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Life After Workplace Bullying

How working with your brain can help return you to health and happiness.

Key points

  • The harm from being bullied in the workplace has a bad habit of lingering.
  • When coaching clients who have bullied brains, I use a series of evidence-based practices to help them recover.
  • Clients who have been bullied stop blaming themselves when they understand how betrayal trauma works.
  • While we struggle to halt workplace bullying, we certainly can better self-regulate to protect our health and happiness.

Life after workplace bullying can be an ongoing torment as the target struggles to recover. For far too many, life after workplace bullying is one where illness and mental anguish continue to rule the day. The bullied brain needs to create a recovery plan. There are evidence-based steps to take in order to repair and recover after maltreatment in the workplace.

A number of my coaching clients have suffered from workplace bullying, and they are seeking techniques to return to their natural brain health. Before they get to the practices that are documented in science to help with a bullied brain, we address the confusion around why the bullying happened, and the frequent sense targets have that it was their own fault. Self-blame is a dead-end street on the road to recovery.

My clients want to know why as employees, they remained in a toxic environment and suffered repeat abuses. To overcome this obstacle to recovery, we must first recognize how bullying works in order to cast off its lingering harm.

Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell detail the coping mechanism of blindness. They demonstrate the ways in which we fool ourselves into believing we are being treated fairly or that if we are maltreated, the fault lies with us. They show the ways in which we trick our own selves into trusting those who are utterly untrustworthy. Step one in the return to health and happiness after workplace bullying is to remove the blinders.

Source: user1505195587/Pixabay
Life after workplace bullying
Source: user1505195587/Pixabay

We put on blinders as a self-protective device.

It’s not blameworthy. Just a survival strategy. If the person who bullies you is powerful, influential, rules over others, and signs your paycheck, you may need to fool yourself into having faith in him or her. Any dependence, such as your livelihood or your benefits, puts you as an employee in a vulnerable position. You may well keep quiet about injustices, look the other way when wrongdoing occurs, and keep your eyes on the ground if the bullying individual targets others.

When you are in a workplace that has bullying, it is natural to find ways to cope until you can escape. However, as time passes, your sense of independence, your health, and your self-esteem are often eroded, which inevitably makes escape more difficult. Some of my clients were told in no uncertain terms by their doctors that they had to go on stress leave. Many of us, cowering behind our blinders, do not see just how damaging bullying is to our brains and bodies.

How can we remove the blinders and see workplace bullying without suffering a crisis?

Exercises I have my clients do are designed to keep a track record of the bullying incidents coupled with what their brain predicted in the moment. This is a practical application of Lisa Feldman Barrett’s research on how we construct emotion. For instance, one client alerted his boss that his daughter was undergoing surgery, and he would have to shuttle back and forth from the hospital to work. Despite being up most of the night with his child’s traumatic medical situation, he came to work on time the next day.

His brain predicted that his boss would care about him, be worried and empathic about his daughter, and recognize his effort during a difficult time to still focus on work. However, his boss did not speak to him all day. Didn’t send him a note to check in. This startled and harmed his brain. Bullying by ignoring—communicating that someone’s struggle and life are irrelevant, unworthy, and not even noticeable—is harmful. It creates doubt in the brain that then tries to find a reason for the lack of kindness and care. It’s important not to let the brain choose “it’s your own fault” as a way to make sense of the cruelty.

When individuals who have suffered workplace bullying begin to list situations that occurred and record the way in which it baffled, hurt, and shocked their brains, they begin to see how going forward is a challenge, specifically for the brain.

The brain keeps wanting to figure out what went wrong, why it predicted incorrectly, and how it can better anticipate a malevolent world.

The brain’s goal is to make meaning from all the data perpetually bombarding it, and bullying behavior can lead to confusion, as well as constantly looking back, trying to understand what happened and how such injustice and meanness could possibly occur. It’s critically important for the brain to stop wading through what Michael Merzenich terms “noise and chatter” as it tries to figure out what happened.

At this juncture, I have clients use mindfulness and visualization to put a clear barrier between themselves and the past. If the brain can identify and write down instances of bullying, it helps the target to identify the destructive conduct as external and undeserved. This is a practical application of Dan Siegel’s advice: “Name it to tame it.” Bullying is a behavior that someone else manifested. The brain must let it go, recognize through slow, deep breathing that it’s safe, and set its considerable powers to the present moment full of opportunities.

Another exercise that helps the brain take stock of the crisis is to list on one side of the page the individuals who use bullying behavior. On the other side of the page, list colleagues who are healthy, empathic, and who foreground social-emotional relationships. While some organizations are so rife with bullying that there may be quite a number who bully, inevitably, there are still more colleagues in the column of healthy and empathic connections. Frequently only one individual will appear on the bullying side, and this empowers the brain to recognize that bullying is an outlying and isolating conduct that breaks relationships down rather than making them strong.

Furthermore, the list shows the target that it is, in fact, the bully who is alone or in a small camp, while others are a community to which the target belongs. If the workplace is rife with bullying, then I have my client look at past communities to which they healthily belonged and then notice the unhealthy ones in which they were bullied.

Help targets self-regulate the seesaw of sympathetic and parasympathetic responses.

Much of the mental and physical anguish that occurs when being bullied is linked to the repeat activation of the sympathetic stress response system. In a toxic workplace that lacks psychological safety, targets and even bystanders may have cortisol constantly being released and circulated in the brain and body. This cycle is very unhealthy.

I work with clients to learn that they can tip their response in the other direction and use aerobic exercise, being in nature, and practicing mindfulness to activate their parasympathetic system or, as scientists say, the “rest-and-digest” system. This lowers cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure and allows the brain and body time to repair and recover. While bullying might be out of your control, tilting the seesaw to rest and digest is within your own power.


Barrett, L. (2018). How Emotions are Made. New York: Harper.

Freyd, J. and Birrell, P. Blind to Betrayal. (2013). Hoboken, New Jersey, Wiley.

Rodski, S. (2019). The Neuroscience of Mindfulness. New York: HarperCollins.

Siegel, Daniel. (2013). Brainstorm. New York: Penguin.

Merzenich, M. (2013). Soft-Wired. San Francisco: Parnassus Publishing.

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