What Makes It so Hard to Walk Away From a Bad Situation?
Trauma and attachment theory offer hope when you can't just walk away.
Posted Feb 10, 2018
Kellie*, a highly successful businesswoman in her early 50s, told me that she had recently been in a clear harassment situation at work. “I’m a tough, experienced, older woman. And even with all of my experience, I was horrified to realize that I couldn’t get myself out of it. What’s that about?” she demanded, of herself as much as of me.
Kellie’s experience, which is not uncommon, can help us understand some of the complex and often confusing reasons why victims find themselves unable to simply walk away from their tormentors, whether they are relatives, friends, spouses, lovers, colleagues, or employers. Before we try to understand more, let’s look at what happened to her.
“I was making a pitch to a new potential client,” she said, "and while I was talking, he started making comments to the man sitting beside him, about how he’d like to see what I looked like underneath my suit.” At first, Kellie didn’t believe what she was hearing. Then she decided to ignore him. But after a few more comments, she stopped and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I like what I’m hearing. Do you want me to continue with the presentation?”
The potential client said, “Of course, of course. I just think you’re such an attractive woman, I can’t figure out why you have to be out working your fingers to the bone. Why isn’t some man supporting you?”
Kellie didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t want to start an argument over feminism with a man who had the power to put a great deal of money into her company. But at the same time, she did not want to work with this man, and she decided that if they got the job, she would ask to have someone else, preferably a man, assigned to it. She went on with the pitch.
“I hated myself for it,” she said. “But I really couldn’t come up with another solution in the moment.”
Her bosses, a man and a woman, who were in the room with her, had a different take. “You know,” one said to the potential client, “I don’t think this is going to work. Thank you so much for your time.” They both stood and motioned to Kellie to join them as they left.
“I was astonished. They left behind a large chunk of potential money. But they told me that they had recently talked about this very kind of situation, and had agreed on a zero-tolerance policy. If they thought someone in their company was being harassed, they did not care about the financial bottom line. Far more important was the message that they would not tolerate bullying on any level.
“I should have been able to say that for myself,” said Kellie. “I certainly say it to my children, and I say it all the time to my direct reports at work. But in the moment, I couldn’t think my way out of it. The one thing I could think was that I didn’t want to let my bosses down. I didn’t feel like I could argue, because I didn’t think it was my right to throw away a potential client.”
Much of the literature on harassment, bullying, and sexual abuse describes situations like the one Kellie found herself in as “deer in headlight” moments. Even an experienced, strong-minded individual can suddenly find themselves unable to react in the moment. Fortunately for Kellie, there were others who had her back.
“Deer in headlight” moments happen when our brains and bodies get frozen, unable to do anything except stare at the oncoming danger. It’s when our “flight or fight” impulse gets turned off, and we can do nothing to protect ourselves.
Many of the women and men who have told me of such moments were horrified and ashamed that they could not take action to protect themselves. But most of them shared something that Kellie talked about: They were concerned about disrupting an important relationship, not necessarily with the perpetrator, but with someone else who was counting on them or needed them to bring something from the potential harasser or abuser. “It never occurred to me in that moment,” said Kellie, “that my bosses wouldn’t want the business of someone who acted like that. But afterward, I knew that they would have been completely supportive of me, even if they weren’t in the room, if I had walked out on the man. I knew they were like that. Why would I even for a nanosecond think otherwise?”
There are many possible answers to the question Kellie asked herself. A need to please, a strong attachment to her company and her bosses, a desire to prove herself to herself might all have played a role as she froze in that moment and could only think about winning the account. For many women, there is an unacknowledged fear of being alone, of heading off into an unknown emptiness, which feels more frightening than the known discomfort or even pain.
What was crucial for Kellie was that she had the support to get out of the situation, and she learned from the moment.
“I won’t let that happen again. I now have that idea firmly implanted in my brain. If a person mistreats me, I don’t need their business. I don’t need to be unkind or to engage in an aggressive free-for-all with them. I just need to walk out.”
Not everyone has such an opportunity. For some victims, walking out means losing life-saving income, love, support, and even a sense of safety. It is crucial not to blame the victim in these situations.
I recently spoke with a man who said that with all the harassment and abuse going on around us, he wondered how women could trust any man. But most of the men and women I spoke with in a recent anecdotal survey said that they believed that most men are not bullies.
The more we stand behind the honest women and men who push back against the real bullies, and the more carefully and directly we ferret out those who continue to make power plays against the powerless, the more chance we have of living in a world where the bullies do not win.
Peter Levine (1997) Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. North Atlantic Books.
Bessel van der Kolk (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books.
David Wallin (2015) Attachment in Psychotherapy. Guilford Press.