short-term – to bullying. And the bully won’t even see themselves as being a bully. They will see themselves - and indeed be rewarded for being - a valuable, results-driven high-achieving performer, while their victims are “weak” and unable to compete or get with the program.
And our workplaces tolerate, support, and promote these very people because “leaders feel they can delegate power to those who will most likely further their own goals, regardless of the person’s questionable sense of values. Those whose ethics are unquestioned, but whose ability to deliver appears less certain, usually come out second best” writes Charles Kelly in his seminal, and still – sadly – highly relevant 1987 article about those who he calls “Destructive Achievers”.
And we are also part of the problem because all too often, if someone says they feel bullied, we accuse them of over-reacting, of being “too sensitive”, of “not understanding the situation”. We dismiss or diminish their experience. We ask them to examine how they contributed to the situation. We question their right to feel wronged. We may even actively distance ourselves from them. We may shun, ignore or exclude them because associating with them taints us by association. In short: we reinforce the very systems and cultures that allow bullying to happen in the first place.
There are many wonderful people working at the systems and organizational level to shine the light on this, and to work for change. And the systems change work is absolutely crucial. But it will be slow. And in the meantime what do we, who are in it, do now?
How I know how to tackle this head-on, in practical, impactful and immediate ways is to help people develop their own innate resilience, built on a rock-solid foundation of truly believing in themselves and knowing their worth. Doing the work to develop yourself, to develop your resilience – this is a radical act. And ultimately, I would argue, a subversive act. Because when a bully and system - them and us - cannot keep you down, you become unstoppable. And we need more of that in the world.
Bullies can only bully if we allow them to. No, this doesn’t mean we bring it on ourselves or deserve to bullied. Rather, the impact of bullying is amplified when we do not feel secure about ourselves or our worth. What would happen if we all collectively strengthened ourselves and really believed in our inherent worth? The bullies would still show up. And their behaviour would still be mean, nasty and hurtful. And we wouldn’t buy into their message. We would clearly be able to see their behaviour for what it is: about them, not about us – even as they try to make it all about us. When we have these skills – then our lives change radically, for then we have no fear of bullies and they lose their ability to shame us into submission.
Resilience is not armor or a thick-skin. It is like an energetic force field surrounding us – allowing only the good in, and burning up the bad on contact. We get to keep all our softness, our caring, our warmth, our sensitivity AND we get to not be so emotionally slimed or hijacked when other people’s behaviour is just awful. Resilience means we don’t take on their load; we don’t take on what they are trying to offload onto us. We can see their behaviour for exactly what it is: a tragic attempt to meet their needs in ways that, I truly believe, will ultimately undermine them.
So, that is why I do what I do. I’m a “self-worth activist”: I want to help people truly claim their worth – regardless of what has happened to them – because the world needs more compassion and empathy, not less. And it starts with us. It starts with being kind to ourselves, and building ourselves up from within. That is an act of radical power and transformative in its effects.
In praise of “Being Sensitive”: It’s not what’s wrong with us – it’s precisely what’s right with us.
When someone calls you “too sensitive”, there’s such a world of judgement there. That somehow you are weak, over-emotional, and take things too personally. And you’re supposed to be the one to toughen up.
And I’m happy to report: that’s complete BS.
And even happier to report that the research is now there to back up what so many of us have know in our hearts for a long time: sensitivity is not a curse, it is a blessing. A blessing with a healthy side of challenge, for sure, but still a blessing.
In Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown included these words from Viola Davis: ”They tell you to develop a thick skin so things don’t get to you. What they don’t tell you is that your thick skin will keep everything from getting out, too. Love, intimacy, vulnerability. I don’t want that. Thick skin doesn’t work anymore. I want to be transparent and translucent. For that to work, I won’t own other people’s shortcomings and criticisms. I won’t put what you say about me on my load (emphasis mine).”
Oh my gosh, those words. I won’t put what you say about me on my load. So incredibly powerful. I can’t express my thoughts on them any better than what another Brené Brown follower said about this: “And some people, perhaps most people, will continue saying the same things about you, sometimes for years on end. They’ll just repeat a narrative they hooked onto because it served them somehow at some point without ever learning a thing themselves from the tale they’re telling. Not once taking even a moment to consider that likely some revision is due. No revising is bad storytelling, dreadfully boring, and I refuse to subject myself to it.”
I love Glennon Melton Doyle’s phrase for us sensitive types: we are the canaries in the coal mine. It is our very sensitivity that alerts us, our families, our schools and our workplaces that something is wrong, something is not working. And it’s not us who are the problem – rather it is the toxic environments in which we find ourselves. Thought of like this, we’re huge assets in workplaces and on teams. We’re not “high maintenance drama dukes or queens”. We are the early warning system that can keep us all alive. Quite literally. Or spur us to greater levels of creativity and innovation.
And so when I read how new research is pointing to there being a very specific and positive reason as to why evolution has programmed in greater sensitivity for a portion of the population, I did a little internal happy dance. Because, yes, I geek out on this stuff.
Here’s the key concept, as summarized by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley in “What does it mean if your child is sensitive”.
“Why would nature design a subgroup of humans so sensitive to environmental conditions, compared to the more impervious majority? Boyce’s explanation, and that of a number of scientists, derives from the idea of “conditional adaptation”—that there are mechanisms in the human body (the epigenome, which regulates gene expression) monitoring specific aspects of the environment (e.g., nutrition or threat) that adjust our biological development so we have the best chance of surviving in the predicted environment. For the vast majority, average adjustments will suffice. But nature has reserved this special population who responds more nimbly in harsh conditions (hence their heightened reactivity), or makes more elegant contributions in placid and calm conditions (emphasis mine), as a way of hedging bets on human survival.”
That just sent shivers down my spine. Our “sensitivity”, our so-called weakness, is in fact an amazing asset for humanity.
But yeah, let’s face it. We also need to figure out how to function in a world that frankly doesn’t know what to do with our sensitivity and has low tolerance for it.
That’s where the skills of resilience, self-compassion, self-care, mindfulness and wholeheartedness come in. So that we can thrive – not just survive – and truly bring our amazing canary voices to the world.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.