recovering from a bad boss
November 30, 2021 3:27 AM   Subscribe

For close to 3 years I had a terrible boss. Now I have an ok one. But I still find myself panicking, second-guessing, over-preparing... All the behaviours I learned to cope with the terrible boss. I also find myself flashing back to times with the terrible boss and feeling angry with myself for not sticking up for myself. What can I do to get through these negative feelings?

I had a terrific therapist for a while but having to take a break for reasons irrelevant to this post. But trust me, I'm a big fan of therapy. Just can't access it right now.

For a long period of time I had a terrible boss who belittled me both at our one-to-ones and in front of colleagues. He bullied multiple junior colleagues, was rude and abrupt, took personal offence whenever I pushed back, criticised my workplace demeanour saying 'everyone found me annoying', tore my work to shreds, and blamed me when things went wrong even when they were totally out of my control. The expectation was that I would manage everything even when I couldn't, and if I failed to it was because I had 'failed to take proper ownership'. He criticised me when I asked questions ('you need too much hand-holding'), but if I didn't ask questions he would harangue me for that too. He did not work hard himself, took credit for everything I did, and was just overall a nightmare. To make things worse, he wasn't even consistently awful. Every so often he would suddenly become, without warning, extremely warm, friendly and accommodating. You just never knew where you stood with him.

I managed to work under him reasonably well after some time, by over-preparing for our meetings, working late, never speaking a word in the office that wasn't work-related, and just giving 150% all of the time so that he could not find anything about my work or demeanour to criticise. By the time we stopped working together, I was managing him reasonably well, but it was always very stressful.

Anyway my boss now has his issues but is worlds better than my previous boss. I have way more autonomy. However I find myself still stressing about 'being annoying'/'asking too many questions'/'not asking enough questions'/whether I should have said this or that in an email, working late, over-preparing, giving 150% all of the time, and worrying when I don't. I find myself obsessing over old emails from my old boss, remembering how poorly I was treated and feeling angry with myself for taking it all like a mouse and never pushing back in the face of bullying.

Mostly, I feel angry with Old Me for being naive and unguarded enough to let my old boss find things about me to criticise. I feel like, what does it say about me that I let myself be in that position for such a long time? I briefly had a therapist (a different therapist from my aforementioned excellent therapist) say that 'some people tend to attract bullying behaviours towards them from others' and even though I don't agree with her, I do find myself worrying I am that sort of person; I have definitely been bullied multiple times in my life, by family members, kids at school, and in my adulthood, this boss. And I feel worried about what will happen if I ever let myself get into such a situation again.

It almost feels like now that my old boss has gone I am allowing myself to really feel the extent of how bad that part of my life was.

What can I do to stop obsessing and using my old-boss-management techniques to manage my current one? And how can I deal with the fear of this kind of thing happening again?
posted by unicorn chaser to Work & Money (7 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're going through this.

Your former boss was emotionally abusive. This boss used power to demean, control, frighten, and forever keep you unsettled.

Because your ability to survive in the world - pay bills, buy food, etc - centered around this person and their power over you, it goes beyond "bullying." It's abuse.

It's also common for abusers to turn on charm as a manipulation tactic, particularly when others are present.

You did what you needed to do to survive within a screwy ecosystem. You were prey and a predator came after you all the time, and toyed with you instead of just eating you and getting it over with.

That's no small thing.

So I would start there. You got it done. You made it within a really screwed up system. There's nothing to punish or judge yourself for.

And, I guess, in my experience some people do "attract bullies." But your therapist had no business saying it, unless you were past the grieving phase and ready to look to the future and work on strategies.

Don't say a true thing, unless it's also a helpful thing, particularly if you're a professional who is entrusted with the mental health of others.

And the goal of a proper society isn't to chide people for "attracting bullies." It's to hold abusers accountable, whether they're in conference rooms or living rooms.
posted by champers at 4:33 AM on November 30, 2021 [6 favorites]

It almost feels like now that my old boss has gone I am allowing myself to really feel the extent of how bad that part of my life was.

That sounds exactly like what is happening. And that sucks, but it also means that you are perceptive enough to realize what is going on. It makes perfect sense that having to establish yourself in relation to your new boss would stir up emotions and fears from the past .

I have found, with this kind of thing, it's really important to remember the limits of my responsibility and power. Yes, it's possible that I could do things to improve a bad situation. But that doesn't mean that I am necessarily responsible for that situation.

Your ex boss sounds like a total nightmare. I'm not surprised that you have been traumatized by being in that situation.

