Honestly, when I ask my clients what they want out of bringing a claim for sexual harassment, while there are a lot of common responses (“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” “I want my life back,” etc.) one of the most common responses is “I want him to be accountable for what he did” or “I want him to pay.” Judge all you want about the dangers of getting obsessed with revenge, and we all know there are dangers, but it is totally normal to want an entitled jerk who tortured you to pay for what he did.
Doing things out of revenge is a bad idea because it gets you taking care of his feelings instead of yours. But, you have to start moving forward from a realistic idea of where you are. If you want revenge, the key is to make sure that the desire for revenge channels to something productive for you and doesn’t just give your harasser power over you for the rest of your life. He is the last person you want to have power over your future.
The best revenge is creating the exact life you want. The best career defense is a good career offense. It may not seem like that totally crushes your harasser into the muck and slime of his own despicableness, but it does. The more you create, the more you rise up, the more he is buried under your success.
This kind of thinking does not have the (sometimes) satisfying self-indulgence of laying around and feeling sorry for yourself or thinking you can’t create anything because your harasser has taken everything from you, and that may be something you want to choose for a while. But, when you are ready to move on from self-indulgence (and it might take a little while, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with indulging for however long you want), then it’s time for the fun part of crushing your enemy with the beautiful life you create.
For some of my clients, choosing what they will create is natural and easy, but for many of them, objections come up about being broken or lost because of the trauma they have experienced (either in the form of the harassment itself or childhood abuse that has come up related to the harassment). Research shows that the most incredible creations and growth can come from trauma. This isn’t an apology for trauma or an excuse to keep abuse alive so that we can all grow more. Unfortunately, we run into harassment and abuse whether we create something beautiful out of it or not.
Many of my clients are diagnosed with PTSD before their legal case is resolved. Particularly, when my clients have tried to ignore harassing behavior for a long time, their bodies absorb the stress of trying to resist what’s happening to them and trauma builds up. When we are first experiencing harassment, especially when we’re at the top of our field in a professional setting, it can be shocking and it is typical to think, “There is no way this is really happening to me.” When trauma builds up because we have not been able to process our experiences, it can create PTSD.
PTSD has a complicated set of disputed qualifications in the (the DSM, which mental health providers use to identify mental health disorders for insurance purposes). I am definitely not a psychiatrist, so take everything I say here with that in mind, but I have worked with dozens of people diagnosed with PTSD over the years and researched the topic in order to better help my clients. In my experience, PTSD becomes most extreme when my clients feel like they have no framework to process an experience they have. This either happens because the experience is so violent and overwhelming that they instinctively believe they might die (as with sexual assault) or because they try to ignore behavior for so many years that the resistance to processing it builds up.
Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD. But, what the research seems to agree about, though, is that in order to move past trauma, it is important to “process” it. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that you’ve experienced some trauma, whether or not it’s from sexual harassment. I’m assuming that you have had some trauma because in my view, everyone has experienced some trauma. The world is sharp.
“Processing” trauma, or any kind of negative experience or feeling, means integrating it into your larger memory of your life. MRI studies show that when we experience something particularly threatening to our life, the life-threatening memory can be stored in a different part of our brains than our normal life story. This is why flashbacks happen. A flashback happens when that segregated memory somehow gets triggered and it pops into our consciousness. Flashbacks are stored in our brains in such a way that they come back to us as though the event is literally happening to us again, right then and there. This is clearly a problem if you ever want to go see a movie again and not be put back into your trauma experience, for instance.
The more a flashback comes to us, the more we are imprinting a path from our normal life back to the trauma experience. So, seemingly small events – like picking up a child’s toy or a co-worker touching us on the shoulder – can throw us back into a life-threatening experience as though it is happening to us again in that moment. Bessel van der Kolk talks more about the science behind this in The Body Keeps the Score. I recommend looking into that book only if you want to nerd out on the options for PTSD treatment, and not if you are actually experiencing PTSD. It includes a lot of case studies that are very disturbing and triggering.
