When women discuss abuse in interpersonal relationships, we usually (and unfortunately) have a fairly easy time understanding one another. Who among us hasn’t experienced an emotionally abusive partner, family member, or friend? Those who have been lucky enough to avoid these situations have certainly heard about them and may know enough to warn their BFFs when something seems not-quite-right emotionally within a relationship.
But what about the workplace?
It can be challenging to understand the line between a healthy relationship with your supervisor and an unhealthy, abusive one that leads to a dysfunctional work environment. Once you can identify the signs, however, it can become much easier to feed the positive supervisory relationships and put an end to those that only serve to hurt and cut you down, both as a worker and as an individual.
Here are several sure-fire signs that you are dealing with an emotionally abusive supervisor or boss.
A boss can be tough, hold you to high standards, and even have a cold personality. But if she consistently treats you with disdain or disgust, while keeping you around at the company, she might be emotionally abusive. A boss should never cause you to feel deep personal shame or guilt.
I once had a boss who would shake her finger in the faces of employees and tell them that they should be ashamed when they erred on small tasks.
Sure, sometimes we mess up at work. But if a boss becomes angry at you and deals with that anger by being excessively cold, nonverbal, or even using hostile sarcasm, she is being ineffective and only encouraging you to question yourself.
Gossip happens in most workplaces, unfortunately. But your supervisor should not be the ringleader of the gossip.
Be wary of bosses who talk to their employees about colleagues, or openly and regularly criticize employees in front of others.
My abusive boss would constantly criticize my coworkers when we were in one-on-one meetings, which made me feel good about myself…until I realized that she probably said terrible things about me when she met with others. This is Mean Girl behavior, and you don’t have to deal with it.
A manager is there to manage, but what about micromanaging? That can actually be a form of over-control and emotional abuse.
If you feel your boss excessively micromanaging you even though she purportedly trusts you, take a step back. Do you deserve to be watched at all times? Have you been messing up lately, or does she just want you to feel on edge about your tasks? Where has the trust broken down?
When you look closely, it may become clear that the issue doesn’t lie within your work, but with her refusal to express trust. The more on edge you are, the more control she has.
One major moment that led to my realization of my own emotionally abusive relationship with my boss was when she began to name-call and tell me who she thought I was. Even when I handed in my resignation, I was told what type of person I was, and how I wouldn’t be a good fit for my next job.
No one should tell you who you are—except you. Even bosses who give you “good names” could be twisting your thoughts and feelings so that you stay at the company longer than you’d like. If a boss makes you question your personal choices, talents, and self-worth? They are not your friend. They are emotionally abusing you.
One of the surest signs of abuse is gaslighting. This occurs when you bring up a past incident or current problem and the other person makes you feel like you are crazy, or as if you made up the incident altogether
If you come to your boss with a perception, a feeling, a reaction, or anything else, it is their job to listen, even if they decide not to have an active response. Where the scene turns to emotional abuse is if your boss responds with “That never happened,” “No one else has ever noticed that,” or “Are you sure that happened?”
In any relationship, this tactic can be used to get the “complainer” to question herself and, ultimately, to shut up. This a tactic that only a toxic boss will use often.
Sometimes you might attempt to calmly address your boss’s communication style through a one-on-one discussion. This is a natural and healthy option, but you may find that your supervisor doesn’t react in a positive way.
They might hold you responsible for their actions and feelings, reminding you of all your past mistakes. They could refuse to acknowledge any part they play in the workplace dynamic. An emotionally abusive individual will do anything in their power to put you or others in the position of the villain.
Where you see miscommunication and frustration, they might envision a scenario of people who are out to get them or trying to twist the conversation into blame. So, they blame others. If you’ve tried (sometimes multiple times) to have this conversation with your boss and it hasn’t gone well, it could be time to find a new office—ideally a less toxic work environment.
When you finally decide you’ve had enough of your boss’s emotionally abusive behavior and attempt to call them on it, or even simply ask questions, they might become overly apologetic or even sticky-sweet and complimentary. This is classic behavior.
Try to leave your abusive partner, and they will suddenly turn on the charm. This can be especially disturbing and make exiting such relationships one of the hardest things you will ever do. However, since you know what their behavior will probably be, you can prepare for it.
Set your game face and your story. Find a way to say, firmly, “Thank you, but goodbye.” Take the opportunity to leave on your own terms. Don’t let her compliment you into staying, or shame you into sticking around just a few more weeks. When you’re done, you’re done. When you leave, an emotionally abusive boss can no longer control you, shame you, make you question yourself or hurt you.
Ultimately, jobs are important, but toxic leaders that cause you to feel depressed, anxious, unsafe, or ashamed are never, ever worth your time. If you're experiencing any of the above on a regular basis, it is probably time to consider a new role and search for a new job either within your existing employer or in a new place altogther.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
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