One day my cell phone rang. I answered it, and heard heavy breathing on the other end, but no words. “Hello?” I said again, giving the caller one last chance before I hung up. A barrage of incomprehensible syllables exploded into the telephone. I couldn’t make out a single sentence, as fragments of sounds struggled to make themselves heard between sobs and confusion. Most anyone else would have assumed it was a prank call. But I’d received these calls before, and made many of my own when I, too, was desperate for someone to help me.
“Slow down,” I said to the caller who still hadn’t said a comprehensible thing. “Let me guess. You’re being mobbed.”
“Yes!” came the relieved reply. And the caller began to explain what was happening to her at work, and her frantic efforts to make it stop.
Workplace mobbing is a horrible experience that no one should have to endure. But it can become a reality for any worker who has ever blown a whistle, filed a report of harassment or misconduct, or gone against the interests of an aggressive manager who enjoys punishing his or her perceived rivals. Even for workers who have not taken any action that would put management on the defensive, mobbing may commence if a coworker in a position of influence persuades management they have a “difficult employee” on their hands. Once management takes aim, anyone who is targeted may find themselves reduced to desperate babbling. Mobbing is an emotional and social onslaught that few can withstand once commenced.
Before a mobbing target can effectively respond to this onslaught, they must control the emotional flooding that mobbing produces. There are four reasons why it is imperative that to do so. First, emotional flooding can be deadly. Anytime we are emotionally overwhelmed, we are prone to stress-related illnesses. It is not unusual for mobbing targets to suffer heart attacks or strokes, or even to commit suicide or in rare cases, kill their tormenters. Second, emotional flooding confuses us, making it difficult to concentrate and get our work done. When our coworkers and managers are out to get us, becoming an unproductive worker is hardly in our best interests. A mobbing target must work extra hard to avoid any perception they cannot do their job, and do it well.
Third, it is impossible to effectively respond to aggressive attacks and escape the mob (by getting a new job, for example), if one does not have control of their emotions. And finally, anyone who is emotionally overwhelmed is a drag to be around—the mobbing target almost always finds themselves alienating their support system at the time they need it most because they are constantly babbling about how awful their situation is and how furious and depressed they are. No one can withstand hearing that for very long before they’re ready to run for their lives from the pitiful friend they wish that they could help but would rather just escape.
To control emotional flooding from mobbing, understand that there are three primary emotions that mobbing provokes: anger, fear and sadness. Each of these emotions is experienced as a range of feelings. Unchecked anger turns to fury and rage; unchecked fear turns to paranoia; and untreated sadness turns to anguish and serious depression. All of these emotions are normal and natural responses to threats to our survival, but they become maladaptive when they are not controlled. To control the emotions associated with mobbing, here are a few steps a mobbing target can take to gain greater control of their emotions when they are under group attack.
Control Your Thinking No one ever says, “The more I thought about it, the less important it became.” The more we think about anything, the bigger it becomes in our minds, so we must first control our thoughts before we can control our emotions. Every time we think about an emotionally-provocative event, we relive it. Our brain does not distinguish between the real event and the memory of the event, or even the fantasy of the event. When intrusive thoughts enter our minds, it is imperative to break the cycle. Creating a verbal command, such as “No!,” “Stop!,” “Get Out!” or any other short but forceful command, accompanied by a visual image of kicking, pushing, or blowing the thought right out of our heads, will eventually—if repeated consistently—interrupt the repetitive thinking that causes the mobbing target to fume and relive the attacks. Control your thoughts, no matter how justified and accurate your thoughts might be.
Diminish the Power of the Thoughts Closely aligned with intrusive thinking is the power that we give to the thoughts that enter our minds. To counter this power, every time an angry or fearful thought enters your mind, cripple it with absurdity. Choose an utterly ridiculous nonsensical sound, word or sentence to silently scream to yourself the moment a powerful but negative thought enters your mind. The more ridiculous, the better, because the idea is to abruptly cut off the thought before it takes form, and shift the mind from the serious to the silly. It will require constant repetition before it is effective, but if every time you think about how much you hate your attackers, you instantly scream to yourself something silly, the hatred will lose its power—and so, too, will your attackers. It does not mean that the attacks are silly—far from it—but it means that you have the ability to control your responses to the attacks, and therefore, a greater chance to survive them.
