Bully on the lose and there's nowhere to hide.
February 10, 2011 6:49 PM   Subscribe

I am being bullied at work by my supervisor and there is no one to go to for help. I have four more months of a one-year contract but I feel like I may be nothing but a grease spot by the time I reach the end of this. What should I do?

I'm 8 months into a one-year AmeriCorps term and if I leave I would likely lose my education award. My already paltry self-esteem is diminishing. I have tried to talk to my local AmeriCorps support people but they have said I have to figure out how to deal with this person on my own. There are moments where I feel like I'm losing my mind there, that the hostility from the supervisor is a hot branding iron she's pressing into my brain. I already have trust issues. I have been treated pretty badly by people in my family, at work and at school. I was bullied in elementary school. I was bullied in law school. The point of doing a year of AmeriCorps was to get experience and non-competitive status for federal jobs. I think the fact that I'm an admitted attorney who is working as a VISTA is part of the reason I'm being treated so badly. The supervisor is threatened by my education but she also sees my weakness (I'm an introvert and that is a bad thing in this community) and she's taking pleasure in pressing down on me with all of her (considerable) weight. She says things like, "the way you are talking to me right now is unacceptable," when I'm talking to her in a normal tone but stating an opinion that is different from hers. Or she says, "we have had multiple conversations about things that you've done that are inappropriate," but I don't know what she's talking about. (Except for one time when we were at a store buying supplies to decorate for Christmas. We had been shopping for an hour and we needed ribbon. I said that I saw where the ribbon was and it just so happened that a handsome man had just gone that way. It was a stupid little joke. She had a meeting with me later about how it was inappropriate to say that. She told her supervisor about what I said and made it into an ordeal. I had no one to go to. It was humiliating and made me feel like the world is a terrible place.) Or she tells me that I am disrespecting her. Every time it's out of left field. And I have no one to go to for support. I fear I will be such a wreck by the end of this that I won't be able to do much of anything. Please help me. I need some guts. Even just guts to continue and not let her meanness touch me. How do I do it? Help me build an impenetrable shield. Or help me find a place where I can be a person...
posted by Ventre Mou to Human Relations (46 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should stop acting like you are being oppressed. By your own words you have been feeling victimized from your elementary school days all the way through law school. And now you are during your job.

Is there any situation you can imagine working in where you will not feel like a victim? Where you will not feel belittled or patronized?
posted by sanka at 6:56 PM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

[...]I said that I saw where[...]

Well, there's your problem right there. What in the world are you doing talking to her at all beyond the absolute minimum? What I would do in such a situation, is figure out the absolute minimum interaction I can get away with, and stick to that. Monosyllabic responses. Never, ever volunteer anything. Never ever socialize with her. Never ever interact beyond stark necessity, and preferably in writing. And if she makes up some nonsense charges, as long as it's words in the wind, it's like a fart - ignore it. If she writes down a complaint, you write an answer - to the point, and only on topic. Minimize contact. Concentrate on other things. You can survive 4 months standing on your head. But then again, I'm a combative sonofabitch. Toughen up. Good luck.
posted by VikingSword at 7:03 PM on February 10, 2011 [12 favorites]

Unfortunately, your description doesn't exactly sound like bullying. It sounds like you have a very irritating supervisor. It's possible that all of the situations could be bullying, but without more information, we have no way of knowing if her reprobations are truly "out of left field" or not. The only thing you can do in this situation is grin and bear it. Realize that you have an endgoal (education credit) and it's worth it to just put up with a little bit of shit. Just smile, nod, and keep your mouth shut and head down. You say you were bullied in school, in law school, treated badly by your family, etc. This may all be true but it also sounds like you have developed a mindset where everyone is out to hurt you. This is exactly what therapy is for!
posted by proj at 7:04 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

You're almost at the end of your term. I think you can manage to keep it together until the end of things. It sounds like there is a lot of back and forth- it takes two for that to happen. From now on, I think acquiescing might be in order. Don't disagree with her on anything- don't offer up opinions than differ from hers. If she offers you feedback on something work-related, smile and say thank you, and then go home and think about it. Is it possible she's right sometimes? Probably. At the end of the year, you can laugh and know that you were ultimately the one in control of you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:06 PM on February 10, 2011

You're right, she sounds like a bully. A bully will continue to bully until they are proactively stopped. I have three approaches I would consider if I were you.

When she says you are speaking in an inappropriate manner, you ask for specifics. When she says you have done inappropriate things, you ask for specifics. Fight general vague accusations with specifics. I know you are an introvert, but you will need to temporarily step outside yourself and confront her. Next time she tries the bully bs, and she gives you a vague response to your request for specifics, look her in the eye and say to her, "What is this really all about? Why are you so hostile toward me? What have I done? Is it because I am more educated than you? Because I am more comfortable with who I am and what I am doing than you? What exactly is it? I would love to come to some sort of understanding so both of us can work together for our remaining time together, but the only way we can do that is if you are honest about what is going on here." She will either back down and deny anything is the issue or she will give you some reason which you then have to evaluate as to its validity. You are an attorney. You know you also need to document everything from this point forward.

I do not know how Americorps works, but if it were me, at some point, I would just look her in the eye and say, "Fuck you. Stop the crap and lets agree to get along without the crap. Give me a job to do and I will do it. WIthout the drama." Can she fire you? Can you ask to be reassigned to another job?

The third approach is to just agree with her instead of politely disagreeing. Just "yes ma'am" her to death. Smile and suck it up. I caution against this approach as it will slowly drain the soul that has not been sucked out already.