If you think you might have this type of segregated memory that jumps back into your life so that it feels like you are re-experiencing the trauma now, there are successful treatments for that, and I strongly encourage you to look into them. The evidence-based treatments that I have been most impressed by are EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing.
Somatic Experiencing is the gentler of the two therapies and Peter Levine’s book Waking the Tiger is a wonderful read if you are at all interested in exploring that therapy (helpful to read even if you are experiencing PTSD now). Somatic Experiencing involves re-framing your memories of what happened around the trauma – for example in the days leading up to it – to gently start reclaiming your power over your place in the traumatic memory.
EMDR is a lot more like magic, in the sense of “WTF, why does that work??” But, it has been shown to be successful, so I’m a big fan. (Note: not everyone is a fan of it, and I have heard opinions on both sides.) In EMDR, you have some kind of outside stimulus, like in some cases a therapist will have you hold a device in your right hand and one in your left and they will alternate vibrating between the two hands. In other cases, the therapist will hold something up to your face that forces you to look back and forth to the left and right.
As this happens, you go into the memory of your trauma. This has been shown to physically reprocess the segregated memory into your normal chronological memory of your life. So, basically, as the different sides of your brain are stimulated while you re-experience the memory, it allows your brain to reabsorb the memory, which it previously stored in a separate part of your brain, into the part of your brain with the normal stream of memory. This is similar to how your brain processes your memories during REM sleep.
The main lesson is this: You can’t process a memory and grow from it if you are resisting that it is part of your life. That doesn’t mean you have to think of yourself as a victim or believe you deserve bad things, but when you are resisting a memory (and your brain may be unconsciously doing that as part of a self-preservation mechanism), it puts you in a struggle with reality that leaves you powerless. You may be able to live a totally successful life without processing the memory and growing from it, but on some level, resisting the memory forces you to maintain a struggle with reality that sucks your energy away.
Your brain is always working very hard to protect you from threats and to save energy. When your brain believes a memory is a threat, it is willing to put a tremendous amount of energy into separating that memory from the regular story of your life. If you can redirect your brain to allow the memory of trauma to reintegrate as part of the story of your life (not on your own, but with support), and you are not spending unconscious mental energy trying to resist the memory, then think of the energy you will have left over to create the life you want.
I am not saying you have to get therapy or process any memory. You don’t have to do anything, and all of this is available as a support for you. If you do decide that you are ready to process a memory, make sure you have support systems around you that feel safe. But, what I am saying is that processing and accepting trauma experiences creates power over those experiences. It also exercises emotional and mental muscles that make you a stronger person and help you see how much strength you’ve shown in your life.
Most, if not all, of our life experience is memory. Right now, I have written these sentences, and each one is a developing memory. Ignoring trauma memories separates you from part of yourself and your life experience. Sometimes that feels like the only option, or at least the only safe option, and that is fair. When we are victimized as children, we truly are powerless against the adults around us. But, when we are separating ourselves from our childhood memories and rejecting those experiences, it keeps us in a powerless place over those memories. The more you separate from your memories and your experiences of life, the more you are cut off from yourself. These can become tiny deaths. The purpose of this is not to re-traumatize yourself by going back into traumatic memories, but to take back power, now as a safe adult, over the story of your life.
What I often see with clients is that they avoid their trauma, blame themselves, and want to give up. This is normal, and please don’t take anything I’m saying as more evidence that you are doing anything wrong. There is no way to do trauma wrong. But it misses out on using trauma for growth. An athlete, for example, grows if she falls into the water, climbs out, and starts again. An athlete grows if she learns from the past version of herself who felt the pain of her training, not if she rejects that former version of herself.
When we reject part of our lives, it becomes a small suicide that can later turn into a much larger rejection of life.
I hear you say that I don’t know your trauma and I don’t know what you’ve been through. That is true. But, I do know you are here to grow and you are capable of it. I know that about you without any doubt.
I’ll say it again, life is sharp. If life cuts you, it is better to tend to the wound than pretend the blade doesn’t exist or blame yourself for encountering it. In the same way, when we can accept that trauma exists, that our harassment happened, it becomes a starting point for what we can create out of it.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).