25 November, the International day which marks the onset of the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence Against Women and Children. This worldwide campaign aims to raise awareness of the negative impact that violence and abuse have on women and children and to rid society of abuse permanently. However, the success of the campaign is dependent on our daily individual and collective actions to safeguard our society against the cycle of abuse.
What is abuse?
Abuse is any form of behaviour that can instill fear in a victim, cause emotional, physical or financial damage to a person, or coerce victims in doing something against their will (e.g. engage in sexual activities). Abuse can take place through commission (e.g. visible, physical behaviour), but also omission (the subtle withholding of e.g. care, support, and finances).
In a close relationship, it can be difficult to know whether you are being abused, especially if your partner says they love you, gives you a lot of attention, or pays for the groceries or rent – yet instil fear or emotional trauma through their actions or words. People who are abusive sometimes act loving and supportive as a way to keep you in the relationship. However, a partner’s loving behaviour does not make their abusive behaviour OK.
It makes them a bully.
But adult bullies have many faces: it is not only the controlling romantic partner, but also the intimidating boss or colleague, the difficult neighbour, the pushy sales representative, the condescending family member, or the social acquaintance or friend who shames you. Bullying is a deliberate act with the purpose of harming another – either through using power to instil fear, victimisation, or harassment. A bully (male or female) gains power in a relationship by reducing another’s and shows little regard for the consequences to a victim’s health or well-being. Bullying is abuse.
Workplace bullying can make life quite miserable and difficult. A 2017 American survey (https://www.stopbullying.gov/media/facts/index.html#stats) found that adults are being bullied at levels similar to adolescents. More than 2000 US adults partook in this online survey. The survey found that 31% have been bullied as an adult, 25% of adults have experienced the “silent treatment” from an individual or group, and 21% have had someone spread lies about them. Unfortunately, it seems that adults are becoming desensitised and complacent: 43% believe that bullying behavior has become more accepted in the past year.
It’s important to note the consequences of bullying. It can make you very ill. From the same study, 71% suffer from stress, 70% experience anxiety and or depression, 55% report a loss of confidence, 39% suffer from sleep loss, 26% have headaches and 22% experience muscle tension or pain, whilst 19% reported a mental breakdown, and 17% called in sick frequently. Emotional stress can also cause or aggravate other gastrointestinal problems, and cardiovascular problems such as hypertension. Victims of workplace bullying also has double the risk of suicidal ideation over the subsequent five years (Nielsen et al, 2015)
Examples of workplace bullying are being ignored (the “silent treatment”), refusing to help you when asked, not responding to your attempts to communicate (phone calls, emails), cutting you off while you’re talking, or even keeping you out of the loop for work-related social events. The bully may also not respect your time by intentionally showing up late to meetings, or missing agreed deadlines deliberately. They may also sabotage your ideas or projects, denying you well-deserved praise, taking credit for your work, or blame you for problems at work. But it may be even worse…
What types of abuse are there?
- Physical abuse is any intentional and unwanted contact with you or something close to your body, or threats to hurt you, or loved ones (including pets). Sometimes abusive behavior does not cause pain or even leave a bruise, but it’s still unhealthy. Physical abuse may include scratching, punching, biting, strangling or kicking, throwing something at you (a phone, a shoe), pulling or pushing you around, the use of any weapons, grabbing your face to force you to look at them, or grabbing you to prevent you from leaving or to force you to go somewhere.
- Verbal/emotional abuse may not cause physical damage, but it does cause long lasting emotional pain and scarring. It can also escalate to physical violence if the relationship continues on an unhealthy path. Constantly being criticised and told you aren’t good enough causes you to lose confidence and lowers your self-esteem. You may actually start believing what your partner says (e.g. being ugly, worthless, or useless). As a result, you may start to blame yourself for your partner’s abusive behaviour. Controlling behaviour (e.g. isolating you from family and friends, monitoring what you are doing and where you are throughout the day, demanding your passwords, or deciding for you what you should wear), extreme jealousy (including constant accusations of cheating), having a quick temper (and then blaming you for the outburst), or demeaning and belittling you. Emotional bullying is also common in the workplace, e.g. gossip or starting rumours about someone or a group of individuals.
- Sexual abuse refers to any action that pressures or coerces someone to do something sexually they don’t want to do. It can also refer to behaviour that impacts a person’s ability to control their sexual activity or the circumstances in which sexual activity occurs, including oral sex, rape or restricting access to birth control and condoms. It is important to know that just because the victim “didn’t say no,” doesn’t mean that they meant “yes.” When someone does not resist an unwanted sexual advance, it doesn’t mean that they consented. Sometimes physically resisting can put a victim at a bigger risk for further physical or sexual abuse.
