Workplace bullying is a dehumanizing process that is all about power and control. It targets an employee’s character, dignity and integrity — not just as a professional, but as a human being. It is often the most traumatic experience someone has gone through.
To any threat, stress, or trauma there are five possible stress responses. These stress responses are innate. They are part of the wiring of our brain and nervous system and not something we have conscious control over. Which one gets activated is a function of both personal wiring, experience and context.
Everywhere one hears about the “fight, flight or freeze” response. But there are two more. And how these responses look in a workplace bullying situation is not what you might expect.
The Fight Stress Response
The fight stress response is an attempt to defend oneself against a threat. That might be literal physical aggression. But in the workplace physical aggression is a no-no.
So for targets the fight stress response might look like:
The fight stress response in targets is all about trying to achieve justice, set the record straight and clear their name.
Sadly, however, it all too often boomerangs. The more a target tries to fight back, the more the intimidation and retaliation ratchets up.
Contrary to what most people think, however, the fight response is typically a late stage stress response for targets. It is not their go-to (unlike for abrasive leaders). And by the time targets get to the fight response it is almost always too late for it to be effective. By that point the damage has been done. They are seen as the problem, and their fight response is just further evidence of that. They are the ones who are difficult to work with. They are the ones who are now too aggressive.
And if they take it all the way to complaints and/or legal action, their resources to fight are miniscule in comparison to that of the organization. They are already emotionally, mental and physically depleted from the bullying. Now they deplete themselves even further.
Almost without exception, targets who do manage to win their legal cases say they’re not sure it was worth it. It can take years, tens of thousands of dollars, and being subjected to relentless intimidation and retaliation, to win a legal battle. And the chances of winning it are very low in all but the most egregious cases.
If you do choose to fight back, be very clear eyed about what you are getting yourself into. And set some very clear “fight rules” around the amount of time — and money — you will allow yourself to spend fighting. And when then those are reached: stop. And walk away.
“Don’t make fighting the organization that mobbed you be your next career… Unequivocally, your organization is not worth this level of sacrifice.”
The Flight Stress Response
The flight stress response is an attempt to get away from the threat.
The flight stress response plays out in a number of ways in a workplace context — from low key and relatively passive, to more active.
At its lowest level the flight response looks like increased sick-leave, disengagement, hiding out, no longer attending office social gatherings, and generally just trying to keep a low profile and make oneself as small, insignificant and unthreatening as possible.
Sadly, most targets don’t take this as their cue to immediately start looking for another job. And that’s because they’re usually still working under the (mistaken) belief that they must be doing something to cause this. And if they can just <insert whatever>, they can get it to stop. They’re bewildered and confused by what’s going on. They’re being told they’re the problem, they believe that there must be some basis for the feedback, and so they keep trying to *fix* it.
At some point the accumulated stress pushes them to start actively looking for a job, outright quitting even without another job in hand, or going out on extended sick leave. These are active forms of the flight response.
The most tragic — and ultimate — form of the flight stress response is suicide.
Decades of research reveals a clear — and terribly sad — pattern: most targets do not get out soon enough. Many endure months and months, some even years, of bullying — at profound cost to their mental, physical and emotional health. For targets, fleeing seems like giving up, like letting the organization get away with it; it feels grossly unjust that they are the ones who need to leave — not the ones being psychologically aggressive. And so they stay. For far too long. And at profound cost to their well-being.
The Freeze Stress Response
When it is not safe to fight, nor can one escape a threat, then the brain and nervous system will automatically activate the freeze response. In the trauma world, it is well understood that freeze stress responses often lead to far worse levels of traumatization and PTSD.
A person in a freeze response looks outwardly passive and immobile. Their muscles are tight and the expression on their face might be confused for being sullen and impassive. Their eyes can appear glazed over. They might be accused of glaring — when actually they’re terrified.
Inwardly, however, they are in a highly activated state of extreme distress.
