I recently received an invitation to an event hosted by the worst person I have ever worked for: a straightforward bully. The idea of spending one hour stuck in a room with that person made me sick to my stomach.
My initial reaction was a simple and resounding “no.”
Since I hadn’t seen her for months, I thought perhaps it wouldn’t be so triggering. But with one tiny email, it was as if I was right back to those dreadful winter months when, for weeks, I told myself that ignoring all the insults and backstabbing would further my career.
A year ago, I accepted to work on a long and unpaid project. The minute I met her, I had a slight suspicion our personalities would clash. She promised professionalism, so I ignored my first impressions and told myself I needed that job.
It started slow. Every time she spoke, it was as if she was giving orders instead of instructions. A few weeks in, it all came out.
She’d spend the entire day shouting at everyone. No “thank you” or “please.” She demanded being served first at lunch and screamed the minute someone didn’t acknowledge her. Sometimes she’d start the day by offering a pointless apology, but the minute I turned my back, she’d start all over again with something or someone new. I think the worse part was when she’d take me in her confidence and share backstabbing comments about the people we worked with.
You’d think, now an adult, I’d be done with this kind of childish and hateful behavior, but no. She had no scruple in putting everyone’s work down. Once in a while, she’d throw a “sweetheart” or “darling” in my face to soften the blow, but it just made it worse, belittling me into feeling like a child who had no say.
I knew the invitation was coming, and I was dreading it. I had no desire to attend; this much was clear. Yet my hand hovered over my mailbox, wondering what could happen if I chose not to.
If I didn’t go, would she bad-mouth me to others and the whole industry? I’d seen her do it. Would this have an impact on my career? If I did speak up, would I be putting others in a difficult position? Could it impact their jobs? Would they call me a party pooper? Inappropriate? Angry? With no one to back me, would the ground swallow me up forever?
The thought of potential retaliations played havoc with my mind. I was right back to where it all started, as if nothing had changed. I felt trapped.
When people choose to question why victims do not speak up earlier or at all, they also choose to ignore the stream of consequences they risk when coming forward. These are usually the same people that are so quick to dismiss your situation and tell you to “just let it go” or “say something.”
When things eventually blow up in your face, they tell you your case was an exception. But there are no exceptions when it comes to abuse. It is impossible to forget, as much as it feels impossible to admit.
As the days passed, one solution stood out from the rest: do and say nothing.
Then the guilt settled in.
Do I have a duty to speak up if others are currently going through the same thing? Would lying to justify a no-show be just as cowardly as her behavior?
Crawling under all these hypothetical scenarios, I didn’t even consider excluding her from the equation. What about me? Is it possible to choose a route that isn’t about this person? Does anyone beyond the age of seven need to be told not to belittle the people around them?
If you’ve been through abuse, are going through it currently, or have already managed to distance yourself from an abusive situation, you have already gone so far. You’ve already done so much. Removing toxicity from your life is an active decision you make for yourself, taking back control of your life. This isn’t an easy thing to do, given bullies rarely play fair.
Speaking up can feel just as lonely as being abused. I am not saying there will never be a time to talk, but perhaps at a time when speaking up won’t turn you and your mental health into a puddle of mush. Bullies are relentless and strive on power dynamics. And that’s exactly what you’ll give them if you’re not ready.
Preserving your mental health is many things: vital, brave, and challenging but never cowardly.
I keep thinking about the people who were there that saw and suffered the same treatment. What do they think about it today?
How easier would it be for victims to speak up if they knew they weren’t alone? If they knew even strangers would stand by their side? If you see something done to someone else, you’ve got so much less to lose than the victim.
My main advice would be to start with them. You may be surprised by their reaction. Put the idea in their head and see what happens. At the very least, you’ll get a preview of what could happen, but more likely, you’ll be validating their own ambiguous experience with this person. We have to trust that others will look closer and see through their smiles and their lies.
What made it even more distressing, in my case, was the fact this person was a woman. There is no clear formula when it comes to abuse. But with the explosion of the #metoo movement, you would hope not to have to deal with the same disgusting behavior when working with women. Of all the methods she could have used to empower and encourage female talent, it was disappointing that she chose to disempower us.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely free of those claws until I speak up. But in the meantime, the idea of not celebrating her questionable success makes me feel just fine.