When You’re Down, You’re Not Out: Strategies for Dealing with Abusive Behavior in Groups

Although we’d like to think otherwise, bullying and/or abusive behavior occurs in a lot of settings. We’ve all heard about it happening in schools but it also arises in workplace situations, social groups and even in religious organizations (really, wherever people congregate). Oftentimes the person perpetrating the abuse holds a valued position within the organization and, as such, others will go along with their behavior and version of events. Even if others do not go along, they may distance themselves from the person being abused which is, in and of itself, very hurtful. If this is happening to you, what should you do?

The first thing to realize is that the harassment and verbal abuse are not your fault. Regardless of whatever rationale is given, there isabusive behavior no excuse for hurtful and demeaning behavior, particularly from someone who should be a role model. Although we all like to believe the best of people, it is not surprising that an abuser (or someone who is enabling their abuse) put the blame on you in order to escape the consequences of the reprehensible behavior. This is an abuser’s modus operandi because they rarely accept responsibility for their actions. People who abuse others usually do it because of the heady sense of power it brings. They don’t tend to care about fairness or justice as it applies to them.

The second thing to understand is that many members of the workplace or group may no longer be your friends. When confronted with such a conflict, a lot of people prefer to side with the person in the higher position or the one they like better. There are many reasons for this, including the fear of reprisal if they are on “your side,” the desire to remain in the group, belief in the invincibility of those in power or a misunderstanding of the situation.

Whatever their reasons, a lot of group members may be unkind to you. This is certainly not fair but it does happen. Consequently, I suggest not trying to remain friends with those who have demonstrated unfriendly behavior. With friends with those, who needs enemies? They are fair weather friends at best and if you re-establish ties with them, it’s highly probable that you will get hurt again in the future. Real friends are people who are there for you when no one else is. Thus, if you want to keep any friendships from that particular workplace or group, start with the people who care enough to check on your well-being.

The third thing to understand is that moving past the anger and bitterness will take time and effort. One recommendation I have is to journal about your experience. In order to move forward, you need to get all of your feelings out but it must be done privately. Write in a journal that no one but you will ever read. This will allow you to not hold back when you are writing. It may take a while to get everything out but eventually it will help you feel better.

Another thing you could do is to contact people higher in the workplace or group’s hierarchy and make a formal complaint. This could be a tricky situation if you still work at the company or attend the group but it’s still something to consider. Many companies and groups take such complaints seriously because the chances are good that if the abuser did it to you, s/he either has done or will do it to someone else in the future. Even if you decide not to pursue official charges, simply giving yourself the power to exercise that option may feel good because it gives you back some control.

I also encourage you to, if possible, find another job or attend another church or group. Staying at the one that holds such bad memories may keep the wound open. Give yourself the opportunity to succeed at a different workplace, make new friends and have positive experiences. As George Herbert said, “Living well is the best revenge.” Indeed.

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