In the workplace context, freeze happens when neither fighting back nor quitting are seen as viable options. It is the freeze state that keeps targets in a state of profound distress for far too long. The freeze state is accompanied by an overwhelming sense of powerlessness, despair and dread. Just the thought of going into the office is enough to bring on panic attacks. They are in a state of extreme internal psychological distress — and unable to take outward action to end the bullying.
Targets in a state of freeze need urgent social and professional support.
And, tragically, they all too often do not get it.
Well-meaning people — uninformed about workplace bullying, trauma and trauma responses — urge them to fight back or to leave. Not understanding that if they could, they would. When the target continues to be paralyzed, unable to take action or make a decision — even the most well meaning of family members and friends can get frustrated and lose their patience.
However, in a freeze response the body is ready to return to flight or fight once the threat passes. So, when a target is in a state of freeze, they need professional help to get them to a place of safety (i.e. not the workplace) for long enough so that they can start to bring one of the other stress responses back online and start the healing and recovery process.
This is still going to take time — and bucket loads of support — to recover from. And recovery is totally possible — with the right support.
Here is an example of a freeze response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Flop Stress Response
For animals, when the predator does not move away after the “feigned death” of the freeze response, they might move into a “flop” response. Where the freeze state is “scared stiff”, in the flop response muscles become limp, heart rate and breathing slow down, endorphins are released and the animal enters a state of “no pain”. They are no longer aware of their surroundings.
For humans, flop happens when the trauma is inescapable. When the freeze goes on for too long. This is a state of deep clinical depression. Of complete physical collapse. The brain disassociates from the world — and from the rest of the body.
Clearly at this point the target is no state to work at all. It may take many months for targets to recover from this level of collapse. And…recovery is absolutely possible. Indeed, anecdotally, it sometimes seems that the harder the fall, the higher the rise after — in a phenomenon called “post traumatic growth”.
Here is an example of a flop response in an animal. While the animal survives please do not watch this if it may be too upsetting for you.
The Friend Stress Response
The “friend” stress response is perhaps the hardest of all to understand.
Human beings (like many other mammals) are social animals. When under a state of stress, one of the first things we will do is look for social support and to engage in self-soothing behaviours.
It it fascinating to watch this stress response in action. The other day a dog chased one of our cats up a tree. When we got her down (that’s another story) and got her into the house, she immediately set to washing herself. That is the “tend and befriend” a.k.a “friend” stress response in action.
When a stressed mouse in a lab is allowed to return to other mice, they immediately set to grooming each other. And the stressed mouse rapidly calms down. If the mouse is unable to return to other mice, the stressed mouse stays in a state of stress and agitation for far longer. Researchers dub this “fight, flight, freeze or groom” — and it happens in just about all social species in some form or another.
We can see this stress response in babies and young children: whenever they are hurt or stressed they immediately cry out and look for help.
Kelly McGonigal talks about this in her wonderful TED Talk — How to Make Stress Your Friend.
And we see this response in children of abusive parents, partners in an abusive relationship, and people who are the victims of rape, taken hostage etc. When one is with an aggressor one cannot escape and cannot fight it is a highly evolutionarily adaptive response to try to mollify and appease the aggressor, to preemptively attempt to calm the abuser by agreeing, answering what they know the abuser wants to hear, or by ignoring their own personal feelings and desires and doing anything and everything to prevent the abuse.
So when the threat is coming from a boss or a co-worker, one of the most common stress responses will be to try to appease them.
Being a pleaser is a stress response.
And with bullying it works — for a while. But then it makes it worse. Bullying always follows a test-then-escalate model. So when the target doesn’t push back, but rather submits and seeks to appease (the friend stress response), the aggressor knows they can continue with the aggression. So they do.
When you pair someone who tends to default to the friend (a.k.a. fawn) stress response due to their own wiring, life experience and context, with someone who tends to default to the fight stress response (the abrasive person who responds to any perceived threat to their ego with aggression — overt or passive): bingo — you have bullying in the making. And a dangerous cycle has also kicked off: with the aggressor demanding more and more, and the target becoming less and less able to combat it. Even when the aggressor and the target might have started off with roughly equal power, it is this dynamic that so quickly leads to the power and control imbalance that is one of the hallmarks of bullying.
