4 Signs You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship at Work

4 Signs You’re in an Emotionally Abusive Relationship at Work

If you do a quick Google search for abusive relationships you’ll find an abundance of articles on personal relationships – but very few on what it’s like to have an abusive boss, or what to do if you have one, or how to recognize an abusive situation in the workplace.  When people think of abuse in the workplace, typically what comes to mind is sexual harassment, wage discrimination, and things of that nature – but what about emotional abuse? What about bullying? Why are so few people talking about that?  I can only speak for myself when I assume that it’s fear, which I realize now is in an of itself is just an extension of the manipulation.

This blog post has been writing itself in my head for a very long time.  Except, every time I sat down to write it, I backed off because: “what if he reads it?”“what if he knows it’s about him?”“what will he do if he does?”  HOLY CRAP! Right?  In my mind I can see the look my current boss would give me if I had counseled this out with him and asked him if I should write this.  Fact: having a great boss (actually multiple great bosses) is how I realized how truly screwed up this past situation was.

A quote by Anne Lamott has been popping up repeatedly in my brain without instigation, and I can take it only as a sign that I should be writing this right now, because someone else needs to read it – in her book “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life“ she says, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”


Based on my experience, here are 4 signs (of many) you’re in an emotionally abusive relationship at work.

1. Extreme Micromanagement

In my situation this was constant phone calls, needing to know my every move, and needing constant updates and communication. I’m not using the word “constant” lightly.  I once got yelled at for not taking my phone into the bathroom with me.  

Not knowing any better at the time, I thought this must have just been part of being in upper management, so I allowed it to continue and wrote it off as his “caring too much.”  Sounds like an abused girlfriend doesn’t it? The similarities are astounding.

2. Character assassination.

Character assasination is tricky because it’s not always obvious.  It usually involves the word “always.” You’re always late, always wrong, always screwing up, always disagreeable, and so on. Basically, they say you’re not a good person – or in my personal case – I was told there was “something wrong with” me.

Knowing the difference between character assassination and real constructive critisim is crucial, I didn’t – which is why he was able to pass it off as such.  True constructive criticism will include positive and negative comments and is delivered in a friendly manner vs an oppositional one. It is also typically about a certain action you took or something specific you said – and not about you personally.

Not sure what the difference is?  Here is a great, quick read on it.

3. Lack of Empathy/Dismissiveness

Wikipedia defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

A good manager cares about you as a human being.  Don’t misunderstand, they do not have to like you, but the core of every good human (especially those leading other humans) should be empathy.  Not to be confused with sympathy.  I am of the firm belief that you cannot be a good leader without this (learned) trait.  

If you go to your manager with your concerns and instead of them hearing you: you are blown off as irritating, the conversation is flipped and you become the problem, or you’re told your concerns are unimportant – it is very likely that your manager lacks empathy, and it is a huge red flag. Eye-rolling, smirking, headshaking, and sighing while you are speaking are all body language cues that convey the same message.

4. Public Embarrassment.

It seemed my abusers favorite place to get under my skin was in a conference room with all glass windows.  Any time we had a meeting in that room, I knew with certainty he was going to make me cry. Anyone that walked by could see that, could read the body language, and since he was a closet asshole – everyone likely assumed I did something wrong (or at the very least, that is what my head told me).    

He would talk about me with our CEO (and others) in an office with the door open so anyone within earshot could hear.  Once, during a conference call with a group chat where he thought I had signed off, one of his best friends said “good the retard is gone” and they lol’d.  When I told him I saw this, he laughed it off – no one got in trouble and I was told it was a joke and I was “too sensitive” and to “lighten up.”

If your boss corrects you, yells at you, speaks down to you or about you in front of other people – IT IS WRONG.  It’s not acceptable and if you’re able to financially, you should just walk out. I wish I could have.

Just like kids in middle school it’s unfortunate that there are no laws that protect employees from bullying.  I know, because I sat in a lawyer’s office trying to figure out if I could afford to leave. I couldn’t.  Additionally, unemployment typically sides with an employee when they are fired, but if they quit it’s rare that they will win those funds – especially if they are going up against a manager who is likely infuriated that they had the balls to leave.  You also have to worry about what this manager will say to anyone who calls for a reference. So, me, a mom with a small child couldn’t afford to walk away from it – and I can only imagine there are millions of people just like me out there.

I can’t tell you how to fix this, but I can tell you what I wish I had done when I was in the thick of it:

  1. Document everything.  Start a journal, send yourself emails (to a personal account).  Managers like this tend to gaslight and make you think you’re crazy.  Keeping documentation of their abuse will keep you sane and confident that you are seeing things clearly.
  2. Seek therapy.  I should have done this sooner.  Some of the first feedback I received in my new job was that I apologized too much and didn’t trust myself enough.  These are both things I didn’t do before the last job and a direct result of the abuse. Talk to someone unconnected to your home or work about what is going on.
  3. Read self growth books (or listen to audio books to and from work).  I only just started doing this and it’s been a game changer.  I absolutely wish I had done it sooner. Not only do I learn things every day but my confidence is impacted in ways I never even considered. The woman I am now would have fought harder.
  4. Don’t let them see you cry. This is probably the most difficult but most of the people doing this to others are doing it from a source of power, insecurity, or even because they are narcissists – who knows.  Either way, if they know they get to you – they become that much more powerful, try your damndest to hold it in until they are out of earshot.
  5. Tell their boss or HR, ASAP (if you’re able to) this wasn’t an option for me but if it is for you, it should definitely be your first stop.  The documentation will be very important for them, and for you to make a case against the manager in question. Document, document, document!

If you’re reading this it is clear you’re going through it or you think you are and I’m sorry – I know how bad it hurts.  My email (linchpinsociety@gmail.com) is yours to use if you need someone to talk to about it.

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