This particular topic came up twice for me today. In a conversation with a friend and on social media. So I figured I should write about it.
While we are subject to abuse, we sometimes cause pain to others too. We are recruited as Flying Monkeys, and either because we have lost total control over ourselves—or because we are trying to protect ourselves—we do the abuser’s dirty work. It has always been one of the most painful things to come to terms with, in my mind. I never shrink away from a challenge, though. So let’s dive in!
The Point Of Divide And Conquer
Recently, I shared the following example of “divide and conquer” on one of our social media accounts.
“When I worked for an abusive boss, he used to play the staff against each other. He would gossip about us like no other. The worst I remember is when he spoke at a staff meeting about one girl who was on holiday. He told us he was going to fire her, and asks us for reasons to do so. That in itself was inappropriate, but on top of that he then did not fire her for months. So everyone walked around with this knowledge about one of their colleagues without her knowing about any of it.”
It was an example of how abusers pit different targets against each other. The post received the following comment (I cleaned up the grammar a little, but otherwise… this is it)
Wow! Sooo many cowards! I don’t understand how not one person ever told her about the meeting and the plans he had. Just like I never understand how everyone knows before you do about someone cheating. They say – I DONT WANT TO GET INVOLVED. I DONT WANT YOU TO GET HURT. ITS NONE OF MY BUSINESS. All EXCUSES. What is your REAL reason? Because once your eyes have seen it YOU are involved. IT WAS DONE IN FRONT OF YOU FOR A REASON!!! NO EXCUSES! PEOPLE LIKE THIS ARE JUST A BAD AS THE PERPETRATOR!!!!
I will not pretend that those comments did not cut me to the bone. Because the above example about my boss and colleague is, in fact, one of the things I feel most guilty over since leaving that abusive situation. I hate myself for being unable to tell my colleague and friend what was really going on. As this was happening, I was also being targetted by our abusive boss. He was screaming at me daily, and gaslighting me left, right, and center. He would even smack me across the head for making mistakes (like typos). I had only just returned from a second stress-induced breakdown and was (as time would tell) only a few weeks away from a third, long-term sick leave for the same reason. I was physically struggling to breathe; so much had the stress of his abuse taken hold. Whenever he would walk into the office you could feel the tension spread through the team. We were only 4 people, and all of us physically shrank when he would arrive. And all of us, each day, thought: please, don’t let it be me today.
What I am trying to say is that while I was in the situation, I was not able to observe the injustice done to my colleague (or anyone else) objectively. Why? Well, because I wasn’t looking from the outside in. I was, myself, a target in the situation. And the inherent lack of trust among us as employees was the entire point of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that was used. It is a weapon of abuse used by perpetrators in all kinds of abusive situations:
It makes the various targets feel isolated because they experience guilt over whatever the abuser tricked them into doing
It stops multiple targets from joining forces and standing up against the abuse
It gives the abuser deniability (because so and so said something mean about you, too!)
It creates multiple versions of reality between the targets that the abuser can exploit for gaslighting
Until You Know Better
Even in the midst of all the abuse (or maybe especially so), I was not able to identify the situation for what it was. I believed my boss when he told me that the reason he hadn’t fired my colleague yet was because he was struggling to break the news. Rather than calling his bluff. I regularly confronted him (as much as I could muster the strength to do so) about whether he had told her yet, and encouraged him not to let the situation go on. But because of how he hurt and manipulated me he continued to play me, and my co-worker, for a long time.
Now, almost 10 years later, I can identify what was going on as abuse. I can see the tactic that was being used against us. I can understand how I could have dealt with that situation better; how I could have supported my friends and colleagues. But isn’t that always the case, hindsight being what it is?
This is where the eternally wise Maya Angelou comes in:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Everyone who has been a target of abuse has, at some point, made decisions they wish they could take back. Simply because we did not know any better at the time. This is not an excuse, but it is a fact of life.
In the same way that you cannot read before you know what writing is, you cannot challenge abuse before you know you are being abused.
When You Know Better
Once I began to really understand what was going on in that workplace, I started to change my strategies. I began documenting what was going on. I started talking to every board member that would listen. I made sure that they were not only informed of the situation in the office but also tried to provide them with as many tools I could so they could do something about it.
Did that make my friends any less abused? No, not one bit.
Since time travel hadn’t been invented, I could not go back and change how I (mis-)handled this situation. Neither can you for any of the actions you feel guilty over. But once I realized what was going on—once I knew better—I did everything within my power and ability to do better.
How Can You Move On
When you can, and feel so called, you can ask whoever you affected for their forgiveness. You can acknowledge that it was a bad situation for you both to be in, and that you wish you’d had the knowledge and skills to have handled it differently. It may sound like a pointless exercise, but it is liberating to acknowledge and validate the experience. And can even create closure in terms of the pain you both shared.
What I think is more important—and more effective—in overcoming this guilt and clearing your karmic slate, is to move into the future with better skills. Now that you know what abuse looks like, and feels like, you can be a better help to fellow targets that you meet on your life’s journey.
If I could not help my colleagues 10 years ago, then maybe speaking up about the abuse now—sharing honestly and openly about the effects it had—can help other people understand their situations better (and more quickly). Perhaps sharing what I have learned about healing can help someone else recover from abuse who otherwise might have struggled with the effects for many years to come.