One of the most tragic parts of bullying is as it continues and escalates, the target comes to be seen as more and more tainted and damaged goods at work, and paranoid at home. Other people start to avoid them. At precisely the time when targets need more social support, it is less and less available to them.
One of my main jobs as a trauma-informed coach who specializes in workplace bullying is to get targets to activate that friend response towards themselves. Targets tend to believe that there’s something wrong with them (there’s not). They tend to assume way too much responsibility for what has happened to them. (Abrasive leaders, of course, have the exact opposite challenge — they take on too little responsibility for their actions). So my number one job as a coach is get them to stop fighting themselves and beating themselves up and start “friending” themselves instead. FYI, exactly the same is true when I’m coaching abrasive people: getting them to actually “friend” themselves and tune into their own stress — rather than taking it out on others.
Sadly, by the time targets get to me they have often been in a state of freeze for so long that even making the decision to do anything for themselves feels too hard or too scary. It breaks my heart when this happens. The single best thing targets can do is to start to fight for themselves — not against the circumstances. Targets need to externalize the cause (i.e. they did not cause this and they are not to blame) but internalize the solution (i.e. stop waiting for others to “fix” this for them and really start being their own strongest friend, ally and advocate.)
If someone you know and love is in this situation, please show them this article. Please help them understand the stress responses. All are adaptive. All are completely understandable. But there’s only one that leads to true recovery and sustained well-being thereafter: learning to activate our “friend” stress response — where we become our own best friend.
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.
When I’m running a resilience workshop I teach the concepts of “post-traumatic growth” and being “resilience-informed”, not just “trauma-informed”. The basic idea is that we are more than what has happened to us. We all found ways to cope – no matter what happened to us. We may have found better or worse ways to cope, but cope we did – because here we are.
For myself, feeling isolated in a privileged all-girls school, I learned to rely on academic performance to prove myself, to cope. And this carried over into my professional life. For others, our coping strategy may have been to shut down emotion, or to learn not to care, or to drive ourselves ever harder to “be perfect”. We developed those coping strategies because we learned and grew from our experiences. From bullying at school: don’t show weakness. From feeling isolated and excluded: don’t show them that you care. From harsh criticism on our performance: work harder, work longer. Our strategies emerged from our strengths: our willpower, our capacity for work, our creativity, our sensitivity.
And everything I have learned since that awful moment in 2017, about how we can use those same strengths to develop skills that are more adapted to the life we are in now – rather than the life we were in then – got beautifully amplified last night, when I attended a community screening and discussion of the movie Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope.
The cinema theater was full. There must have been at least 150 of us or so. We were from all walks of life: law enforcement, recovery, the school system, universities, mental health professionals, medical professionals, faith leaders and ordinary citizens and people. We were all there to embody the basic tenant of movie, and the research it is based on: “If you can get the science [about trauma and resilience] into the hands of the population, they will invent very wise solutions”.
And we are. We so are.
Here, in my community, we have started a community-wide campaign called “Be The One”. The idea is so simple. And so transformative. It is that we can all “be the one” person who shows up in someone’s life to be of support and strength. In small tiny moments, or in big moments. We don’t need to be mental health professionals, we don’t need to be therapists or coaches or teachers or educators or priests. We just need to be ourselves. We just need to care and be kind. And includes ourselves, for sometimes the one person we need to show up for, care about and be kind to is us.
A few weeks ago on a Friday I gave a talk on resilience and my own experiences. I didn’t feel that I did good job, and the shame gremlins came calling and camped out over the weekend. For the first time in a very long time they had me up at 4am in the morning. By Monday morning I had what I call my “vulnerability hangover”.
