Working with an Emotional Abuser: How I Reclaimed My Self-Worth

I used to work with a woman, let’s call her Ava. Ava was highly innovative, competent, and good at her work, an employer’s dream. She came in with solid work experience behind her and from day one proved her value to the team.

But that’s pretty much where the fairytale ends, because Ava had another side to her, one I was lucky enough to get to know. A side that caused me to doubt all the great things I thought I knew about myself.

It didn’t take long for Ms. Hyde to emerge from Dr. Jekyll. Around the higher-ups, Ava transformed into her own version of Dolores Umbridge – you know the type: there was this cloying and sugary sweetness and deference about her that I found sickening. During meetings, she would adapt this weird, childlike tone of voice and everyone would eat it up, as if on cue, and praise her for some brainstormed idea she had. Outside of those meetings with me it was another world all together.

Whether she was publicly blaming me for some miscommunication on her part in front of our colleagues or taking credit for solutions I had devised to help her out, there some this sort of evil switch that lit up whenever it was just me and her. On one occasion unbeknownst to me at the time, I had made a mistake in one of my projects. But instead of letting me know she consulted everyone from my direct supervisor to the director of clients informing them of how I messed up. I never heard once from her about it, just watched as a small smirk formed on her face as my direct supervisor explained what had happened. That was one of the clearest moments I remember understanding just who she was: she relished in her tattle-telling and in my humiliation.

Funny enough, at the same time, I also relished in those moments when she’d praise me. It’s like I’d hang onto the possibility of a compliment for dear life, texting my partner when I’d got positive remarks. I hated it, feeling like I was dependent on Ava for validation of my worth only for her to turn around and commence her cruelty again. And that’s when it clicked.

I was working with an emotional abuser.

There were signs all over the place:

  • I had to walk around her on eggshells to avoid disappointing her, which is just another way of internalizing abuse.
  • She used gaslighting to maintain her version of reality, whether she was telling me I was incorrectly recalling her instructions or denying her culpability in a mistake.
  • I found myself readying to apologize whenever things went “wrong,” even when I knew I wasn’t at fault.
  • I had to endure a slew of hot-and-cold behavior, turning me into an anxious people-pleaser, trying to figure out what to say or do to make her less unkind.

It was abuse, pure and simple.

Honestly, it took me months to reclaim my self-worth after that position. I remember leaving completely convinced of my worthlessness, a narrative I am sure Ava was all too happy to encourage. While emotional abuse at work is devastating for all those impacted, I think women of color are impacted particularly hard because of existing internalized oppression and the lack of privilege we have to assert ourselves.

First, and this I am sure, white women have many more supports in the workplace -- an enormous privilege that women of color don’t have. White women, in my experience (!!! it’s my experience, don’t come at me !!!), don’t have to be nice  get a pat on the back in the same way women of color must be nice. I’ve gotten to this jaded point in my worldview where I believe these women will even be rewarded for playing nasty. Case in point: while I raised concerns about Ava, she continued to act a fool; while I had to leave after enduring 8 months of emotional abuse, Ava got promoted. But as women of color know, to even get hired, have equitable salaries, or be considered for a promotion, we must be spitting images of niceness and perfection in the workplace!

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Second, women of color are just trying our best to survive at work. A privilege we rarely see is having the ability to thrive. We don’t get the luxury of being complete assholes, and getting rewarded for it. To get by in the white working world, we learn quickly to keep our heads down and go through the motions, lest we get picked on for shit that isn’t our fault, or blamed for being “aggressive” and “unfriendly” and “unmotivated.”

I wish we lived in a world where workplaces could objectively see how emotional abuse towards women of color is allowed to happen on their watches, yet such self-awareness can be fraught with defensiveness. But as the saying goes, workplace emotional abuse takes three to tango. There’s the abuser and the victim, yes. But there’s also a workplace’s culture, the context in which emotional abuse is either collectively tolerated and rewarded or condemned.* In my case, I was working in a fast-paced, hyper-competitive, work-late-or-get-out kind of environment where results were prioritized, rather than the well-being of teammates. I’m not sure whether the work culture was intentionally turning a blind eye, but it sure felt like it -- I did, after all, raise concerns about Ava. But through inaction, my workplace told me it was okay to be treated this way, as long as their pockets were full and clients were happy.

Nine Months Later...

Ava took a lot away from me. While I didn’t realize it until later, Ava was publicly building a narrative in the workplace that I was incompetent. Whether it was true or not, she made me feel as if all my colleagues knew I was bad at my job, too. I came away from that position convinced I wasn’t shit, despite everything I had accomplished. I came away tired and depleted.

Naturally, it took a couple of steps and a lot of dedication to reclaim my self-worth.

First and foremost, I relied on the forced reminders from friends and parents of just how awesome I actually am. I invested time in talk therapy, working with my trusted therapist to dig into my feelings. At The Melanin Collective, we believe in the power of our communities to lift each other up. As women of color, we like to think we can do it alone. But without my community helping me see the light, I don’t think I could’ve emerged from the sludge of self-doubt.

But even then, it’s easy to forget all the great things about ourselves when an emotional abuser tells you otherwise. That’s part of what makes them so dangerous. So, equally important, I also had to reframe the way I talked to myself, my inner self-talk if you will. One of our staple workshops at The Melanin Collective is about addressing negative self-talk head-on and one of the ways we do that is through this exercise:

  1. What is a lie you’ve been told about yourself?

  2. How has this lie reflected in your everyday life?

  3. What is the truth? What is your truth?

Through this 3-question exercise I was able to better parse out fact from Ava's fiction. First, I had to reflect on the lies being perpetuated about myself -- a pretty difficult, anxiety-inducing task. What was the false narrative Ava was convincing me of? Second, I had to understand how that lie was impacting my everyday life: I was beyond stressed, riddled with self-doubt, and waking up every morning dreading the idea of going into work. That was my life for 8 months. Finally, I had to force-feed myself a scoop of the truth, my truth.

From the very beginning of my career, I’d made it solely on the sails of my own gumption and can-do attitude, my determination to find solutions when none were in sight. Everywhere I go, everyone I work with, is impressed with what I bring to the table -- whether I was getting raises in the first five months of my job or having colleagues tell me they’d be lost without me. I was, am, an asset!

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"To my women of color friends: keep on seeking your truth, no matter what people tell you.

When I was deciding on how to close this, I was reminded about the fallacies of overgeneralization and to some extent agree -- the experiences I went through at the hand of a white colleague does not mean all white colleagues are like this. That can’t be further from the truth: some of my greatest allies in the workplace have been white women! But at the same time, I full-heartedly believe that women of color need to brazenly and openly share their negative experiences not only as a show of solidarity, but maybe more importantly a tip-off to our white counterparts that their actions have consequences for us. We’ve seen it in the news, we’ve seen it in our daily lives. Just because the emotional abuse isn’t captured on video and sent across the internet doesn’t mean it’s less insidious.

To my women of color friends: keep on seeking your truth, no matter what people tell you. When I finally reclaimed my self-worth, I was able shed all the weight of those who tried to trample me down. I’m now working at an organization where I am valued, respected, and, well, admired, for the contributions I’ve made. I started an amazing business, The Melanin Collective, with an even more amazing partner! These are the truths I am living now, and it feels so good.

*Part of me, though, wonders if the (lack of) consequences would be the same if the emotional abuser was a woman of color; as #PermitPatty, et al., have taught us it’s that white women love to play the victim and will do so when they are called out.

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash