How to I act at work after an emotional reaction to a rape discussion?
August 18, 2016 8:53 AM   Subscribe

I had an unexpected emotional reaction to a rape PSA-type video in a meeting today and had to leave a room of about 50 people while trying (and mostly failing) to conceal how upset I was. I’m feeling both drained and embarrassed, and not a little nervous about going in to work tomorrow, and I wanted to get some perspective and advice about what to do next.

(My apologies for the length)

I teach at a community college and have been in my position for about 13 years. I had to take medical leave last semester because of some debilitating depression. I am somewhat self-conscious because I know my colleagues wonder why I was out, and I’m guessing typical department gossip has let everyone know that my illness was mental, not physical. So I have been trying to make myself as unobtrusive as possible.

During our division meeting, our dean wanted to talk about resources for students who are dealing with domestic violence, and she showed a short video with two stick figures talking about a murder using the same victim-blaming rhetoric we use with rape (what was he wearing, why didn’t he blow his murder whistle – I guess it would be easy to find online, but I really don’t want to go looking for it) in a humorous way. I was raped several years ago. I’ve read same comparison plenty of times with no emotional reaction. However today, watching it in a room with most of the people around me laughing, I found myself tearing up. I was surprised by the reaction because a) my rape happened a long time ago and I rarely think about it anymore and b) I had no idea I would react so strongly, especially to a silly animation.

I managed to keep it together for about 10 more minutes, but then I couldn’t stop crying and had to gather my things and leave. I unfortunately had to walk across the room to get to the door, so I know several people saw how upset I was. One of my colleagues came out to check and me and sat with me while I cried until I felt I was safe to drive. I told her why I was upset, that I couldn’t go back into the room, and to please make my apologies to the deans after the meeting.

Now I’m at home wondering what to do next. I thought about emailing my dean, but I’m nervous about putting anything in writing. I like her, I don’t want to get HR on her case, and I’d like to avoid calling any more attention to myself. I’m already working with HR on some accommodations related to my depression, and I feel like I’m starting to seem like a high-maintenance, emotional wreck. While we don’t have tenure, it would take some effort to fire someone in my position. But I don’t want to find out if I’m mistaken on that front. And finally, I don’t know if I’m being too sensitive because it’s not like the video was gratuitous or saying “yay rape!,” and I don’t want to shut down any conversations that we should be having about rape culture on our campus. I’m terrified about going in to my office tomorrow and having to face everyone who saw me acting so unprofessionally, and I’m not sure I can explain myself without getting emotional again (I still can’t stop crying even a few hours later). So can offer advice about how I should proceed?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This was not unprofessional. That's the first thing. Your reaction is not something that you chose to do knowing that it would make you look like a less capable instructor but decided to do anyway.

Second, everyone knows why you reacted the way you did. At least, everyone who is a functioning human being knows.

Third, if anyone even hints to HR that this is a reason to get rid of you, HR will (should) shut that shit down immediately, because it opens up the school to massive sanction. Any good employment lawyer will positively drool over the prospect of such a lawsuit.

So what do you do? You go to work tomorrow and you do your thing, and you don't apologize for anything, and if anyone brings it up, you say, "I'd rather not talk about it, thanks," and you go about your day. If anyone presses you on it, you pick up the phone and dial HR and loudly say "Hello, Human Resources? I would like a meeting this afternoon."
posted by Etrigan at 9:12 AM on August 18, 2016 [108 favorites]

You did nothing wrong. You may feel ashamed about how you acted and worry about what people think, but it sounds to me like you were triggered and your reaction was beyond your control. You are taking all the right steps to deal with your mental illness and you are dealing with them in regards to the policies and procedures in place at your place of work. If your place of work has those policies and procedures in place, it is highly unlikely that they would just fire you for walking out of a meeting when you were upset. You do not have to explain yourself. If you feel like you want to, I would loop HR in and approach the situation as residual from your recent episode, and ask for help in regards to your dean.
posted by momochan at 9:14 AM on August 18, 2016 [2 favorites]

Most people will ignore this. They may ask the person who followed you if you're ok but are unlikely to approach you directly. If anybody does bring it up just be professional and maintain boundaries in your response.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:17 AM on August 18, 2016 [22 favorites]

You need to outwardly pretend this never happened and move on.