- Financial abuse can be very subtle, although often associated with physical and emotional abuse. and can include behaviour such as giving you an allowance and monitoring closely how you spend it, placing your salary in their account and denying you access to it, using your credit card without permission, keeping you from seeing shared bank accounts or records, controlling the amount of hours you are allowed to work, or making it impossible to go to work (e.g. by taking your car or keys), creating havoc at work (e.g. by harassing you or your co-workers), withholding necessities (e.g. money, food, rent, medicine or clothing), using funds from joint accounts without your knowledge, or using their money to hold power over you because they know you are not in the same financial situation as they are.
- Technological abuse (“cyberbullying”) is the use of technologies such as texting and social networking to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate another person or partner. Often this behavior is a form of verbal or emotional abuse perpetrated online. Examples are controlling who you are allowed to befriend or not on social media sites, negative, insulting or threatening messages sent via phone or email, stealing your passwords, constantly texting you and making you feel like you can’t be separated from your phone for fear that you will be punished, using technology (such as spyware or GPS in a car or on a phone) to monitor you.
- Stalking, i.e. when a person repeatedly watches, follows or harasses you, making you feel afraid or unsafe, is another type of abuse. A stalker can be someone you know, a past partner or a stranger. Stalkers may show up at your home or place of work unannounced or uninvited, send you unwanted text messages, letters, emails and voicemails, leave unwanted items, gifts or flowers, spread rumours about you via the internet or word of mouth, or even damage your home, car or other property.
Nine tips on beating the bullies and recovering from abuse
- Acknowledge the problem. If you are unsure whether you are being bullied or abuse, try describing the situation as if it were happening to someone else. If a friend told you this story, how would you react? Call it what it is: recognising bullying and abuse as it is happening can provide some comfort by validating your feelings and affirming your reality. Remember, both men and women can be bullies, and so too can both men and women be victims of bullying.
- Be safe. The most important priority in the face of an adult bully or abuser is to protect yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, leave. Contact the police (and obtain a protection order), an emergency or crisis hotline, social agencies, or a lawyer.
- Limit exposure. With adult bullies whom you need to interact with on a regular basis, it’s important to put a stop to any serious, potentially damaging patterns early on. Keep a healthy distance and avoid engagement unless you absolutely have to. Ask to be moved in the office or removed from the specific team. Whenever possible, formalise your daily communication with the bully by either putting things in writing, or having a witness present. Keep a paper trail of facts, issues, agreements, disagreements, and timelines.
- Keep calm. Bullies try to provoke you. They project their aggression to push your buttons and keep you off balance. By doing so, they create an advantage from which they can exploit your weaknesses. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation. Don’t take the bait. Let them own their own pathology.
- Speak up. We all have a part in stopping bullies, so if a peer is being bullied, be their support, and if you are being bullied, find support from co-workers, friends, and professionals. Some victims of adult bullying remain quiet about their experience, due to fear, embarrassment, a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, as well as gender, cultural, social, and/or institutional conditioning. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. Being a silent victim gives the bully more power. No matter how difficult the situation, seek out trustworthy individuals to confide in, whether they be friends, family members, colleagues, HR, or a health care professional. Being supported will strengthen your ability to handle the challenge.
- Empower yourself and build confidence. Bullying is not about you. Bullying might be targeted at you, but the first step to handling them is realising that you’re not doing anything wrong. Adult bullies are trying to disempower you, to make up for some shortcoming of their own. Do not take bullying personally. Stop being the victim. You can only be bullied and abused if you allow it. Take a stand. Speak up. Find support.
- Seek professional assistance. Recovering from the emotional scars may take longer than recovering from physical scars. Do consult with a qualified professional (psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist) to address the trauma, anxiety, and depression which may be associated with or follow on from being bullied and abused. Although therapy is always indicated, medication might be suggested even if only for a temporary period of time until you are back on your feet and gained controlled back of your life and healed from the emotional scars.
- Self care. Take care of yourself. Sleep enough, eat healthy, exercise regularly and socialise. Investing in these activities will make you more resilient to address the situation, and also to recover. You are worthwhile. You deserve this.
- Legal action. Harassment and threats are criminal offenses and should never be ignored. Know your rights (to be treated with respect, to express your feelings, opinions and needs, to set your own boundaries and say “no”, to take care of your and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally, to create your own happy and healthy life). When your boundaries and rights are violated, deploy consequences. Take legal action if needed.
Bullying and abuse are never acceptable. Let us stand together in speaking up, supporting one another and stop the cycle of men and women being abused.