It's important to only accept responsibility for the things you actually were responsible for. It's such a classic abuse pattern that the abuser makes you feel that you somehow brought the abuse on yourself. You somehow *made* them do it. They behave the way they do because you are not confident enough / too confident / too formal / too friendly / too shy /too brash...

The truth is that your ex boss was a total asshole and he would have been that way no matter how you handled the situation. You did NOT in any way attract that behavior.

All that matters is that you got out of that bad job and got yourself into a better situation. That didn't just happen by accident. You don't have a fairy godmother who waved a wand and improved things. You did that.
And that takes courage.

When I find myself engaging in negative self talk, I find it helps to just notice it in a neutral way, and label it as such. Not beating myself up about it. "Hmm. I'm being harsh to myself again"

I don't try to argue or rationalize with myself, but try to find something that I can do that's distracting, positive and fun.

Even just grounding myself by focusing on my breath, noticing my environment.
When I catch myself ruminating about the same past events once again, I do the same.

Being kind to my past self is crucial to helping me pull myself out of a negative spiral. Accepting that there are things I can't control.
It's possible that your new work situation will be difficult in some way. You can't protect yourself from future stress. But you can remember that you are resilient, brave, and resourceful, and that when something does go wrong, you will figure out how to deal with it.
I know you can, because you've already done it.
posted by Zumbador at 4:39 AM on November 30, 2021 [5 favorites]

The ex boss was abusive, and the inconsistency of his behavior is likely what led to the compensatory obsessions you’re still using/experiencing now. IAMNYT but I am a therapist, and I would like to call out the worrisome linguistic aspects of “attracting bullying behavior.”

IIRC we have research that people convicted of crimes like mugging, if given video of a number of different people, usually hone in on a consistent subset of “best victims.” Sometimes they can name reasons (e.g., visible frailty, female, signs of low self esteem). But sometimes it’s just a consistent gut feeling.

My view is that in daily life, we don’t attract so much as we tolerate them. Your boss starts with 5 employees and behaves badly. Maybe 3 people say “oh heck no.” They leave. Mind that they also had to have the means to leave, whatever those resources are. That leaves 2. Maybe boss acts badly again, and another person says, “I thought the first instance was a mistake, but 2 instances is abuse. Buh bye, bad boss!” Now you are left with 1 person who speaks the language you used above about it not being too bad some days, and trying hard to make it work. To a certain degree, it takes resilience to continue surviving that kind of situation chronically. It takes resilience to stick around long enough to implement the kinds of emotional double checking that you are experiencing now.

I can’t tell if you stayed at the last job because of external factors (bad job market etc.) or because you felt that was just how life is or you felt you had to suck it up. Either way, it’s normal to mourn when you’ve attained a safe distance. Mourning hurts more than stuffing your emotions in a box to survive the day.

On your own, CBT-style journaling is your friend, especially tracking when you feel badly during the day/week, the emotion and body feeling, the precipitating event, the internal narrative, and the actual outcome. It’s not my favorite paradigm, but it’s a great DIY when you are sans therapist and have to DIY behavior change.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 5:36 AM on November 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

Mostly, I feel angry with Old Me for being naive and unguarded enough to let my old boss find things about me to criticise. I feel like, what does it say about me that I let myself be in that position for such a long time?

You need to stop blaming yourself for this situation! Yes, ideally you would have found work elsewhere and left sooner, but you did what worked best for you at that time. Whatever the reason, it's not your fault you had an abusive boss. What's important is that you did get out of there! 3 years is not a long time.

As for attracting bullies... you know who gets bullied the most often at work? Conscientious, high performing, well-liked people. If you're awesome and some people feel threatened by that and bully you because of it, they're the ones with a problem, not you.

As for this happening again, it might. You can try focusing on building up your natural defences - feelings of self-worth and strong emotional boundaries. If you're hyperfocused on your boss or other colleagues and feel like you have to manage their emotions so you'll like you, that's unhealthy. This blog post sort of explains what I mean. If you care too much about pleasing (or not upsetting) other people, and tend to unconsciously take responsibility for others' behaviours and emotions, that makes bullying you more effective. The more self-differentiated you are, the more resilient you will be. The more you value yourself, the quicker you'll realize that the way you're being treated is not right and you'll truly believe that you deserve better. Some of us have broken calibrators because of how we grew up, and we tolerate a lot of abuse before we realize what's happening.
posted by Stoof at 8:33 AM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

Uh, hi, did you have MY old boss? I have a few thoughts about your question, but first off, that therapist (who you correctly identified as NOT the "terrific" therapist) who said that some people "attract" bullies and implied that you did can kindly go f themself. Just as there are shitty bosses, there are shitty therapists, and saying this only adds to the trauma you experienced. I'm sorry you had not only the abusive boss but an incompetent, harmful therapist who would frame your experiences in such a way. Being abused was not your fault and you can throw that victim-blaming right in the trash where it belongs.