It was a foreseeable outcome that some people watching that material could be distressed by it. It is not your fault that you got upset at upsetting material. All you did was reinforce the point the dean was trying to get across, so unless she's an asshole she's not gonna hold this against you. If she is an asshole, there's not much you can do about it, but it isn't your problem per se.

I mean what could she possibly say to you? "We're concerned about the emotional way you responded to a video showing how victim-blaming rhetoric about rape is deeply distressing. We're trying to create a supportive atmosphere for student victims here and we don't really want staff members getting snot all over our nice clean meeting room. Pull yourself together, you're supposed to be a role model for student mental health!" Because that is pretty much what your dean would have to be thinking in order to hold this against you at all. I'm not saying your dean ISN'T that requisite kind of monster in human form, because I don't know her. But if it's your experience that your dean is not actually Mordor the Child-Eater in person, you're probably in the clear.

(I know you said your dean is female but I'm visualizing Rowan Atkinson in The Tall Guy delivering those lines.)

Plus, even if people have twigged that you were off with depression, and I'm sure your coworkers are a mix of good and bad, your prototypical reasonable coworker is not going to think less of you for being off sick for that reason, and in fact probably won't have given it much thought at all.

Seriously, you haven't done anything wrong here, and if anything your dean screened some triggering material without really understanding that it could upset not just students, but people who were actually in the room. Now she knows. From what you say, you didn't see it coming so I guess a trigger warning wouldn't necessarily have helped, but it's not your fault and it's maybe even 1% her fault.
posted by tel3path at 9:19 AM on August 18, 2016 [11 favorites]

I'm with Etrigan on the "functioning human being" thing. Normally I expect the worst of colleagues/strangers, but in this particular case, I think someone would have to be a true monster to engage you further on this point or even to think less of you privately. If I had to put numbers on it, I'd say that 9:10 coworkers will say nothing and pretend it never happened. The tenth will say, "Hey, feeling better today?" And all you say to that is "Yeah, thanks!"

It's not unprofessional--this is a ground-level human thing that happened. You did a good job leaving when you did. Take care of yourself!
posted by 8603 at 9:21 AM on August 18, 2016 [14 favorites]

I think your emotions and reactions should be understandable and accepted by your colleagues, and you could take a load off yourself by putting those out there. You will probably find more support coming back to you than censure, and if there is any censure it would surely not be to that person's credit in the eyes of most of your co-workers. Unless there is an unhealthy dynamic that transcends typical inclinations to gossip.

Another thing you might consider is that perhaps there's an opportunity here. Bringing forward your personal experiences could serve to strengthen the awareness and compassion the dean was presumably trying to cultivate within your division. Most decent people, given the chance to learn about violence they have not themselves experienced, will respond in a healthy way and be grateful to you for sharing. The stigma against rape victims is really a problem, and it's good for people to realize that victims are out there in all forms. The silence with which so many victims live is tantamount to a secondary victimization, and some people find that positively breaking the silence is empowering and healing. You can do this without it subsuming your whole identity.

I'm not trying to tell you your feelings of nervousness and shame are invalid—your feelings are always valid. Just suggesting maybe where you can decide to take this. Your healing process wants to be done, even if the rape occurred a long time ago. The time is not germane, what matters is where you are in healing. Our society as a whole owes you its assistance with that healing process.

Best wishes with all of this.
posted by maniabug at 9:23 AM on August 18, 2016

if anything your dean screened some triggering material without really understanding that it could upset not just students, but people who were actually in the room.

Exactly. This is the sort of thing that may happen (supposedly well-meaning people who just screw something up and upset someone) and your reaction in the middle of the other shit you are dealing with both personally and professionally was understandable. Please be kind to yourself, you did the right things. Depression, even well-managed depression, can sometimes clobber us with what feels like out of left field very deep feelings. Most people are sensitive to that to varying degrees (if you suspect your mental health challenges are known to people), a few might not be. People will give you space and it might be helpful to have a pat reply in case anyone's weird about it "Yeah that brought up some past stuff for me..."

Our society as a whole owes you its assistance with that healing process.

