by Mary Connerty
Remember the TV show, Xena, Warrior Princess? I loved Xena, and even have a cut-out of her in my office. I admired her strength of character and her kick-ass fighting skills. Mostly, I admired her ability to act in the face of fear. In my office the other day, I looked at my cut-out of Xena and felt ashamed that I have not been acting so bravely.
As a mom of a 15-year-old who spends a lot of time on-line, I have often talked to my son about cyberbullying. As a university lecturer, I have worked hard for 18 years to change the culture of our campus so that our many students and faculty, whose first language is not English, feel at home, and are not victimized by prejudice or harassment. So you can imagine my surprise when I realized that, at the age of 58, in a job I love, and having reached a certain level of accomplishment, I was the victim of bullying and harassment in the workplace. Admittedly slow on the uptake, it took me too long to admit to myself that what was happening to me was, for all intents and purposes, the same phenomena that countless kids suffer through daily. Lesson 1: If it looks like a bully and acts like a bully, it’s a bully; age and station in life are irrelevant.
After beating myself up for not recognizing the situation, I gave myself permission to stop trying to make myself responsible for making a difficult situation better. I spent months trying to figure out what I had done to incur the vitriol of a pair of co-workers who insist I am trying to ruin their careers. They give me too much credit–I do not have the time, energy, or desire to focus on what others are doing. After months of losing sleep, seeking advice from wiser folks, and suffering some serious health repercussions, I finally got it–I had done nothing to these people. This was not about me, but about them – their issues, their drama. I just happened to be the target of their transference. Lesson 2: Bullying rarely has anything to do with the victim.
Like most women I know, I was raised to “make nice”. So, I trusted those well-meaning people in authority at my workplace and took their advice to not engage with these people, and, above all, keep the events confidential. Their instruction was often difficult, as I am a supervisor to the bullies; so, not communicating meant I could not effectively do my job. Worse, not being allowed to discuss the situation meant I felt even more isolated. It seemed that the more outrageous their behavior, the more my employers would give in to their demands; to my knowledge, they have never been formally reproached for their behavior. Lesson 3: Bullies will continue to be bullies as long as that behavior gets them what they want; hoping it will pass, trying to reason with them does not work.
So, here I am, in job where I have the honor of working with amazing students who look to me for guidance; however, what kind of teacher am I if I let bullies dictate how I perform my job and let well-meaning superiors decide that it’s OK to continue to allow me to be abused? Here I am, mom to a teen who I tell to be brave, strong, and honorable, but what behavior am I modeling if I continue to let myself be berated and disrespected? Lesson 4: If the bullying is not stopped as soon as it starts, the person being bullied must immediately become proactive in creating an action plan to protect herself. “Making nice” and protecting oneself are often in conflict, but not protecting oneself prolongs the situation, allows it to escalate, and leaves the bully-ee isolated and potentially even more at risk.
So the time for “making nice” is over. I have become resolute in my decision to protect and defend myself. I have researched my options, none of which are easy or pretty, and I suspect the situation will get uglier before it gets better. Though it is not my nature to seek out conflict, if I do not stand up for myself, in a loud and clear voice, no one will. I deserve respectful and safe treatment in my workplace. I hope I will have the support of my workplace superiors, but, if not, I still must persist. Like Xena, I am readying myself for battle. If I don’t, then I lose self-respect, and my life as a mom and a teacher has been a lie. I can’t live with that. Lesson 5: Xena lives.
October, as it happens, is anti-bullying month. I’m sorry it has come to this, but I am armed and ready to do battle. October also happens to be Halloween month. Guess who I am dressing up as this year?