Finally, know that this is over in 4 months. While that may seem like a long time while you are living through it now, it is really not that long in the scheme of things.
posted by AugustWest at 7:07 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

4 more months is like 80 work days...

All you need to do it to get through another 30 to 40 workdays, after that all that matters is your freedom in another 30 to 40 workdays.

posted by jchaw at 7:07 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Your supervisor is a dumbass who enjoys pushing people around. Unfortunately, that type of person can end up in Americorps supervisor positions by virtue of longevity in entry-level work and scaring other candidates off (my brother, a polymath and the kindest, hardest-working guy I know, had such experiences twice). You're going to have to bite the bullet and finish out the term, and as VikingSword suggests, avoid talking to her unless it's strictly work-related.

Then you're free to spend the rest of your days being grateful that you were born smarter then someone that can't rise above being a petty, resentful big fish in a small pond.

Feeling persecuted is rarely an unbreakable trend. A lot of people are dicks and that's their own problem; seek out those who aren't and get to know them.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:09 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

You seriously need to toughen up. There is no attorney work you are ever going to get that won't involve being able to brush off nastiness and/or being assertive enough that people don't feel they can get away with bullying you.

Remember that you're in training, and one important skillset attorneys need is the ability to differentiate between what's relevant and what's not. Some bitch in your office is not relevant. Learn to brush it off.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:10 PM on February 10, 2011 [16 favorites]

You might actually be the one with the power here.
This sounds like a example of the (common) method by which a manager is trying to force someone to leave such that officially, the employee quit, thus the manager is not culpable for the action, as she would be if she laid you off.
This could be because she lacks the power to hire and fire, or it could be because she's gutless, or it could be because it reflects badly on her if she has to fire her own people, or other reasons (some business owners doge their unemployment insurance obligations by squeezing people until they quit rather than laying them off)

Maybe it matters which of those it is, but the key thing for you is to realize that she's trying to get something out of you by doing this, and you have more power than her in this game, or else she wouldn't be playing it.

So, don't let it get to you. Be a good worker, act professionally at all times, when she says things you don't understand, ask for clarification.

Since you know why she's being nasty, there is no need to feel battered by it. It's a game, and she is the one without the power to win without your permission.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:10 PM on February 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Keep a notebook and be really fucking obvious about it.

I found that the best defense against a bullying boss was to keep a journal that logged every interaction. On the surface, it was a tool that helped me to carry out the bosses' instructions much better but the main benefit was that he started choosing his words much more carefully. Just him knowing that I was keeping records kept his temper under control. I gained confidence because I was performing better and the boss was afraid to casually belittle me. It was win-win.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:12 PM on February 10, 2011 [24 favorites]

A few questions to get a better picture of the situation: How old is she? How old are you? Is there a difference in your cultural backgrounds? Is she on a short contract as well, or is she a long-term employee of AmeriCorps, or is she a non-AmeriCorps employee working for the "client" organization/site?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:13 PM on February 10, 2011

I'm going to take the opinion that you are correct that she is bullying you; however, you can't continue to dwell on it and connect it to your past. Do your job and see her as a crazy person who you can humor while at work and laugh at at home. Don't try to guess her motives for disliking you, that's very unhelpful. She is just an abrasive person who you have to deal with for only a couple months. When I have to deal with people like that, although I don't have a bullying complex, I turn it into a game. Be as nice and agreeable as possible, not in a were best buds way, if she tells you an opinion you don't wholeheartedly disagree with act enthusiastic and keep your mind on the stories you'll tell after you get through it. Approach it as an experience in dealing with crazy people not as persecution.
posted by boobjob at 7:13 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Leave. Leave now. It's not worth your mental health to stay. What if you do lose your education award? From what I understand of law school prices (my sister is a recent graduate), the education award is going to be a drop in the bucket at most. Go make that money somewhere else, where you're not miserable. The money is not worth the price you're paying to get it.
posted by epj at 7:13 PM on February 10, 2011

There a mean spirited people at every turn of life. One strategy I have found helpful in building self-esteem is to seek out people, events, etc. that you find inspiring and focus on those to strengthen yourself. For example, people who challenged racial restrictions---political acts that require lots of courage. If you have some sort of creative activity outside of the situation---writing about your past experiences, for example. Transformative. Because there are going to be bullies at every turn of your experience, and learning how to keep yourself strong and not react to their power plays is the smartest strategy.

Get out a calendar and mark off every day until you don't have to have her in your life anymore. But there will be another.....
posted by effluvia at 7:21 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

OP here. Thanks for your honesty and your empathy. I'm digging most of those of you telling me to minimize contact. VikingSword, you're right on in every way. Jacqueline: She's about 30 and I'm 34. We're both white. She's a social worker. I was born and raised in the Midwest and she was born and raised on Long Island. She does not work for AmeriCorps but instead works for the sponsoring organization who contract with AmeriCorps. This is the first time she has been an AmeriCorps supervisor. When I first started she told me that AmeriCorps paid her company to have me there, which is not true; it's the opposite. She also told me that it would be easier for her if I were younger. Just what every 34 year-old woman wants to hear...
posted by Ventre Mou at 7:26 PM on February 10, 2011

One of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned is this:

No one's words can MAKE ME feel anything. They can only press my buttons if I ALLOW THEM TO. I am in charge of my feelings. Someone may say something to try to get a rise out of me, and my reflex may be to give them just what they want: I'll be angry, or sad, or feel helpless. But I can control that. I can CHOOSE how I react.

