When a Professional Relationship Turns Abusive
When I first started my career as a writer, I naively thought that I could tell when someone was bad news. But people who are abusive in professional or work situations can act just like abusers in romantic relationships. They don’t play their hand right away.
Many years ago, when I was new to writing, I had what I thought was a fellow writing friend. We sent each other emails almost daily. Some things were a bit odd. For example, she didn’t want me to talk to certain writers. I thought she was just being fragile. I didn’t want to rock the boat. After all, she was critiquing a piece I wrote, saying I was a great writer.
Then, when she saw I was tweeting on a popular writing hashtag, she angrily emailed me that I was betraying her. Because I was chatting with other people.
I confronted her right back about it, saying that telling me I could not talk to certain people or tweet certain things was abusive. She tried to guilt me into staying “loyal” to her, but to no avail. Our friendship went down in flames.
She then messaged all our friends that I was a terrible writer. Was it vindictive, or did she really think that? Who knows. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about abuse, and, sadly, watched other people fall victim to it. (To be fair, I didn’t see the warning signs, either.)
Why do people abuse others? One theory is that competitiveness can lead to abuse. In work, that is certainly possible. Rather than think, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” abusers think, “I’m going to sink everyone else, and take the victory for myself.”
Some people feel important or better about themselves by controlling others and getting attention. They need to run the show, at any cost.
It’s hard to spot an abusive person, because they turn on all the tricks. They can be charming, and shower you with attention. They’ll say you’re talented and they want to help you. But when things don’t go their way, they will turn on you. And that’s when you need to recognize them for what they are, and run.
Here are a few warning signs.
Isolation: “I’m right. Don’t listen to anyone else.”
An abuser’s early mode of action is to separate you from others. They create an us vs. them atmosphere. You need to stay with the “tribe”; anything else is betrayal.
The reason for this is that if you talk to other people, you’ll realize that the abuser’s behavior is not right. You may have a gut feeling that something’s wrong, but the abuser will try to cast away your doubts. An example of this is Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos. This video clip describes how she was able to convince a worker that she was right, even though he knew it wasn’t true.
Abusers may say that this exclusivity will help your career. They might tell you to stay away from certain people who will supposedly steer you in the wrong direction. And don’t bother trying to get on other projects; they say theirs are the only ones worth working on. If you look closely, you’ll see their projects only really benefit them, not you.
It sounds easy to spot, but it’s actually quite tricky. They’re helping you, after all, and they pull you away very, very slowly.
Certainly, it’s good to be loyal to people you trust, and working with someone on an exclusive project can be beneficial. But the difference is that abusers take it to the extreme, cutting you off from the outside world completely, and will respond with anger if you try to talk to the “wrong” people.
Stalking: “I’m watching you.”
Surveillance and stalking are a red flag for abuse, or at least that some sort of deception is going on. It’s not normal for someone to be watching everything you do, waiting for something to get angry about. Who has that kind of time?
In a romantic relationship, a sign of this is checking the mileage on someone’s car, or driving by their job to make sure they’re where they say they are. Can you say creepy?
In a work relationship, this could manifest as spending a lot of time looking at your schedule, your tweets, or other things you do publicly. They spend more time watching you than on their job, and every action you take is subject to criticism. If they flip out because you said “Happy birthday” to a coworker, you know there’s something up. When you notice this, it’s time to bail.
Gaslighting: “That never happened. And if it did, we won’t talk about it.”
The abuser who comes into a room screaming and throwing things? When confronted about it, they’ll say you made it up. It never happened. That time they went on an angry tirade? They say they were justified … “but don’t mention it again.”
One technique of gaslighting is to spread rumors about you if you leave the abuser. My former “friend” did that by telling everyone I was a terrible writer. This circles back to the “us vs. them” mentality: if you’re not with us, you’re against us.
Playing the victim: “I’m the victim here. Everyone’s out to get me.”
Abusive people love to turn the situation around. Even when they start to treat someone badly, they say they are the victim, and that you’re the bad person for making them feel bad.
In a professional setting, people may play the victim for attention. There’s really nothing wrong, but they say that everyone is out to get them and the game is rigged. You think, “What are you talking about? You’re successful. No one’s against you,” but they insist that’s the case until you start to wonder if it’s true.
Usually, this sort of sky-is-falling behavior will get them attention, so they keep it up. But eventually, people realize that the only one standing in their path to success is them. When this happens, the abuser turns on the waterworks. If you call them on their behavior, they make all sorts of threats and go on tirades. Don’t back down.
Ultimately, once someone shows their hand as using abusive techniques, you need to get away. How? First, talk to other people you trust right away. They can help support you and see the situation more clearly.
How you respond can depend on the situation. In the case of an online abuser, like mine, you can usually safely block them and move on. At a physical workplace, a report to HR may be in order. I’ve rarely seen professional abuse turn to threats of violence, but if you feel unsafe, contact the police immediately.
The emotional ramifications — feeling deceived, hurt, or losing someone you thought was a friend— can be harder to recover from. You might wonder, “Why didn’t I see it coming?” But don’t feel guilty. By the abuser’s design, it’s difficult to notice early on. The best bet is to get away as soon as you notice something’s wrong.