Coworkers from Hell

Difficult co-workers can make any job a source of stress. Yet, there are ways to manage workplace woes without jumping ship.

Reality and its Discontents: Anger, Rage and Workplace Violence

Women share with men the capacity to violently rebel against reality.

Violence and mass murder in the workplace is a growing problem here in America. The workplace has been especially hard hit by our rage epidemic, serving almost routinely as the gory staging ground for some disgruntled ex-employee, worker or customer's violent revenge. According to one sobering study of the single year 1992-93, more than two million workers were victims of physical violence in the workplace; over six million were threatened; and more than sixteen million employees were harassed at work. By some estimates, billions of dollars are being lost annually due to the negative impact of workplace violence on the morale, productivity and mental or physical health of American workers. The statistical fact that most mass murderers are men, and that men commit the vast majority of violent crimes, doesn't necessarily mean that women don't also have the capacity to kill. Women share with men the innate potentiality to violently rebel against reality.

Take, for one recent example, University of Alabama biology professor Dr. Amy Bishop, charged with shooting three of her colleagues to death and critically wounding at least two others. It seems from news reports that Bishop may have become enraged and embittered after learning last spring she would not receive the full tenure at the university to which she apparently felt entitled. It also appears, based on news accounts, that she may have had a prior murderous history. In 1986, when only nineteen, she "accidentally" killed her eighteen-year-old brother with a shotgun, but was never charged with a crime. And in 1993, she was reportedly investigated under suspicion of having attempted to kill or injure one of her Harvard professors by mailing him a package containing two pipe bombs. (See my prior post on the so-called Unabomber.) Her presumed motivation at that time had to do with the intended victim giving her a poor academic evaluation. But she was, again, cleared and never charged with the crime. Could gender have played some previous part in getting away with possible murderous behavior?

What drives someone like Bishop, a Harvard-trained neurobiologist, wife and mother of four, to allegedly commit such a violent crime? Biology? Neurology?  Stress? A much more likely culprit in such cases is embitterment, festering resentment, anger and narcissistic rage. (See my previous posts on pathological embitterment and anger disorders.) When subjective distortions regarding reality inevitably collide with objective reality (see my prior post on subjective and objective reality), frustration, anger, rage, aggression and sometimes violence ensue. Violent behavior is usually associated almost exclusively with being male.  We still find it especially difficult to imagine females as being equally capable of such evil deeds. Psychologist and criminologist Anne Campbell notes that "Maleness and aggression have become linked to the point where it is easy to forget about women's aggression." Campbell, whose research included interviewing women in both the U.S. and U.K., contends that women have different styles of perceiving and thinking about their own anger and rage than do men, and, therefore, tend to deal with it differently. She suggests in her book Men, Women, and Aggression (1993) that on the whole, women experience greater guilt and anxiety about their anger, causing them to suppress it more so than men.

Especially prone to inhibiting, concealing, denying or repressing their anger, women may be equally driven to violent behavior, but much more slowly than men. Indeed, most homicides committed by women are perpetrated against husbands or lovers, particularly those who have in reality physically (and emotionally) injured and abused them repeatedly over time. Perhaps surprisingly to some, national surveys of domestic violence indicate that women tend to assault their partners at close to the same frequency as men.  However, owing to their usually smaller stature and inferior physical strength compared to most men, women commonly are at a distinct disadvantage in such donnybrooks, and are more likely to be seriously injured--unless armed with some deadly weapon. Such domestic violence typically stems from frustration regarding discrepancies between conscious and unconscious fantasies, expectations or projections, and the reality of who the partner objectively is.

A person reputedly familiar with Bishop described her as someone unable "to deal with reality," who held an inflated or perhaps even grandiose view of her own talents. Narcissistic grandiosity can clash dramatically with reality, resulting in narcissistic rage, and, in some cases, violence. Strikingly, the alleged shooter, Dr. Bishop apparently claimed calmly upon being arrested and taken into custody that "It didn't happen. There's no way. They are still alive." This statement supposedly came from a woman who had just methodically emptied her gun into the heads of her co-workers. While no speculative diagnosis specific to Dr. Bishop would be appropriate here, a defendant accused of committing such a crime could be dissociative, narcissistic, sociopathic, post-traumatically embittered, paranoid or acutely psychotic, to mention but a few of the possibilities warranting consideration during forensic evaluation. Bishop's court-appointed attorney publicly stated he believes she suffers from "paranoid schizophrenia," a psychotic disorder. One way of conceptualizing psychosis is that it involves a distortion of reality due to finding reality as it is unacceptable. Denial is a powerful form of reality distortion, though a relatively mild distortion of reality when compared to, say, dissociative identity disorder or schizophrenia. (See my prior post on self-deception and the Casey Anthony case.)

A thorough forensic evaluation of such defendants will often reveal a latent borderline psychotic condition, underlying mood disorder, and/or some other well-disguised personality disorder. (See my prior posts on masked personality disorders.) Neurological deficits contributing to difficulties modulating frustration and aggression can also be a common component of the clinical picture in violent offenders of either sex. Such diagnostic findings (based in part, for example, on a defendant's history of poor impulse control, interpersonal difficulties, anger, rage and prior aggressive behavior) could come into play in such cases if and when a defense of diminished capacity or legal insanity are contemplated.








Coworkers from Hell