So the next time she goes all Petty Tyrant on you, take a moment. Picture her with a big red foam ball on her nose and wearing clown shoes. Picture her with banana cream pie sliding down her face. Picture her slipping on a banana peel. Whatever it takes to check that reflexive response you feel welling up inside you. Now: acknowledge that emotion. What was it? Anger? Powerlessness? Fear? Frustration? Whatever it was, DO THE OPPOSITE. Don't give her the satisfaction of pushing your buttons. YOU are in charge of YOUR EMOTIONS. No one can make you feel anything without your permission! So stop giving it.

And then when the workday is over, do something you enjoy. Listen to loud music and sing along. Love on your pet. Go for a jog. Smoke a joint and play some videogames. Whatever you like to do. Whatever refills your tank.

Then go in the next day and grind on through. It'll be over before you know it, and she'll be a diminishing dot in your rear-view mirror and a horror story to tell your friends.

You can do this. Don't let the bastards grind you down.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 7:27 PM on February 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

It sounds like how you handles these 4 months could really be a lesson learned for your next job, for life. I too am unclear that what's really going on here is bullying, especially in light of comments like "Every time it's out of left field." I would think an attorney would simply not let something so vague lie, and would push for specifics and clarity. Maybe it's time to practice that, just like AugustWest suggests. Or do what I did when I was being bullied by a supervisor: "You are a bully. You've clearly been a bully for a long time, and it must have worked when you were a kid. But it won't work here. You'll need to deal with me like an adult." The stakes were low for me and she knew I was right, so think carefully before using this one.
posted by FlyByDay at 7:28 PM on February 10, 2011

Yes, keep a notebook and journal every occurrence. You might also want to pick up Working With You Is Killing Me. The authors recommend and teach a method for detaching yourself emotionally from work and problem people. It's very hard but it can be done. Bullies can't stand it when they don't get a reaction out of their targets. Good luck either way! It would be a shame to lose the benefits of being with AmeriCorps.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:28 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

TYPO: I meant: "I'm digging most on those of you telling me to minimize contact..."
posted by Ventre Mou at 7:39 PM on February 10, 2011

Document, document, document.

It's the most importamt thing you can do right now.
posted by annsunny at 7:46 PM on February 10, 2011

Consider this an opportunity: she is not the last bully you'll encounter in your career so you may as well use your last 4 months to learn how to deal with the situation. I suggest you treat it as a game; some soft skills I've worked on have been:

- Having a neutral yet pleasant expression on your face during stressful situations w/your bully (this is difficult but key);
- Pausing before answering provocative questions/accusations like "we have had multiple conversations about things that you've done that are inappropriate" and then answering in a calm fashion (Could you help me understand what behavior I've done that is inappropriate? When was that? What would you like to see instead?). This is the part that can actually be fun as a game: bullies want to put you off balance. When you interact literally instead of defensively or emotionally, it can throw them off balance.
- If she is always trying to find fault with you not delivering, think ahead a few steps then have the task done or a plan. I had one manager who seemed to feel like managing = criticizing, so I did an experiment of doing the next thing, and the next-next thing. When she couldn't find fault with what I'd done already, she launched into "Well, what about this? You haven't thought about this!" and I was able to calmly say it was done/here is the plan. I thought her head was going to explode.
posted by sfkiddo at 7:47 PM on February 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Draw a boundary around yourself like an imaginary chalk circle and don't let her inside it. Keep everything you care about inside that circle. Keep your own intelligence and compassion and competence inside that circle. Only talk to her about the weather. Look at her raging at you like waves on the distant rocks below a lighthouse and laugh to yourself. She doesn't actually know anything about you, so how can her opinion about the-you-she-doesn't-know matter? Listen to her talk and keep a mostly blank expression: not a scared, blank expression; a polite-but-slightly-bored one. Don't ever roll your eyes. You're going for bored dinner guest, not sulky teenager.

When she accuses you of stupid shit, do your best to not get wound up by it--that's probably what she's gunning for. Either apologize or not, but keep it calm and short and then move on to something else. If you have to go cry with shame and unhappiness, find your way casually to the bathroom and do it there. Make sure you clean yourself up before you go back out into the world.

And stand up for yourself in your own head when it doesn't make sense to bother arguing with her: silently pick holes in her logic, build counter-arguments. You're trained as a lawyer, so those are skills you've probably already had some practice in and are worth practicing some more.

It's not a pleasant experience, but it's a survivable one. People can tell when you've carefully and politely shut the door to your soul in their face, and it can freak them the fuck out--even bullies like this one. They thrive on the attention, and I think one of the worst things you can do to them is to treat them like they're really not all that interesting or worth getting worked up about.
posted by colfax at 7:50 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you vented about this to friends? If not, that can really help. It sounds like you feel very isolated. That means to me that you need more people around you reassuring you that you're not crazy. Hi other mefites, I know some people can do this for themselves, but not everyone is equally good at it. Sometimes you need someone else to stand up for you before you can stand up for yourself.

If you don't have anyone to talk to about this, well, I notice that you're in NYC. You have a JD? I'm in law school. Let's get some coffee and you can tell me all about this horrible woman. I do a good listen.
posted by prefpara at 7:50 PM on February 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

Most specifically:

1) It is very hard to get fired from an Americorps job, so it is worth it for you to practice incredulity when she mistreats you. Practice all-around responses in the mirror, like, "Wow, I can't believe you'd say that to me," "I can't imagine that my work upsets you so much that you feel the need to talk to me that way," and "It seems impossible to please you, so I've opted to focus on the work at hand. Let's move on." If you can focus on incredulity, you're there. There's no need to dig your heels in to dismiss a bully. Simply detaching is enough, incredulity adds a subtext of "you should be embarrassed for yourself" that is satisfying.