Seconding this. I'd give it some time before you decide if you want to respond to the dean or not. For now, try to get to a place where you feel calm and grounded. This is part of your healing process. I am sorry it happened.
posted by jessamyn at 9:27 AM on August 18, 2016 [17 favorites]

I’m terrified about going in to my office tomorrow and having to face everyone who saw me acting so unprofessionally, and I’m not sure I can explain myself without getting emotional again (I still can’t stop crying even a few hours later).

You acted in what seemed like the most professional way possible. You do not need to explain yourself to anyone. Nosy and/or concerned people might ask (one way to tell the difference is that the concerned people will do it in private, and in a way that makes it clear that you don't owe them any explanation), so it might be a good idea to practice a stock answer: "I wasn't feeling well" is true enough, "the video upset me more than I expected" also true, but I don't think you need to share this with anyone you don't want to, etc. etc. You can also feel free to go with "I'd rather not talk about it."

So can offer advice about how I should proceed?

I'd honestly go into work and act as if nothing happened. Maybe... maybe, I'd consider doing something nice for the co-worker who sat with you, like leaving a card that just says "thank you, anon" (no need to write down why you are thanking them, they know) on their desk. But you don't have to do that.

Otherwise, just go in and do your job.

If you want to go above and beyond (which you don't have to), you might consider that the Dean chose that video because she cares about DV/violence against women issues and she wanted the campus culture to be one that is supportive of victims and works to prevent sexual violence/harassment/etc./etc. Therefore, the Dean probably does not want to create an environment where employees or students feel upset and/or triggered. Therefore, the Dean may be open to your feedback about the video and how it was presented.

As you say, the video sounds like it was well meaning (and important), but maybe the Dean should have provided more of a content warning before the discussion (so you could have chosen to leave? and hey -- maybe you still wouldn't have chosen to leave and would still have suffered, but maybe in the next meeting someone will use that warning as an opportunity to leave and therefore be spared)? Maybe the video isn't, in fact, appropriate for display in group settings and instead the Dean should have encouraged people to view it at their workstations (on work time, of course)?

So, maybe not today, tomorrow, or this month, but maybe someday, you might want to schedule a brief meeting with the Dean to give her your feedback about the experience. Nothing in writing, don't go through HR, but just a quick chat. If you don't think she would be receptive, then don't do it. If you don't think you're up to it, then don't do it. But, it's something that you could consider for the future because it might help others.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:31 AM on August 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am so, so sorry you were in this situation. Please do what you can to take care of yourself right now and know that this can be sorted out.

Please do not think of yourself as a high maintenance employee. Your feelings are legitimate and not shameful. Your health is critical to your ability to do your job and (assuming you are in the US) you have HIPAA protection for the reason for your leave. There are lots of invisible illnesses that could make a person need to take leave. From what you've written, i can see you are a strong person who was responsible enough to seek help for your depression. That is really damn hard to do when you're in the middle of it.

Getting to the subject of your question, I think you can recover gracefully without having to share personal details beyond what's been seen so far. You could talk to whoever would be appropriate (maybe your dean) about how sensitive a topic this can be and that faculty should be considerate of this in their behavior for the sake of everyone on campus. Maybe you would feel comfortable saying there's a need for more sensitivity/privilege training? Or if it's too much to talk about it right now, you're not obligated to take on the burden of educating people about this issue.
I hope your peers show human decency and compassion fitting to a professional environment. Also, big hugs if you're the hugging sort!
posted by mrcrow at 9:34 AM on August 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

No one can accurately predict what will trigger a strong post-traumatic reaction, it is not your fault, nor is it unprofessional. They should respect it the same way they'd respect someone who suddenly got physically ill. It's the same sort of unpredictable event, and I really doubt anyone with half a brain will try to blame you or make it into a big deal.

If no one is talking about it, that doesn't usually mean they're gossiping behind your back or secretly thinking less of you. Part of me wonders if the Dean isn't at least a bit embarrassed with herself for showing the video, so maybe the feeling of shame is mutual. I honestly feel like that is more likely than anyone being angry with you.

They're probably trying to let this event fade out, rather than entangle you any further. At this point I think you should seek the support of friends and loved ones just to disengage from that pressure and shame for a while. You really don't need to feel bad about this.
posted by InkDrinker at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2016

I am so sorry. You did nothing wrong and no one is going to think any less of you for it. Promise.

