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4 Lessons I Learned From Being Bullied at Work

02/19/2015 11:19 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015
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"You didn't finish that [huge project that no one has been able to do]? That's disappointing. Especially since you could have worked later [until at least 8PM] these last few weeks."

"I'm not saying you could lose your job...but you shouldn't feel secure."

"No one thought you deserved it. You got a raise only because I argued for you, so you need to work much harder to justify it."

It was just a few months into my first job out of college, and already, the starry-eyed enthusiasm I'd started with had mutated into depression and fear. Why?

Because of a bully. Who also happened to be my manager.

It's been over two years, but I still just built a small hill of tissues preparing to write this. It's obvious now, but at the time I honestly thought that it was my fault. And never having been bullied before, I didn't realize what was happening.

Slowly, as my self-confidence was demolished, I began doubting my competence. I questioned my right to be at work and walked into the office every day fearing that that would be the day I'd finally be revealed as a fraud.

Embarrassed to be struggling in an entry-level position, I internalized my pain and didn't reach out to those who cared about me and could have helped. Because I couldn't share such a huge and painful part of my life, and because I'd started resenting my friends' success and happiness, I stopped spending time with them. On more than one Friday, I would come home, climb into bed and not get up except for food and restroom breaks until I had to drag myself out on Monday morning.

This past weekend, I was reminded of all that by a conversation I had with a dear friend I've known for almost a decade, and one of the smartest people I know. She's spent the past five years working on her PhD and is so close to finally getting it, but almost quit a few months ago. Because of a bully.

Shockingly, her experience mirrored mine almost exactly. And similarly, she also hadn't realized what was happening and had instead begun questioning her own worth.

For the first time, I was thankful for my experience, as I was able to give her encouragement and perspective and let her know that she's not alone. Furthermore, our heart-to-heart made me realize that workplace bullying must be more common than I'd thought, so I did some research.

Sadly, workplace bullying is very common, especially for women.

According to a 2014 Workplace Bullying Institute survey, 37 million U.S. workers reported being subjected to "abusive conduct." What's more, 69% of the bullies are men (commonly in managerial positions) and 60% of the victims are women.

We are all warned about bullies on the playground, but not about bullies in the workplace, which is the main reason my friend and I were unprepared to defend ourselves and fight back. In hopes of preventing this from happening to others, I want to share four lessons I learned from my experience:

1. Be in tune with your feelings so that you are aware of what's happening.

I remember feeling worthless, scared, alone, and bitter -- emotions I'd never felt before. The previously energetic Luisa who was always trying new things and exploring new places would not have recognized the lifeless girl who spent her weekends hiding from the world under her covers.

If you feel depressed or hopeless, or recognize echoes of my story in your own, ask yourself if someone else's speech or actions have contributed. No one deserves to be made to feel worthless, so if someone is making you feel that way, realize that it's NOT your fault. And you are not powerless against it.

2. Believe in your value.

If you think that you are being bullied because you're less capable, think again. According to research reported in Psychology Today, targets are "highly competent, accomplished, and popular employees," and managers target them because they pose the greatest threat professionally to their bullies.

Looking back, I believe that this was exactly what happened to me. I was very close in age to my manager, and up until then had been a sought-after analyst.

Because I stopped believing in my value, he was able to demolish my confidence, get away with not recognizing my accomplishments, and, I later learned, take credit for them himself.

3. Don't be embarrassed to let others know what's happening.

As I mentioned, I was so embarrassed to be struggling at my very first job, especially when I'd been so good at schooling, that I couldn't bring myself to publicize what was happening. Because of this, I isolated myself and became even more miserable.

Now, I recognize that I should have done what my friend did -- turn to friends and family for advice and support. As I did with my friend, my loved ones would have provided clarity and helped me realize that I was not worthless or alone.

4. Get out.

Having analyzed this numerous times in the past two years, I still haven't come up with a better solution than to get out, by either joining another team or finding a new job.

I've tried thinking through what would have happened if I had spoken to HR or my manager's manager, but unfortunately, I can't say with certainty that it would have gone well. I didn't have any proof, it wasn't strictly illegal, and my manager had a very strong relationship with his manager while I was a newcomer to the team.

I was lucky because my manager left the company, but if you aren't so lucky, empower yourself to get out. Because you are so worth it.

Having embraced my own value, I am stronger and better than ever. And you deserve the same.

NOTE: If you have had a similar experience, please share how you handled it. It might be exactly what someone else needs to break free from a painful situation.