2) If you do quit, or are fired, you are entitled to a prorated amount of your education award. It's in your contract. You won't lose everything; if you quit tomorrow, you'd get 3/4 of it.

3) Document her behavior, use quotes when possible, and be sure to time and date it. Handwrite it in a notebook so she can't mess with your computer. I wouldn't be too obvious about the documenting around her, as someone above suggested. Keep the notebook and submit it at the end of your term to your Americorps coordinator. At the very least, it's good for them to know what happened so that if your boss goes postal, they can't say you didn't warn them. Also, if your boss sees the notebook and gets so agitated by the thought of her behavior being documented that she tries to take the notebook forcibly from you... that'd likely be assault. Just the thought of her trying to take it is satisfying to me, as I like to stick it to bullies.

I stood up to a bully not too long ago thanks to MeFi support. As someone who spent a lifetime being bullied, standing up to a bully as an adult is a singularly empowering experience. You can do it!
posted by juniperesque at 7:53 PM on February 10, 2011 [9 favorites]

I quit my job of five years last Tuesday due to workplace bullying. Do not react and don't engage any more than you have to. Document stuff and make it obvious you are documenting. Keep telling yourself this is not your forever job and she can't really fire you. Don't think of her as a person over you. She is the one who hands you the marching orders but she doesn't get to plan the campaign. She can kick up a lot of shit but she can't determine how you feel about it. You decide how she makes you feel and you need to decide that you don't give a fuck about her. I wish I had learned that lesson earlier in my ordeal.

And another thing. Don't expect to be vindicated or get justice or whatever. A lot of people, especially those in charge of shit, are going to blame you because it's a lot easier than doing something about the problem. It may sound depressing but, after embracing that, a lot of the anger melted away. There was no reason to hold on to it because it was only making me suffer.
posted by Foam Pants at 7:54 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

She is a little person*. She is trying very hard to make you feel smaller to make herself feel bigger.

When she starts in on you remember her smallness. Picture her getting smaller and smaller and her voice getting higher and higher, in your mind's eye picture her looking as ridiculous as the words she's saying. Then when she walks away you can crush her puny little body between your thumb and forefinger. Pay no attention to what she says. What lasting consequence can it have? Keep your nose clean and let her think what she wants.

*I mean this in the sense that she is little in her soul, not a comment on her stature. Remember that you are the bigger person in more way than one.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:02 PM on February 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

As with any bully, she should be confronted, but not in an oppositional way. Plainly ask her "why are you acting so angrily toward me?" Or ask "what was inappropriate about what I said?" Let her try to explain her hostility.
posted by Gilbert at 8:08 PM on February 10, 2011

I would echo what others say about minimizing contact and trying not to engage. However, your supervisor sounds petty but not a bully.

However, you state that this is a pattern of bullying in a long pattern of bullying in your life. If you have been bullied all of your life, then it is worth considering what it is about yourself that's making you easy to bully and victimize. This is not "blaming the victim" but recognizing if this is a recurring problem it's not that you have bad luck, it's that there is some aura you've got, something you're doing, some sensitivity, that is making it easy for people to pick on you.

There are plenty of introverts and educated people who are not bullied for those traits. Some self-analysis is probably in order--it won't fix this situation, but it could help prevent others.
posted by schroedinger at 8:08 PM on February 10, 2011

Consider therapy. It can be expensive, but it would make toughing this out much, much easier.
posted by eddydamascene at 8:11 PM on February 10, 2011

My first boss was a dreadful bully and he specialised in tormenting young, unexperienced people (such as, well, me).

I coped in my job for 18 months by learning some utterly invaluable coping strategies. Now, other people will say you need to stand up to a bully - frankly, that advice has never, ever worked for me. Bullies get off on confrontation and conflict. That's why they do it.

1. You win by not playing. If the bully launches an attack at you, they want you to bite back, to be upset, to be hurt. They will feed on your tears. Don't do that. Just be pleasant, and agree with what they say, keep smiling, and ignore their comments. Say, "yes, you are right, I'll do better". Being right is less important than not being constantly belittled. What's the point in arguing with this person? You can't defeat them. So don't play at all.

2. Suck up. This is going to hurt. But stroking someone's ego, letting them think good ideas are theirs, deferring to them - it can deflect some of their antagonism and anger. If you have a minor problem, go to your supervisor, tell her how excellent she is at solving problems, ask her for advice, then implement it. Later, tell her what a good idea it was and how it worked brilliantly.

3. It's not about you. Remember, it isn't. If this person is a genuine bully, it's about them and power and silly games. You're just a blank slate for them to project upon. It has nothing to do with you. Rinse, repeat.

4. Do a good job, be professional, and wait it out. Get some focus outside of your job. Build up your reserves of strength and happiness on weekends. You have a deadline and you can survive that long.