Focus on Your Body Mobbing takes a huge physical toll on a target, and as bodies are weakened, so too are minds. Moreover, emotions are accompanied by strong physiological responses, and by controlling those responses, we can control our emotions. Exercise, no matter how much you’d rather not. Join a gym, take up running, martial arts or ballroom dancing, but get yourself moving. Focus on strength training, to feel emotionally stronger. If you begin to feel depressed, stand up, check your posture to be sure it is erect, walk, even if you only walk across the room (avoid walking to the refrigerator; overeating won’t help!). But by moving our bodies, our minds will follow.
Focus on Your Physiology When we become aroused, our bodies enter the “flight or fight” mode and respond physiologically. Our faces and/or ears redden, our hands shake, our mouths snarl or slacken in defeat, our fists clench, our postures become rigid, and we begin to sweat. By paying attention to our personal physiological responses, we can learn to control them, and the emotions and thoughts that trigger them. Techniques that help slow our heartbeats and respiration include biofeedback, meditation, exercise (again!), and humor.
Seek Laughter I can’t stress enough how important humor is to surviving any trauma. Immerse yourself in comedy, in small and larger doses. Watch a three minute YouTube video clip of standup comedy, listen to Pandora’s comedy station, watch old sitcoms, new comedies, read funny books. Seek out humor everywhere, and do it often.
Shift the Emotion When an emotion is overtaking you, identify the emotion (I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m scared, I’m confused, etc.) and ask, what do I want to feel? Happy, secure, at peace, etc. Then ask yourself, what is one small thing that I can do to get there? The key thing is that the step be small—anything big is not likely to happen, and it becomes just one more damned thing you have to do at a time you’re overwhelmed. But a small thing might be, watch that three minute funny video, wash the dishes, put on your favorite shirt, walk the dog. But do it. And know that it alone is not likely to change your emotions. But it is a small shift, and if done again, and again, it can begin to shift your emotions and give you a greater sense of control than if you simply let your emotions simmer on their own.
Check Your Meds If you are taking any psychotropic, especially anything for attention deficit disorder, it may intensify your anxiety. Check with your doctor and if at all possible, do not take any medication that has anxiety, rage, depression or suicidal thoughts as side effects. You may benefit from anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication, but again, check with your physician and remember that having a bottle of tranquilizers on hand is not a good idea if you are feeling at all suicidal. If you live in a state where medical marijuana is legal, and are comfortable taking it, that may be the safest form of medicating your anxiety, but if you are heading for litigation and/or subjected to drug testing, it will work against you. And if you drink, be sure you are not drinking too much. Even the most moderate drinker can find themselves self-medicating with alcohol when they are being mobbed.
Avoid Writing About It You’re going to need to write some things down, particularly if you find yourself in litigation or internal investigations. But journaling, sending long-winded emails, or engaging in anti-bullying forums or blogs that encourage being angry, are usually not helpful. Every time you write down what has happened to you and how you feel about it, you give it greater power and emotionally relive the attack. Record what is necessary for your legal strategy, but otherwise do your best to avoid writing about your experiences and what was done to you, until you are at an emotional and physical distance from the mob. If you are prone to writing, by all means, write about it. But not until you are in an emotionally and professionally safe space for doing so.
Moreover, because mobbing entails a series of investigations, reports, and other professional tactics designed to make you respond, your responses must be as void of emotion and detail as possible. The mobbing target tends to believe that the more facts they present, the more obvious it will be that they’ve been wronged. Yet ironically, the more facts that are presented that demonstrate unfairness, the more likely they will be rejected. People like to view themselves as acting morally, so when we are presented with evidence demonstrating otherwise, we tend to dig in our heals and become adamant we are right. A mobbing management will thus become more aggressive, the more evidence is provided that they are acting badly.
At the same time, the more the target responds in exhaustive detail, the crazier they appear. If you cannot keep your responses clear and concise, get someone else to write them, such as an attorney (preferably writing under your name; once an attorney publicly appears the mobbing will worsen), or a trusted and educated family member or friend. And remember, anything written on company computers or email accounts will be read by management. Do not take to the keyboard when being mobbed—retreat! Write less, not more.
There are many more techniques and strategies that mobbing targets can take to control the emotional flooding, but these few tips are a start. Controlling emotional flooding does not mean that there is no reason to feel the emotion—when under collective attack, there is every reason to be furious, depressed and afraid. But before you can effectively respond to, much less survive mobbing, you must be able to control your emotional responses. Start with controlling your thinking, follow by controlling your body, and you will find yourself gaining greater emotional control to survive the painful wounds of workplace mobbing. It’s not the only solution, but it is a critical one for anyone under collective attack.