At this point I relied 100% on my training and the research: self-compassion is the way, not self-criticism. And compassion is an infinite and renewable resource. We do not need to ration our care and empathy and compassion – to ourselves, or to others. No matter what we have or have not done. The more empathy and compassion and care we give to ourselves and to others, the more we have to give. And the more courage we have to pick-ourselves up and keep on going.
So as I came into that Monday with client calls, I just kept on telling myself “Compassion, Sue, compassion. Be kind to yourself. Be very, very kind to yourself”. I reached out to my “ones” – some dear friends and fellow coaches. And I got through that Monday. I was there for my clients - compassionately, kindly. And the shame gremlins and vulnerability hangover started to fade.
One of the audience questions last night was: “What can we, who are not medical or helping professionals do?” The answer came back very simply: care about others, believe in their competence, know they are capable of change and growth. One of the panelists called it the three Cs: caring, competence, capability. Believe in the resilience of people. Don’t think of them as broken and needing fixing. Believe in their innate competence. Believe that they are capable of learning and growing from any experience. And do so in a kind and caring manner. In short, be “resilience-informed” and be kind.
And those three Cs are in SUCH short supply in the workplace these days. I lived it in in 2017. I hear it everyday from my clients, as they try to navigate harsh criticism, uncaring bosses, difficult colleagues and their own gremlins. They are beating themselves up so much over workplaces that are beating them up. They think they are to blame, that they are at fault. No, no, no! They are just trying to do the best they can, using the coping strategies that they learned decades ago as they navigated childhood and early adulthood. They are survivors and fighters – not failures, not weak. And when they realize that, and tap into that, I just stand back in awe and wonder and watch them take flight. It is one of the most rewarding things in the world.
And so here’s my question to you: Will you Be The One? Will you be the one to be kind to yourself? Will you be the one to care about a colleague and reach out to them? Will you be the one to take a moment to truly see someone, and see them for the perfectly imperfect human being they are, not just a colleague who frustrates you, a boss who you fear, or a direct report you despair of?
It doesn’t take any special kind of training. It doesn’t take any super-hero skills. It’s just takes you saying “Yes, I will be the one”. And then letting the magic of compassion happen.
Towards a trauma-informed coaching model
The first time I heard the American phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” I registered it's meaning, but didn’t connect with it much. I heard it a few times over the years, and each time I became a little more skeptical of it. But I wasn’t quite sure why.
It was after the birth of our son, when I had had an emergency C-section and a man remarked “Well, healthy baby, that’s the important thing,” that I started to have a glimpse into what bothered me about this phrase. Yes, the C-section was necessary. Yes, it meant we had a healthy baby. But no, that didn’t mean I still didn’t have some pretty strong emotions about having had a C-section. Well intentioned through the man’s comments were, implicit in them was that my experience, my suffering, my feelings didn’t really matter. I had now become a mother - and therefore secondary. It was the baby that counted. “But what about me?” my insides screamed as I smiled kindly at the man.
After everything fell apart at work in 2017, and I collapsed entirely from the re-triggering of my PTSD, I tried out a few coaches. One of them asked me to make a list of reasons why what was happening could be a good thing. Now, one of the axioms in coaching is that "in life there are no challenges or problems, there are only opportunities". Intellectually I can get that. But emotionally - and especially when dealing with trauma and traumatic events - that philosophy can be not only decidedly unhelpful, it can be downright dangerous.
What I have learned from my own healing, research, and practice is that it is imperative that a person’s pain and suffering is acknowledge and validated FIRST. Yes, eventually - it may take hours, days, weeks or months, depending on the degree of pain, suffering or trauma - they will be at a place to start asking the question “how could I turn this awful experience into an opportunity”. But to ask that question of them too soon is to essentially dismiss their emotions and in so doing add to their suffering.
And that is why you will never hear me use the phrase “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Or similar. A trauma-informed approach to coaching is based on recognizing that overwhelming psychological experiences rob us of our ability to access our rational brains. We HAVE to feel emotionally safe first before we can begin to do any of the other processing and healing. Emotional safety is the exact thing that traumatic experiences steal from us.