Good luck. And once you've survived this, think about how well position you will be to survive other unpleasant aspects of working, which unfortunately, will arise.
posted by jasperella at 8:51 PM on February 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm in therapy. Have been for years. As schroedinger and liketitanic suggest, there is definitely something about me that is bullyable. I'm pretty darn sensitive. I sunburn easily. I'm sensitive to loud noises. Extremely cold weather makes me feel powerless. My feelings are easily hurt. When I see a homeless person I feel really sad. When I see a child being abused it's hard for me to not intercede. This is who I am. It's why I went to law school -- to empower myself to help the underdog. But I am not powerful. I have no family support. I have a few friends. No money. So... There's a serious matter here that I must take ownership of. I think it may be that in some ways I am my own enemy. I'm very self-critical. I have little outside support but inside is not too friendly either. Those who say these last four months are an opportunity for me to get past something are right. I want to move past being bullied, from the dude in six grade who made me cry every day to the weirdos in high school who called me a lesbian to the meanie in my Medical Malpractice class who called me white girl and other names. I'd like to never be bullied again.
posted by Ventre Mou at 9:01 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ok jasperella. maybe it's not about me. and maybe it's just this learned helplessness that started when i was bullied as a little kid and did not have a parent to tell about it. thank you.
posted by Ventre Mou at 9:04 PM on February 10, 2011

I don't really have much of a solution for you, but I want to share my experiences, because I think some people commenting in this thread are (with the very best of intentions) giving the wrong advice.

This is indeed classic bullying behaviour. Successful bullies are very good at making their attacks plausibly deniable. Indeed, bullying is often most effective when describing what happens to other people makes you look paranoid or overly touchy.

There are various people in this thread saying 'this is not bullying' or 'toughen up'. Unfortunately, neither denial or toughness will get you through this. Indeed, I most often hear this from people who've never encountered a bully in adulthood (they're rarer than you think) but think they've encountered a proper bully because they've worked with jerks. Jerks are just nasty. Bullies are predatory, undeterrable and, by the time they've made it to adulthood, very good at what they do.

Rest assured that your 'I'm going to be turned into a grease spot' feeling is what you get from encountering a true bully, somebody who is actively picking you apart and causing you distress. Jerks just make you upset; they don't make you feel broken down like this. This does not mean that you are weak. It does not mean that you are insufficiently tough. It does not mean that you are in any way doing something wrong.

I am a very extroverted, argumentative and highly educated person. I love lecturing before audiences of hundreds, I thrive on the cut and thrust of informal debate. I have stood my ground in debates with Regius professors, four-star admirals, government ministers and senior civil servants. Oh, and my wife, who's smarter and tougher than all of them. I have, in recent years, been driven virtually to the point of tears by a bully who worked as a low-ranking administrator in an academic department and was a small, unthreattening, outwardly pleasant middle-aged lady. The university I was part of, at the time, had a poisonous atmosphere when it came to bullying, and there was literally no recourse when one found oneself concertedly attacked.

So here is the benefit of my experience, such as it is:

1. Withdrawing from contact is unlikely to work. You pull back, your bully will just try different things to get a reaction. She's your boss; she can presumably talk to you any time she wants, and she can also talk about you to other people.

2. Documenting is a very good idea. Adult bullies often use three techniques which can be defeated by documentation: a) they do something mildly hurtful again and again (after a while the repetition itself becomes a weapon, but it's really hard to articulate this to outsiders), b) they change the story (eg. making you spend time and effort solving one problem, then pretending they asked you to do a different thing) and c) they use timing against you (giving you impossible deadlines or withholding information until it's too late to fix problems, etc). If you have an independent record, this bully might be more reticent to pull that kind of trick on you. Furthermore, it's something to show her supervisor if you need to go over her head: "look, she accused me of having an 'inappropriate tone' on average seven times a day!"

3. Putting on a brave face and pretending that you're not hurt will not work. This bully will have encountered such a tactic before, and she's known you for many months. She'll be able to tell you're faking it, and that will give her exactly the same thrill that you being openly hurt gives her.

4. Perhaps a better strategy would be to refuse to accept the premise of the games that she's playing. When she accuses you of having the wrong tone you say 'no, my tone is perfectly fine; let's move on'. If she says you're being disrespectful you say 'my respect, or lack of it, for you is totally irrelevant; let's move on'. As long as you treat her as if she's acting like a normal person, as long as you're striving to figure out what her problem is, it's easier for her to upset you. When you let her know that you know that she knows that she's playing games, then that particular avenue might be more closed to her.

4a. On that point, however, there's a very good chance that if her current bulling stops working she will change to a different tactic, and that very well may involve escalating. She's your boss, which means she can lie about you to higher ups. You need to make sure that you're never alone with her, that there's always a witness to your interactions. If she wants to speak to you alone, ask your buddy to come in on the meeting, even if she says 'it's personal'. Document everything assiduously so that you have as much of a witness as possible. Be prepared to protect your coworkers if she decides you're too hard a target and switches to another victim.

5. Last point: stop worrying about what this woman thinks of you. Stop worrying about what she's going to say about you to others. She's a bully. She gets pleasure from your fear and pain. She is under absolutely no obligation to tell the truth about anything that happens between you, so even if you're the best, brightest, most respectful little worker bee (especially if this is the case) she will lie to her bosses about you. Get to know them. Talk to them a lot. Talk to everybody a lot so that they know what's going on. Even if these higher-ups won't help you, those communications channels will help inoculate you against what this woman is saying behind your back.

While typing up this comment, I found that Wikipedia has a pretty good article on workplace bullying.

So that's all I have for now. Chin up; it's not your fault and you're neither weak nor foolish. I'm sorry you're going through this, but know that it will end and your life will get better again. And if you just need someone to vent at, feel free to memail me.
posted by Dreadnought at 9:13 PM on February 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

This isn't a bully...you have an asshole boss. But to be fair, it may FEEL like bullying to you.

What you need to do is take everything she says with a grain of salt. Act rather lackadaisical, and uninvolved when she says something irritating, annoying, wrong, or just mean.

