The deluge of recent headlines around sexual harassment only emphasizes the need for women to have access to more resources and information. Below, two psychologists weigh in on how to take care of yourself after coming forward.
According to a 2015 survey by Cosmopolitan, one in three women ages 18 to 34 have been sexually harassed at work—a statistic that was somehow both shocking and not when it initially came out. And in the wake of the deluge of headlines outing instances of high-profile sexual harassment cases and the staggering scope of the #metoo social media movement, this dualistic sentiment has reverberated in ways that likewise have been predictable, yet utterly harrowing.
And while the recent press coverage of women speaking out against famous men such as Louis C.K., Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinsten, and many, many others, have been integral to the larger conversation, certain aspects of said conversation are getting the short shrift. Namely, the fact that the vast majority of women who are victims of sexual harassment will never have access to a far-reaching platform on which to share their story, and many of them don’t have the resources to seek help or treatment when necessary.
The short and long-term emotional and psychological effects that gender discrimination, abuse, harassment, and the like can have on us before, during, and after we come forward are an incredible burden that isn’t new, despite the sudden influx of high-profile stories in the news cycle. And for all the strength it takes to speak up, women often find themselves experiencing a sudden loss of confidence—something that can be even harder-hitting for women who don’t have an array of resources at their disposal.
The range of emotions can swing from fear, to rejection from friends and colleagues, to persistent loneliness and anxiety. And while it’s typically hardest on the survivor, her bystanders, friends, and witnesses are also at risk of emotional wounds, such as feelings of guilt and helplessness.
Girlboss recently spoke with two experts—clinical psychologists and authors Dr. Alice Boyes and Dr. Guy Winch—about how to deal with all the good and bad that comes with this brave act. Below, catch their three most important pieces of advice on how to cope after a traumatic event takes place at work.
Be specific with stress
Sorting out all of the complicated emotions that come with the stress of speaking up post-harassment can be difficult, but it’s a crucial step in the path towards healing.
Check in with yourself on the ways your anxiety can help you to be cautious and productive—and the ways it can’t, says Dr. Boyes, who wrote the book, The Anxiety Toolkit. Particularly when it comes to a situation like this, “it’s OK to fluctuate back and forth between feeling confident and feeling insecure and anxious,” she says.
The recent press has shown how behavior that seems completely outlandish gets normalized and tolerated, but when a few people do speak up, the floodgates open.
“We all have moments when we feel braver than other moments, and when we have more power in a workplace situation,” she added. “Use your power when you have it. If you’re in a less powerful position, look for more powerful allies to support you.”
Seek out allies
The rejection from peers that’s associated with coming forward is often one of the most painful parts of the whistleblower process if you’re a survivor or witness of abuse.
Dr. Winch, author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, says that MRI studies have shown that similar brain regions get activated by rejectionas by physical pain—it literally hurts, especially when the rejection is from people you had once considered close.
“Rejection has been found to create several emotional ‘wounds,’” he explains. “It harms our self-esteem and unsettles our ‘need to belong.’ As social animals, we have an innate need to feel a part of a group, and being ostracized at work can be very painful as we spend the majority of our waking hours there.”
So, how can we cope? Dr. Winch recommends reconnecting with the people at work who are in your corner and who do appreciate what you are doing, even if it is ‘off the record’ or in a non-public manner, as they might be hesitant to be affiliated with you openly. Identify the people who are supportive and suggest you grab a drink or coffee with them after work or on the weekend. And make it a point to schedule lunches with other people in your profession—even if they are with different companies—who can remind you that you belong to a broader professional group, and that you are still appreciated and valued by members of that group.
Argue with self-criticism
It’s common to second guess the decision to speak up when the consequences for acting are harsh and challenging. Dr. Winch says it’s therefore important to argue with any self-criticism that might arise because you acted after making an informed choice; questioning that does nothing but create unnecessary stress and distress (which you have enough of already).
Develop a zero-tolerance policy for self-criticism, and whenever such thoughts come up, remember why you started. It’s likely you came forward because of the principles you believe in. Dr. Winch says it’s useful to also remind yourself daily—if not more often—that doing so is an act of courage and leadership, that speaking up is a testament to your strength of character, and that your bravery and assertiveness will help other women.
Take the time to reaffirm your worth as a colleague and as an employee. Specifically, he says, make a list of all the qualities you know you have that make you a good colleague and employee (e.g., work well in teams, supportive of fellow workers, communicate well, have a good work ethic, responsible and reliable, etc.) This will remind you of your worth and make you more resilient going forward.
And remember, all good things take time.
“Don’t give up if your first attempt to create positive change is unsuccessful,” says Dr. Boyes. “Keep trying. Keep standing up for yourself.”