To make things worse, he wasn't even consistently awful. Every so often he would suddenly become, without warning, extremely warm, friendly and accommodating. You just never knew where you stood with him.

This is the worst kind of bad boss to have, speaking from experience. Someone who is abusive but also savvy enough to know how to conceal their bad behavior from superiors, and also keep their targets hoping that if only you figure out exactly how to please him he'll be off of your back forever. By belittling you to colleagues he undermined your credibility and made it harder for you to get help elsewhere in the organization.

If you're someone who believes the best in people you most likely interpreted his hot and cold behavior as, "Maybe he's trying to change/he's aware that he was an ass and is subtly showing his regret by being nice" with a side of "I don't even know if I DESERVE a different job because I'm obviously so BAD at mine" due to the manipulation and abuse. Now you know that when someone is moody and erratic to you, and they are in a position of power, this is a red flag and you should get out ASAP because the longer you stay working under them, the more they're sucking up your energy, talent and hope. You had to learn this by experience which sucks, but you did learn it, and you're now pro-actively figuring out how to apply these lessons to your future career. You are totally on the right path.

It doesn't even matter if there is a logical explanation for them being shitty, or if they don't intend to be abusive (in my case, my boss was going through some legitimately hard personal stuff and was taking it out on me, and I kept hoping he would magically sprout some self-awareness. Spoiler alert, he definitely did not). You don't owe someone your pain just because they're in pain. Lesson learned!

what does it say about me that I let myself be in that position for such a long time

This person was your boss and was thus in charge of your income and possibly your medical coverage. You did not have the power in these interactions. You were abused by a shitty person and a shitty company, since you said your boss belittled you in front of others and no action was taken. "Let yourself be in that position"? Did you choose as a tiny fetus to be born into a capitalist society where unless you are the child of an oil baron your employability dictates your literal survival? Did you choose to be in a global pandemic, to be in your earning years during the time of the gig economy, global warming and venture capitalist buzzards clawing apart established industries for scraps? I'm guessing you did not? So you did not "let yourself be" in that position, you were put in that position. If you stayed in a bad job during all of this you are... completely and supremely understandable. You got out. You have a new job and a new boss. You seem to be doing ok with the new boss. You do not have to have made the best most strategic decisions every second of your life. Keep working to view yourself with compassion (google self-compassion for some resources) and take some time to celebrate how far you've come.
posted by rogerroger at 12:11 PM on November 30, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry this happened to you. As others have mentioned, you were definitely not at fault for perpetuating anything--your boss was in the power position and you did what you needed to do to get through.

A few years ago, after the departure of a bad--but not nearly as horrible as yours--boss, my colleagues and I found ourselves with similar symptoms. Mine were not as bad as some people's, and one day, our new manager took me aside and asked if I could give him any insight into why the team wasn't responding to him in the usual way. I told him about a few of the most egregious things and he was very understanding. Thanks to his insight, I now think of what we went through as trauma, which led to a form of PTSD.

So, three pieces of advice: be kind to yourself, and investigate some of the excellent resources others have recommended on self-compassion; recognize that you have been through serious trauma and your reactions are normal; and consider talking to your boss about your history and how it might be shaping your behaviour and reactions now. (It might be worth getting some coaching on this last one in order to help you frame the information you provide in order to get the best outcome.)
posted by rpfields at 11:49 AM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

I had a similar but I think less bad boss for much shorter and started a new job recently and I experienced very strongly at first some of those feelings you describe. I have this paranoia that what I'm saying or the work I'm doing doesn't make sense or is bad because that boss would mysteriously disagree with things or say they were bad that weren't with total conviction. It has subsided a bit over time and has gotten better as I've had more experiences that demonstrate my competency now. I still have some flashbacks to moments where I was criticised and felt stupid and feel feelings about it. I also find myself wasting time trying to cover every angle or solve every problem out of fear of being unfairly criticized and berated about it. All that to say that what you're experiencing is totally normal. You truly should not blame yourself though – a abusive person tries to get you to do that to deflect from themselves and it's unavoidable to internalize it to some extent (so also don't feel bad for blaming yourself like I sometimes do). Adopt a mantra of "fuck that guy" when you think about it. Do what you can to prioritize your own well-being, and actively remind yourself to work against the tendency to always be as helpful as possible and sacrifice yourself for your work.
posted by lookoutbelow at 7:40 PM on December 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

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