She probably rolls like a pig in mud when you get visibly upset by what she says. SHE LOVES that.

Show her you don't give a shit.

I'm pretty darn sensitive. I sunburn easily. I'm sensitive to loud noises. Extremely cold weather makes me feel powerless. My feelings are easily hurt.

Ok. This right here tells me that not only will you continue to get "bullied" in the future, but you are aware that you are.

I'm sensitive about things including loud noises, I don't like cold weather, my feelings are easily hurt by certain things. But I certainly don't think its easy to bully me. I really think you need to figure out why its so easy for you to be hurt by certain things...when it doesn't warrant it.

Also...if you are in therapy, but are coming here for therapy-type help...you need to get a new therapist.

Good luck...I mean it.
posted by hal_c_on at 9:15 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

document everything!

That being said, you've made it this far, you can make it through 4 more months.
I taught for a year at a high school, where the principle and two coworkers did everything they could to make my life miserable. The coworkers I could ignore, but the principle... that just sucked. Looking back I can see how it was his insecurities that were shining through and not any incompetence or inadequacy of mine. I think what irked him the most was the fact that I'd likely leave and move on to better things (and I certainly did), whereas he was just plain stuck. Now that I'm no longer under all his ridiculous, unfounded pressure, I can't help but feel bad for the guy.
You'll get to that point as well. And you'll feel proud of yourself for making it through it all.

However, get used to it. Just because it's not law school or big time firm, doesn't mean all coworkers won't be competitive and petty in some way or another. Even people who work in churches, pre-schools, and volunteer organizations have to put up with BS like that.
Lots of human beings suck. Feel proud of yourself that you're not so low as to need to be cruel to someone else to make yourself feel less inadequate.
posted by Neekee at 9:25 PM on February 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your boss is using the language of discipline ("unacceptable," "disrespect," "inappropriate") to put you down and portray you as a misbehaving schoolchild. She reframes professional situations in language that sets her up as the corrective authority and you as the miscreant: she describes your differing opinion as "unacceptable" speech. Most people would only say "the way you are talking to me right now is unacceptable" if you were using profanity or hate speech. It's very much like the way juniperesque's bully persistently reframed normal city-dwellers' daily activities as an "inconsiderate" aural assault. Even though juniperesque and her boyfriend knew that their noise levels were well within the bounds of the law, their condo agreement, and good manners, as long as their bully could rhetorically define them as offenders, he kept grinding them down.

Your boss's bullying succeeds with you because, even though you know your own behavior is reasonable and not wrong, you naturally react to her framing of the situation. She puts you on the defensive in a situation where you cannot defend yourself because a) she's the boss, and b) her accusations are so vague you have no easy way to counter them definitively, even in your own mind.

I haven't had to work with a direct supervisor like your boss, but I have had a few run-ins with bullies. What has helped me a lot, regardless of what I do or say when I interact with them, is to privately analyze their psyches and figure out what motivates the bullying. You've already started doing that: you recognize that this woman is deeply intimidated by your "superior" age, education, and social status. She probably feels that she can't compete with you on the level, and it terrifies her. So she feels compelled to put you in your place using magic words to redefine you as being far, far beneath her. It's a shitty thing for her to do, but if you recognize that her real problem is with herself, and not with you, you may be better able to tolerate the abuse (or find the composure to enact one of the responses suggested by other answerers above).

I don't know, because I wasn't there (and I can't get inside her head), but I wonder if it's possible that when you voice an opinion different from hers, she doesn't fully understand what you're saying. Maybe she can't follow your train of reasoning, or you've used a big word that she doesn't understand. She'd rather die than admit that she can't keep up with you intellectually, so she misdirects your attention away from her "failing" and calls your speech "unacceptable." She might as well pull the fire alarm as a distraction.—This is just a guess. Formulate your own guesses. Then try to cultivate enough detachment so that every time she repeats the behavior, you can (silently, mentally) redefine it right back at her: "Oh, there she goes, pulling the fire alarm again. I see exactly what she's doing, and why. I've got her number."
posted by Orinda at 10:52 PM on February 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

Without taking the time to read all the other responses, first of all, I'd say it's important for you to learn how to deal with this kind of situation. It's a pretty common one in the workplace.

As others have said, DOCUMENT. Depending on your duties, that may involve documenting why you are taking certain actions. For example, for about 6 months at a soul crushing job with an overbearing idiot boss, ever note I wrote read: Per Idiot Boss: Did such and such. Because I recognized I couldn't argue with my boss and win, but I wasn't going to be held responsible for implementing her policies.

At my first job I felt a bit of a failure and was criticized for my people skills. There were times in that job when I had to leave to cry, I was so angry and hurt by coworkers. But ultimately, through a couple of candid conversations about how different parties were misinterpreting each other's actions, we all became good friends. Out of that painful time, I learned a lot about how people could misread my body language, speech patterns, etc. And when I left that job and went to my next, I was able to start off using all the skills I had learned, and things were much better. I often think of what my old supervisor would have thought of the person I became, when he flat out said he didn't think I had it in me.

Four months isn't that long. You can hang in there, and hopefully will learn how to deal with this stress.
posted by threeturtles at 11:34 PM on February 10, 2011

Nthing Orinda!

She is using words that work in a child-shaming-type way. In other words - she is really pushing your buttons.

Disconnect your buttons!

You won't master this in 4 months, but you'll need to do this regardless if you expect to become a successful adult, so here is a plan...