I’m not sure I can explain myself without getting emotional again (I still can’t stop crying even a few hours later). So can offer advice about how I should proceed?

You don't have to do anything at all. But I understand the need to explain if that's how you feel. You could try crafting a small speech or some sort of explanation (none is needed, honestly!) if you really feel you want to say something. Keep saying it out loud, over and over. You may cry the first few times, and that's ok. Just keep saying the words out loud and you will be able to get farther and farther without crying each time. The goal is to desensitize yourself to the triggering effects of the words so you'll be able to say them without crying. I hope you find peace.
posted by the webmistress at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2016

However today, watching it in a room with most of the people around me laughing, I found myself tearing up.

It is not a funny topic. There is nothing funny about the way rape victims get blamed and shamed and dismissed. I would be pretty taken aback by that, though I likely would have gotten pissed off rather than teary.

Their laughter implies that they aren't exactly enlightened souls and your negative reaction to that fact is completely reasonable. Their laughter is likely of the uncomfortable type rather than "that's hilarious." It likely means the film hit a nerve for many of them and they do not want to admit it. They needed to be educated about how wrong it is to do that to rape victims. I would feel pretty uncomfortable knowing so many of my co-workers are heathens.

You do not owe anyone an explanation. Take care of yourself. Pull yourself together. If necessary, just excuse yourself and walk away if anyone says anything about it.

You might also journal. You seem to have some internalized shame about your depression, if nothing else. Journaling might help you resolve that. You have zero reason to be ashamed. If you got hit by a car, you likely wouldn't feel ashamed and likely wouldn't be worrying about office gossip. Your brain got hit by something beyond your control. You took some time off to take care of it. That's the responsible thing to do.

posted by Michele in California at 10:43 AM on August 18, 2016 [8 favorites]

Just to add to the compassion-fest coming your way, and to say that if there were 50 people in that room, I imagine you weren't the only person affected by that video in some way, even if the others didn't show it visibly. Just in case that helps the "Oh God I did something weird," shame feelings. And of those who haven't been through something similar, a chunk of them will have supported someone else through it.
posted by penguin pie at 11:02 AM on August 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

To adress the high maintenance question: I think trying to explain and justify your feelings to multiple people when there's absolutely no need to would signal "high maintenance" much more than your previous behaviour!**
There's nothing high maintenance about removing yourself as quickly and discretely as possible from a distressing situation.
You did fine.

**I'm not saying you should never talk about it, but if you do it should be in the context of "here is my suggestion how we can make work a better place".
posted by Omnomnom at 12:02 PM on August 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

If anyone says anything that isn't 100% compassionate and supportive, give me their name and I'll come punch them.*

I can't imagine any halfway decent human being who would think of this as unprofessional or who would use it to hurt your career. The only circumstance where you'd need to address anything about this would be if you want to advocate for some kind of change in the way they present this material in the future. Otherwise feel free to ignore it completely.

* I haven't punched anyone since I was 14, and even then it didn't go too well, but it might make a point
posted by Lame_username at 2:18 PM on August 18, 2016

I'm sorry this happened and wish you well. You were NOT unprofessional and I predict that people will understand, feel compassion, and leave you alone about it.

On the remote chance that anyone is a dick about it, you could try "Oh, do you not find rape upsetting? Why not?" It's a valid question and it should shut them right up. Rape is fucking upsetting. You got upset. You actually reacted correctly, and anyone who doesn't understand that is awful.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 4:32 PM on August 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

I don’t want to get HR on her case...I’m already working with HR on some accommodations related to my depression, and I feel like I’m starting to seem like a high-maintenance, emotional wreck.

Literally, my job is to make you feel safe and comfortable at work. Like actually my job. Don't apologize for ordering pancakes at a diner. If you are not an asshole to your HR person you are not high-maintenance. (Please don't be an asshole to your HR person.) The other part of my job is to talk with the dean about the video so that everyone else who didn't speak up also feels safe and comfortable, and so that three years from now I don't hear about how the dean makes people uncomfortable every year playing that video.