When, during coach training, I pushed back against the concept that “in life there are no problems, or challenges, there are only opportunities”, explaining my reasoning, the trainer thought for a while then posed “a lemon is a lemon, it’s nature is to be sour, it’s not the lemon’s fault, right?”.
Sorta. But not quite.
This gets closer towards acknowledging and validating that the pain just is - it’s the inherent consequence of experiencing traumatic events. But it’s still not quite validating that one of the worst aspects of trauma is that the victim so often feels that they were in someway responsible for it. “If only they had…," they can't stop themselves from wondering.
In my case, a very large part of my workplace trauma was I was being directly told, in the most cold-hearted way imaginable, that I was solely and directly responsible for EVERYTHING. If the team was having challenges, it was me. If there was negative reaction, it was me. If people were feeling overwhelmed, it was me. If people disagreed on the best strategy, it was me. Rationally, of course it couldn't possible be all me. But in trauma there was no way I could access that thought. I was a failure, I was cursed, I could not do anything right.
This is what I call the secondary trauma. And in some cases it is worse than the primary trauma. If I had been emotionally resilient going in, that feedback would still have been intensely painful and quite possibly devastating. But precisely because what we were working on was a big innovative project that was pushing everyone’s comfort levels and the stress was building, my emotional resilience was way down. So I fully bought in - for a while - that it was all me. That I was the problem. That I had to “fix me”. And that compounded the traumatic nature of the experience.
“I had brought this on myself”, was the story I was telling myself.
Yes, no and maybe.
Certainly I had some degree of responsibility. Was it 100%? No, no and no. But it took me weeks and some very intensive therapy to get that point emotionally. And I emphasize the emotional part because it is the emotional part of the brain that drives trauma. Our rational brain is literally “off-line” during traumatic experiences. Our older, reptilian brain takes over during times of threat and danger - it has too, it is what it is designed to do - to keep us safe. And while my life was not in physical danger, the brain doesn’t actually distinguish between threats to one’s physical self and threats to one’s sense of self. To the brain they are one and the same thing. And so until I could start to feel emotionally safe again, with people who truly cared for me, and who were trained in trauma and were gentle and compassionate and moving very very slowly and gently with me, there was simply no way I could start to do any of the work of parsing out what I was responsible for and what I was not responsible for.
Once I got there, it was crystal clear that in no way was I 100% responsible. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of people I worked with had nothing BUT positive things to say about me! So then I was left with the incredibly hard, devastating and painful fact that for reasons I couldn’t fully understand, I was being deliberately targeted because somewhere, somehow, a few people didn’t feel safe with me. Was that solely my fault? Or did they have a role to play too? Of course they did! But what I’ve learned since then is that people will do just about anything to discharge their emotional pain onto others, to blame or shame others as a way to deal with their own issues, rather than accept responsibility for their own feelings.
And so that is why that request from a potential coach to “Imagine there's a panel of angels (or whatevers) who custom-made the perfect spiritual challenge for you to support you in developing whatever muscles most need it. How is this situation perfect?” came at the wrong time.
Yes, a year and a half later, now I can see this whole experience as a gift. It was most definitely a gift I didn’t want, or ask for. It was a very very painful, devastating and hurtful gift at the time. But by doing the work with an amazing, supportive team who really understood trauma, I do now see it as a gift - the full measure of which I am continuing to discover every day.
And so that is why I will never say to someone “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. I will never ask you to just to accept that it is the nature of a lemon to be sour and bitter. And I will never ask you to question if it is indeed, a lemon at all. Because when you get to the point - with me, or with someone else - of feeling emotionally safe because your pain and hurt is totally acknowledged and validated - then and only then will you be ready to ask the question yourself. I won’t need to. YOU will be the one to ask it.
And then slowly, safely, and in a very gentle and compassionate way, I can support you on the journey of writing your own story about how you are going to define for yourself the meaning of what has happened. Meaning that empowers you. Meaning that gives you great confidence and a deep, sure sense of your value and self-worth.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.