Get very very objective about the whole situation, but especially your reactions. Observe your subconscious triggers. Watch how she plays them. Becoming self-aware will sometimes be all it takes to "disconnect your buttons." Such a simple act being self-aware, and so empowering, too.

Hang in there. Visualize being successful when your contract is done. Stay positive.
posted by jbenben at 12:58 AM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

But I am not powerful. I have no family support. I have a few friends. No money.

Please pardon my harshness, but,

YOU'RE A LAWYER. It's not clear to me if you've been admitted to the bar, but you at least have a JD.

Lawyers scare people; that's their job. You're supposed to know all sorts of ways to totally fuck people up for every little technicality (or conversely, know these technicalities to get people off when others lawyers come to fuck them up). Or at least know how to look up ways to fuck people up and screw them over, sometimes for year after grinding year, for decades.

You're also supposed to know exactly how close to the line you can walk without crossing it, how you can (metaphorically or literally) get right the fuck up ion someone's grill without doing anything that could be construed as battery.

You should be able to pick this person apart on technicalities, all the while keeping yourself technically an angel.

Whether that's some variation of "work to the rule" (google it), or an understanding of exactly what your rights and responsibilities are as an employee under Federal and New York State law and an Americorps volunteer, and insisting on every jot and tittle of each right while meeting only the letter of every responsibility, or by understanding her every potential liability personally aqnd as an agent of her employer.

And as everyone else has told you: document, document document. That's also what lawyers do. Every fifteen minutes for billing, and every detail of a client's case. In this case, you're the client.

And treat every conversation with her as if you're both at a deposition: get her precise documented answers to everything, and in your responses to her, volunteer absolutely nothing. Your every answer is "yes", "no", "I don't recall", or "to the best of my understanding at the present time".

Or at the very least, use legal baffle-gab ("under 28 CFR part 14, any settlement under 28 USC 2672") to keep her off-balance, confused, and fearful of your (imminent or future) retribution.

From your description of how she speaks to you, it apparent that in part, she's treating you as she does because she already fears your legal training and knowledge -- now make that work for you.

You're a lawyer: you're supposed to (be able to) bully people, and you've gone to school for three long grueling years to learn how to confuse, intimidate, and bully.

(I'm not saying that all lawyers are bullies; only that by definition they are trained to use a toolkit that allows them to leverage the full weight of the seize-your-assets-and-take-away-your-liberty-Leviathan legal system against solitary individuals.)
posted by orthogonality at 5:09 AM on February 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

You're from the Midwest, she's from Long Island. There's a source for trouble, right there. I speak as a native of Michigan, who moved to NYC and Long Island.

See, from your view, it is just totally easy to read too much of what any Long Islander would say, in a work situation, as being hostile and/or bullying. Thing is, even when it is intended to sound that way, it may not be intended to be taken that way. There's some serious room for cultural misunderstanding here. VERY situation specific. It's something that fascinated me and I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and observing.

I'm putting this hear just as an additional bit for consideration. Take it with my deepest sympathy. Petty tyrants are, for me, the worst kind, because the petty is inexcusable, in my book. :-/ Whatever else is going on, you have a petty tyrant, for sure. But real or characature?
posted by Goofyy at 6:15 AM on February 11, 2011

I'm in therapy. Have been for years.

Do you feel it's working for you?

Sometimes therapy is effective and sometimes--sometimes--there's a mismatch between the person and her therapist such that sessions end up being more of a rehashing of things that upset the person than the person actually making progress. You feel, at 34, with a JD and a career, that you are powerless, lack all social supports, and will continue to be bullied until the bullies decide to stop--and you say that you've been in therapy for years. To me, that says that you probably need a different therapist, or a therapist working in a different modality.

It does sound like your boss is trying to intimidate you. I'm not trying to minimize that. But your feelings of powerlessness are much more harmful to you, long-term, than one crappy boss. And learning more effective ways of feeling (and acting) empowered will help you to deal with this boss and any other people in your life who try to push you around.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:26 AM on February 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

As others have observed about therapy; if your therapist isn't capable enough to help you deal with this sort of situation, then you need to think about getting a fresh perspective with someone new. Shop around for someone you feel more comfortable drawing advice from. A therapist should be helping you pick apart this situation.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:19 AM on February 11, 2011

I mean this in all kindness: How are you going to stand up and protect the underdogs if you can't defend yourself? You're going to need balls of steel when saving the innocents from evildoers, or they will walk all over you. It's probably time to stop framing yourself as sensitive and thin-skinned, and start picturing yourself as someone who eats bitches like your boss for lunch.

Fake it til you make it! And good luck!
posted by cyndigo at 12:50 PM on February 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

In situations like this, I put a smile on my face, while inside my head I'm saying, "F*#k you." over and over to myself. With variations. :)

Think about trying daily affirmations in the mirror. Your self esteem is low. Talk to yourself every morning and tell yourself how incredibly awesome you are. Tell yourself that this evil wench has no power over you, and no insight INTO you. You sound like a great person. Now tell yourself just HOW great.
posted by Spyder's Game at 2:24 PM on February 11, 2011

OP here. Hi Everyone. Thank you. :)
For the sake of clarity: I am a licensed attorney. Passed NY Bar in one go, made it through Character and Fitness without a hitch and was sworn in a little less than a year ago. In response to those of you who question my capacity to be brave/strong/tough enough to fight for underdogs... I hear you. But I respectfully disagree. Atticus Finch was not a bullying, belittling showman. Abe Lincoln. Gandhi. I am not comparing myself to them, only pointing out that many lawyers are gentle but resolute. I possess the determination and conviction to represent clients and to get them what they need. What I lack is interpersonal skills and confidence. I often do not seem like a lawyer, though I can do it when I must (I volunteer through a local pro bono initiative to get more experience/confidence and I do a-ok).

