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CONTENT WARNING: This piece discusses topics that may upset some readers – manipulation, abuse, and coercive control, and suicidal ideation.
Recent events in media have been talking about coercive control in the workplace…
Just when I thought I was FINALLY done with the topic of manipulation and coercive control, my feed was flooded with people who don’t understand how a boss could “force” you to go to events you don’t want to go to… or how things can be “implied” in the workplaces.
As someone who has been in an environment where a workplace that had MANY “implied” and unwritten rules and “mandatory fun,” this literally was what my boss was doing to me (and is one of the main things that led to my mental breakdown, resulting in my Autism diagnosis) over seven years ago now.
It is important to note that whenever current events like what’s been in the news recently come up, seeing people talk about how a boss can’t ask you to do things that are “implied” be very triggering to those of us who’ve found ourselves in these types of situations.
This is not a commentary on current events. I am sharing my PERSONAL survivor story.
It’s on the victim to prove the harm that was done to them, but often abusers are powerful people.
I never held the person who harmed me in a workplace setting accountable. They are powerful and have more resources than I do (as is often the case).
Plus, there is always the court of public opinion, and seeing how people talk about those who do have the courage to speak up, shows what this world thinks of victims.
The thing about being in a relationship where coercive control is the center is that the victim has to learn to anticipate their abuser to survive.
With abusers, many things are implied, OR when you try to assert your boundaries, they will egg you on, telling you you’re being too sensitive or that you don’t know what’s best for yourself.
This means a victim will learn to act how the abuser wants them to act, without being told, because they know the consequences will come if they don’t.
This can play out in both personal and professional relationships in many ways.
Unfortunately, this is something I know on a VERY personal level.
A powerful executive whom I worked under before my Autism diagnosis LITERALLY TOLD ME on my first day of employment that one of my MAIN JOBS was to learn her desires, wishes, habits, and patterns SO WELL that I could “read her mind.”
I wasn’t supposed to ask questions. I wasn’t supposed to clarify.
The MOST CRUCIAL part of my role in that organization was learning to “do what my boss would want me to do” based on my assumptions of what she wanted.
I was instructed to look for and pick up on implied and inferred requests.
My entire job was based on NOT what was explicitly stated but on “assuming” and knowing my boss’s “unspoken and implied” desires – hell for an Autistic Person.
There were many parties and happy hours, and the people who attended all of them rubbed elbows with the boss (and the other family members who worked in the company) were the ones who got raises and promotions.
In contrast, those of us who didn’t attend the implied mandatory fun were pigeonholed, put on performance improvement plans, and not put up for promotions.
It was the kind of environment where being “friends” with your colleagues was an expected part of the job. I know because my struggles “bonding with my peers” would often come up in my performance reviews as marks against me.
One manager had a problem because I was taking my lunches alone (not with my coworkers).
She said it was “antisocial behavior” and gave other people in the office the feeling that I didn’t like them and that I was “unfriendly” – BUT I JUST NEEDED A BREAK.
Was my lunch hour NOT supposed to be my personal time?
Apparently not… but then again, when I worked for this employer, I was on call 24/7 sometimes and didn’t really have personal time.
After work, every week (sometimes multiple times a week), there were always extra networking events, happy hours, parties, and gatherings that were not “mandatory” on paper. However, attendance was expected, and if you missed an event, people would make a HUGE deal out of it the next day (if they didn’t guilt trip you into attending these unpaid events in the first place).
On paper, the events were “extra” and not mandatory but, whenever you didn’t go to enough of them, it would come up in your reviews that you were only “doing the bare minimum”.
Then they would use shame, and it would be pointed out that your peers “were doing more than you” by going to happy hours and other unpaid networking events “without complaint”.
These events were after work hours and were unpaid (and definitely weren’t mentioned when they hired me and were not in my job description). Still, you couldn’t say no to them without a VERY good reason (and often the only acceptable reason to say no to one work event was that you were working on something else for the company).
Our personal lives were always expected to be second to the jobs, and our families and spouses knew this (because they were told, and thanked, for “being second” to the job at the holiday parties by the CEO).
My boss LITERALLY told our SO’s they were second to her demands, and saw nothing wrong with her statement (at the company holiday party).
All the pressure to say “yes” to things I REALLY wanted to say no to eat away at me. I felt like a prisoner who had no control over my own life.
I developed a social phobia (that was medically diagnosed at the same time as my Autism) thanks to all the forced socialization with people who I struggled to read (who didn’t like me, and who couldn’t relate to me).
My inability to read non-autistic body language made networking events confusing and stressful.
My manager told me I needed to “just walk up to people and start talking about our company” (but my boss can read body language, and I can’t). Taking this advice literally didn’t work out well.
I never saw the signs that the people I was walking up to were uninterested in what I had to say, so I kept walking up and trying to start conversations with the wrong people, only to be rejected repeatedly.
