I was just meeting with a client and discussing a situation where she was demeaned by her boss at work in front of her colleagues. Should she speak up or not? That is the question.
Since I’ve been on a self-esteem/self-worth jag on my blog of late, it seemed only natural to ponder that question here.
On the one hand, it seems like a no-brainer for me, as a therapist. If we allow people to treat us badly, they will continue to do so; sooner or later, if we hear certain things enough, we start to believe them ourselves. So there can be significant consequences to our self-esteem, if we don’t speak up.
On the other hand, life isn’t only about our mental health. Sometimes we have to prioritize other things–like putting food on the table, or buying clothes for our kid.
The first thing, in a situation like this, is to realistically assess how dangerous it is to speak up, i.e. whether you could lose your job. If that is a real possibility, you need to consider whether you can afford to lose your job, and how easily it can be replaced.
In the decision tree, that might mean that you have to remain silent and hold your peace. It might initially seem like an easy thing to do, you might even feel a little relieved that you don’t have to confront someone. But it’s important to recognize that it might have consequences for your self-esteem, and to figure out ways to counteract that.
That might mean talking to supportive people in your life to vent or to encourage you when you’re feeling down.
It might mean using coping statements, or avoiding your boss, or practicing what you’ll say, in the moment, the next time you feel demeaned, something like, “If you have concerns about my performance, maybe we can talk about them privately.”
If you feel like it’s a low probability that you’ll lose your job, or that you’re willing to accept whatever level of risk is involved, then it’s time to prepare. If possible, think of an ally who can mediate (say, human resource personnel, or another trusted supervisor), someone you can tell your story to ahead of time, and that person can support you in conveying it to your boss.
Then, in conveying, it’s important to focus on the feeling. We can’t know the intent of others, so we can’t speak to that. Maybe your boss thought he was motivating you; maybe he was blowing off steam during a hard day. We don’t know.
What you can know is how it impacted you: “I felt shamed when…” or “I felt demeaned when…” Use strong and descriptive language. If we assume that most people do not like to shame or demean others, that allows for maximum impact. We’re appealing to their conscience, and their sense of empathy.
Some people feel it’s not okay to seem emotional at all in a professional setting. I disagree. Depending on your workplace, it might be acceptable to express disappointment, hurt, or sadness. What wouldn’t fly is an angry tirade.
So if necessary, vent your anger ahead of time. Write about it. Talk to supportive people in your life. Run around the block.
But once you’re in the confrontation itself, try to remain calm. Focus on your feelings first, and on what you need for the future: “I’m hoping this won’t happen again, so that I can feel good in my work environment.”
Don’t attack the other person, just because you felt attacked. Ultimately, assertiveness is about insisting upon your own dignity, not robbing other people of theirs.
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Last reviewed: 27 Apr 2013