There is another big part to my story which explains some of my pansy-ass attitude in dealing with my supervisor. I'll presume to tell it...

My term as an AmeriCorps VISTA began at a different site. It was a public interest law firm and I was acting as a legal assistant. We were doing foreclosure prevention. I was there for 6 months. A little over 2 months ago I was transferred to this new site, where the petty tyrant reigns.

This is where my active if undefinable role in this difficulty becomes apparent: My supervisor at my original site -- one of just a handful on staff who had not gone to law school, was not a lawyer, and was insecure about her position there -- also did not like me and she made this known by glaring at me, excluding me from events that the other VISTAs participated in, not responding to my emails or calls, refusing to respond to my requests for meetings, canceling meetings at the last minute, belittling me in meetings, yelling at me for not asking for time off in the right way, telling me that an attorney had complained that I came across as awkward and nervous, that I had poor social timing, that I asked too many questions... AmeriCorps knew about this treatment and we had a meeting and it seemed like we were on track but then it started again. Then something else happened.

A foreclosure client for whom I did the initial interview presented solid facts that indicated they had been defrauded in a loan modification scam. I told one of the attorneys this. The attorney told me that clients often make things up and you cannot trust much of what they say. I countered that the facts were clear and it appeared they had been taken advantage of. I also countered that if one is their attorney they need to trust that they're honest and look into the possibility that they had a valid claim -- duty to zealously advocate etc. The attorney told the supervising attorney and the director that I had disagreed with the attorney in public in the courtroom. I was talked to and the AmeriCorps support team was told that I had been insubordinate with an attorney and had publicly contradicted them. I was seriously chastised. I apologized but said it was not done in public and that I did not think I had done anything wrong. The higher ups did not look into the facts of the client's case to determine whether they had been defrauded. Several weeks later the attorney I had disagreed with very bravely told me about an email the attorney had received from another public interest law firm about a suit filed by the Federal Trade Commission against a loan modification scheme that had been targeting people in our area and to look out for clients who might have a claim. The company was the same one that the aforementioned client had given money to. I felt vindicated, though I did not rub it in anyone's face. I was impressed that the attorney who had gotten me in trouble showed me the email. I asked if I could alert the client and help them file a claim to be reimbursed through the receivership that had been appointed. I was given the go-ahead, though I was told to do it in my own capacity, not as an agent of the public interest firm where I was placed.

That month, for my monthly AmeriCorps report (every month we are required to report what we've done) I wrote, in terms that protected the client's identity, about the experience under the STORIES section of the report. I told the story of how disheartening it was to see that nothing could be done to help someone who appeared to have been defrauded and how redeeming it was to find out that the schemers were being shut down. Under the CHALLENGES section of my report I wrote about struggling to see eye to eye with my supervisor and not knowing what to do about it. A few days after I submitted this report, I was asked to meet the local AmeriCorps Director and she told me that my site wanted me to leave. I was told that what I had done was unprofessional. When I looked into the VISTA handbook, "unprofessional" behavior is grounds for termination. The Director offered to transfer me rather than terminate me. She told me I was not a good fit for the site where I started my term. She told me the place to which I was transferred might be a better fit. I went to the interview and accepted the transfer. I've been there a little over two months. I have four months to go, as you know. Some of the language that my current supervisor uses reminds me of the language used by the Director when she told me I had been asked to leave. Unprofessional, inappropriate. Her use of this language is frightening because it seems the same thing that happened before could happen again. I hesitate to confront her in any way because I already have a huge mark against me. I was asked to leave my last site because I was "unprofessional." There are definitely times when I'm not the perfectly professional. I prefer honest communication and that's not really allowed in these environments. I certainly have more to learn about casting my "professional" self. But one of the reasons the interactions with the current supervisor are so intimidating is that it seems like AmeriCorps told her about what happened at the former site and that she is subsequently hypervigilant to catch mistakes that may qualify as unprofessional, insubordinate, inappropriate. So... sorry for so much information but it's a complicated story. Thanks to anyone who stayed with me. Is anyone still with me?
posted by Ventre Mou at 5:13 PM on February 11, 2011

Hmm, now it even more sounds like this is an issue where you are put into a situation that is, or could get, touchy, and do not have the interpersonal skills to handle it--and may even rankle people more. Your supervisor's comment about people noticing your poor social skills, on top of your admission that you have poor social skills, are what give me pause.

I was an incredible introvert, terribly lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem when I was younger. Had no social skills, I was pretty quiet and tried to stay out of the way, just keep my head down and do well at school (the one thing I was good at). However, all the kids around me had be pegged as a know-it-all and teacher's pet.

At the time, I felt very put-upon and victimized. Looking back, I realize that my introversion came off as arrogance and superliciousness, not shyness, mostly because of my lack of social skills meant when I did speak up I came off like a know-it-all and a teacher's pet. When I learned to be more aware of people's insecurities, make more of an effort to talk to people, and carefully choose my words and tone, the victimization stopped.

It's possible that in between her prior insecurity and your awkwardness your supervisor things you're a troublemaking arrogant person. Do you have any trusted friends at the workplace who can give you an honest assessment of your interactions with others, and get some tips? This is not about bending over backwards to please your supervisor, but finding a way of interacting that allows you to deliver your message while smoothing things over.
posted by schroedinger at 7:39 PM on February 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

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