Over the years in our clinic we’ve worked with numerous clients who have experienced workplace bullying. But recently we’ve noted a disturbing upswing in the number of bullying cases – especially between women! While some consider bullying to be a "natural" part of societal evolution, an offshoot of "the pecking order", or "survival of the fittest", none of that matters to the victim.
What’s Up with Bullying?
Bully behavior is often learned and caused by stress in the bully’s life. Bullies have often been abused and are driven by their insecurities. They typically want to control and manipulate others in order to feel superior. The anger they feel as a result of their hurt is directed toward others. Their targets are those they consider weaker than themselves. The actions of a bully are intentional – to emotionally or physically cause injury to one or more people on a repeated basis.
Types of Bullying
According to www.bullyingstatistics.com, there are four types of bullying:
• Verbal. This type of bullying usually involves name calling and or teasing
• Social. Spreading rumors, intentionally leaving others out of activities on purpose, breaking up friendships are all examples of social bullying.
• Physical. This traditional form of bullying involves hitting, punching, shoving and other acts of intentional physical harm.
• Cyberbullying. This method of bullying involves using the Internet, texting, email and other digital technologies to harm others.
Grace – A Workplace Bullying Case in Point
In previous articles, we’ve discussed Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) and introduced you to its terminology. Now we’d like to introduce you to one of our clients – Grace. Grace worked in government administration for twenty-five years. She treasured her occupation and the close relationships she’d developed with her coworkers. She was known for her confidence, competence, and ability to multitask. But then her supervisor hired Helen, a union administrative assistant, without Grace’s knowledge, and sat Helen at a new desk squeezed into Grace’s already tiny office. Helen was extremely religious, and it appeared that she felt her real job was to save Grace’s soul—not reduce her workload. Grace tried her best to ignore Helen’s proselytizing, but the work piled up. When she reported Helen to her supervisor, Helen somehow found out and started making death threats, saying she would burn Grace’s house down and kill everyone in it. Grace was freaked out. She couldn’t sleep at night and couldn’t eat. She became hyper-vigilant and terrified to the point of suffering what she describes as a ‘‘breakdown.’’ Finally, she went on leave from work and entered therapy.
How Being Bullied Affected Grace - and Her Relationship with Her Husband
During Grace’s first therapy session she cried profusely and shook uncontrollably. Her description of Helen was that of an extreme schoolyard bully. She hadn’t encountered this type of behavior since grade school and was at a loss as to how to handle the situation. Her supervisor was unsupportive to the point of taking the bully’s side. It seemed her supervisor thought only men could be bullies, and this belief system blinded him to the situation.
Being bullied caused Grace’s blood pressure to spike as she explained how her ideal marriage was falling apart due to her PTSD symptoms—especially her present fatalistic hyper-vigilance, her estrangement from others, and a generalized fear of social contact. She didn’t even feel safe in her own home, fearing that Helen would come and burn her house down. Her past positive love of exercise was no longer on her radar, much less any of the other present hedonistic fun things she used to do with her husband.
Her medical doctor had prescribed medications for her, but Grace refused to take them because she was afraid they would turn her ‘‘into a zombie.’’
Living in Past Negative Causes Present Fatalism
Grace’s extreme PTSD symptoms caused her to be an exceptionally tough case. We used a guided breathing program with her, which brought her blood pressure down twenty points. Her psychological tests indicated she suffered from extreme trauma, severe to extreme depression, and extreme anxiety and panic attacks.
She attended TPT sessions twice a week for two months. In that time, she was stuck in the mire of the past, which prevented her from being able even to contemplate the future. Her need to recount her past negatives overrode the therapy process. Much of each session was spent on calming her with guided visualization and relaxation breathing techniques. During this time she experienced constant fear, isolating herself at home with the curtains drawn, only leaving the house for doctors’ appointments and therapy sessions. Her husband handled the shopping and errands. She suffered from sleep deprivation and had no appetite. In the past, before Helen’s threats, Grace took pride in her appearance. But present fatalistically she now no longer cared about what she looked like. She threw away all of her business clothes and makeup and took to wearing oversized T-shirts, baggy jeans, and boots.
After the first two months of twice-weekly TPT, Grace attended weekly TPT sessions for the subsequent year. Our goal was to get Grace back to work. Grace arrived at her session in the third month of therapy ready to move forward with her TPT. She had replaced her victim mentality with anger directed toward herself; she questioned how she could have allowed fear to control her actions. We helped her learn to replace her past negative flashbacks of Helen’s extreme bullying tactics with past positive memories of good times at work and from her personal life as well.
Grace also developed the ability to replace her present fatalism with pro-social selected present hedonism by reconnecting with her husband and doing activities she had once enjoyed. Slowly, she started getting out of the house and refocusing on her previous interests and leaving the fear behind.
Planning for the Future
We moved toward pro active behavior – learning to stand up for herself and others. She had a perfect opportunity to practice when Helen’s new assistant called Grace and told her that Helen was now bullying her. Instead of reverting back to present fatalistic isolation and fear, Grace became incensed. Taking a proactive stance, she and Helen’s assistant filed criminal charges against Helen, who was eventually found guilty of terroristic threatening in a court of law.
From this point forward, TPT sessions were devoted to making plans for Grace’s future positive. Her major future positive plan was to return to work in some capacity once the case was closed. She expanded her pro-social selected present hedonism by increasing her social circle to include other family members and old friends. With this new attitude and ability to balance her time perspectives, Grace returned to work in a new government position.
Grace’s Brighter Future
When Grace came to her TPT session at the end of her first week at her new job, she was glowing: tanned, toned, and wearing a smart business outfit. She was told by her new boss after the second day that she was already performing at a level she wasn’t expected to reach for three months. She felt her abilities were respected and appreciated. It’s important to note that Grace’s recovery from PTSD and her successful reintegration into the workforce were accomplished without medications. Grace and her husband continue to expand their social circle, and Grace finds joy and laughter in the aerobics classes she attends three times a week. She plans on laughing a lot in her brighter future.
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.timecure.com and www.lifehut.com.