A huge part of my job is having that conversation with the dean in a way that does not sound like "getting on her case." Ninety percent of the time, a person who has communicated an inappropriate message absolutely did not mean to and has no idea they did. I always approach these conversations as a problem-solver, and by assuming the dean had good intentions and needs some assistance finding the right tools for the job. Sometimes just walking them through the video is enough for them to see what you saw and feel horrified that they hurt someone. Or, turns out the dean is pretty flip about rape and then we have a different conversation with a different tone, with her manager.

If anyone gives you any shit in the coming weeks? Any at all? Seriously: tell HR, without hesitation. I will immediately fuck them up in the most work-appropriate way possible. I don't know anyone who wouldn't.
posted by good lorneing at 9:12 PM on August 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

I've been writing an essay in my head titled I Was Triggered By A Faculty Meeting for about a year now.
posted by yarntheory at 10:31 PM on August 18, 2016

However today, watching it in a room with most of the people around me laughing, I found myself tearing up.

I am so, so sorry for your experience and that you had to go through this. I looked up the video, and there is absolutely nothing funny about this. Nothing. Your coworkers sound like they are either extremely insensitive or really unprofessional. Maybe both.

Did the dean give a warning about the material that was about to be presented? If not, that is unprofessional. Not your reaction.

I work for a very large government agency, and informing staff of the guidelines and rules around sexual harassment has always been treated as absolutely serious. No stick figures or cartoons, and certainly no laughter. When information may trigger someone, that is noted and it is understood that if you need to step out, you can do so, no questions asked.

Another thought. You were in a room of 50 people, and we do not live in a vacuum. You are not just sitting there with your life experience and emotions, but the emotions and energy of everyone around you. Whether you know it or not, you are not alone in how you feel. I'm sure there was at least one other victim of rape in that room, and if not a victim directly, than other folks who know someone with that experience. I'm sure that those folks empathized with you and wanted to support you, but didn't know what to do or say in the moment. Especially amid the mixed reactions of everyone else, in a professional setting.

If you do go to work, tomorrow, you may find that people approach you not to criticize you, but to support you and say they are sorry for how that made you feel, and maybe that they felt that way too. (That is, if you decide to go. I think it's entirely OK for you to take a day off and do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.)

You've gotten a lot of great advice upthread. What would it take for you to have closure around this? Talking to a therapist? Talking to HR? Speaking with the dean directly? Taking a day off to process things?

Best wishes, and again I'm so sorry this happened.
posted by onecircleaday at 11:16 PM on August 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

You're good.

'Professional' is a way human beings act. The expectation you're giving yourself are not even human. I'm sorry you felt embarrassed about what happened. You definitely need not.

Professional human beings have unexpected reactions, even years later, to things that suddenly remind them of being raped. Professional human beings cry sometimes. Other professional human beings laugh when they are faced with the evil absurdity of victim blaming.

It's all okay. I bet dollars to donuts they weren't laughing at the rape aspect, they were laughing because the cartoon (I've seen it) does an excellent job of pointing out the absurd double standard of victim blaming. I promise they weren't laughing at you because they know or suspect you've been depressed. This was a group of people who take victim blaming as a serious problem. The one or two of them who might not, they've got the idea to shut the hell up about it.

Consider this: the reason you had to run from the room, rather than feel that you could be your human self and cry there, stems from the same victim blaming culture the cartoon is addressing. I do not at all mean that you are complicit in victim blaming. This is a cultural phenomenon we are all living in like the very air we breathe.

It is hard and painful and not worth it to challenge this culture. I do it. When anyone, including strangers, ask why I'm on disability I tell them that I was raped and developed serious PTSD. They immediately (it's so weird, they all do this) bend forward at the waist about 20 degrees and and step back 1 full step while "oh my god" or "I'm so sorry" is like thrown from their solar plexus. I give a little speech about the importance of reducing stigma. It's a horrible experience. It's not worth it, I swear, don't do it. Let people make cartoons instead. (I promised myself I would always do that, as my personal way to bear witness, and fuck do I wish I had never come up with that idea.)

But do remind yourself. You're a human being, this is a way human beings get hurt. Many of them. And people, including you and me, need to be reminded that the pain that results is not shameful. You didn't stand up and take a shit all over the room. Anyone, or any part of you that tries to tell you that's what you did is being driven by victim blaming culture.

Big hugs.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 5:30 PM on August 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

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