It seemed like most of the people I introduced myself to did NOT want to talk to me, but I had been instructed to keep inserting myself into people’s conversations, so I kept barging in (as I’d been told to do) then being iced out.I could not tell if people wanted to talk to me or not until I would barge in and then be pushed out.
The repeated rejections wrecked me.
Telling my manager about how much anxiety these happy hours and networking events were giving me only resulted in the insistence that I wasn’t going to enough of them and needed to go to more UNPAID AFTER HOURS networking events so I could get “more practice” to improve at networking (even though the entire experience was sending me into a deep suicidal spiral).
The more networking events I attended, the more my anxiety increased, and my mental and physical health worsened.
I started having regular panic attacks leading up to events I felt forced to attend but had no desire to be at.
It was difficult saying “no” to someone who held my survival (my finances) in their hands.
Because my boss had convinced me I was lucky even to have the chance to work under her (considering my background, being the only one without a college education), I would have done ANYTHING to make her happy (for a long time).
She always made you feel like the bad guy for not doing what she wanted you to do (even when what she asked was NOWHERE IN YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION).
I remember the anxiety that rushed through me as I stood outside my boss’s door, working up the courage to tell her that my partner and I didn’t want to attend the company holiday party one year.
“Hello!” I said in a friendly but shaky voice. She glanced up at me, smiling from her laptop, dark eyes sparkling, as she stopped her lightning-fast typing to meet my request.
“David and I are not going to come to the holiday party this year,” I managed to croak out (barely).
Then as clearly as I could, I stated my boundary, “I really appreciate you putting the event together, but parties, bars, and happy hours really aren’t our thing, and neither of us wants to go, so we’re going to sit this one out.”
“Oh no! That’s unfortunate! I made an effort to schedule this when everyone would be off. It’s really important to me that everyone be there!” she insisted.
The smile was now gone from her face. “It’s going to look bad if you don’t show up,” she continued. “Everyone else in the entire team will be there with their spouses. I REALLY BOTH want you AND David to come to this one.”
I said “no” (I didn’t want to go to the party), but my boss told me that not going would “look bad” and make it seem like I wasn’t a team player.
She didn’t state the consequences if we did not attend, but she implied it would impact my opinions of me and my work ethic if my partner and I didn’t both attend (though neither of us wanted to).
Some people would say that I chose to go to the holiday party.
Other people might say, “If you didn’t want to go to the party, you wouldn’t have gone. The fact that you went means you wanted to go,” but I am telling you now:
I was coerced into attending a party I didn’t want to attend under duress because it was implied that I had to go or my career would suffer.
No, I did NOT want to go to this party, but the person coercing me was in a position of power.
I felt as if my career would be limited if my partner and I didn’t show up, so I went anyway (dragging my partner along too).
It wasn’t “mandatory” on paper. It was “mandatory” by implication. From my point of view at the time, I had no choice but to attend – so I went despite REALLY not wanting to go.
I was so anxious about not wanting to go I had a panic attack in the car on the way to the holiday party that left me unable to speak for 30 minutes after the panic attack ended.
My mind began to swirl as the panic attack took hold of me. I clasped the seat, trying to ground myself in the music, waiting for the feelings of dread and that I would die to pass.
Once the worst was over, I remember sitting in the car next to David, looking around, knowing the words in my mind, as my mind had cleared, but being unable to speak.
I stared at the clock for 30 minutes, waiting for my speaking ability to return.
Normally when I have an overload, I can start speaking again right away when it ends, but this time was different.
How calm I felt was scary because my mouth could still not move.
It felt like an eternity, waiting for the words to return to me.
How long would it last? Would my voice ever come back?
Fortunately, my ability to speak with my mouth did return in about a half hour, but the event was a wake-up call for me – one of the “last straws” that sent me looking for an employer who would treat me better.
In the past, I had agreed to many events and happy hours, and I would be so upset on my way to them that I would have frequent meltdowns and panic attacks while driving to the different events, but this event was different because the 30-minute loss of speech scared me.
Having meltdowns while driving or in public is dangerous, but my boss’s implied expectations overpowered my own wants and desires, leaving me stuck and feeling like I had to keep pushing through.
At these events, I would have more meltdowns and panic attacks, hidden in the bathrooms or my car so nobody would see me (because I was certain that being seen crying would be yet another mark against me).
I truly did not want to attend these events, so much so that the inner turmoil of going against my own wishes was making me physically and mentally ill.
Because my boss (and those in power in this company) saw and treated me as “the problem,” I started to believe that I, in fact, was the problem accepting all of the abuse I received (which took a toll on my mental health).
I felt powerless watching my mental and physical health take a steep downturn due to a large amount of gaslighting and coercion combined with the a refusal of my employer to accommodate my needs (as is required by the ADA).
My situation began to feel hopeless, and I started fantasizing about how to escape.
Because my mental health and sense of self-worth had slipped to an all-time low, my thought at the time was not that I should “get out” by finding another job that would treat me better but that I was “worthless” nobody would want me (and driving off a bridge would be the most logical out).
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