Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com

Written by Sue Mann
October 2, 2019

I grew up in the most violent country in the world outside of a war zone—apartheid South Africa. But that’s not what took me down. Bullying did. 

Here’s what happened:

I was the girl of whom “things were expected.” Valedictorian. Cum Laude degrees. Career success. And then, a year after being hired as an “innovative change agent” to be part of creating a flagship energy program—a dream job—I was called in for 2 and a half hours of the most unrelenting, incredibly harsh feedback I’d ever received in my 25+ year career. It was given by a senior male manager who made it abundantly clear he would not brook any questioning of his authority. 

His feedback didn’t target my actions—it targeted who I was. Among other things, I was told I was “inflexible, condescending, and lacking in ownership and responsibility.” 

And that’s what made it so incredibly shaming and utterly devastating. Because the message was brutally clear: I was a failure, and essentially, worthless. 

That session felt like a violent attack on my sense of identity; and because of it, I fell apart. I cried every day for weeks. I crawled into a small dark hole of misery and barely moved off the couch for two months—on which I was either crying, sleeping, or numbing myself on mindless TV. 

And yet, at that moment, I still had a choice. 

Breaking Down or Breaking Open

I could choose to be broken. So broken, so in pieces, that I was done with life and living. I could choose to stay down and not rise. To stay small. To allow my truth to be defined by someone who had no care or compassion for me. It was utter misery, for sure, but at least it didn’t ask anything of me except to wither away and die—both figuratively and literally. 

Or I could choose to be broken open. To allow this very breaking of me, to be the making of me. To learn how to rise from the rubble. For in that one single afternoon of the performance-review-from-hell, the hard rigid layers of defensiveness, perfectionism, pleasing, performing, striving, proving, and ego had been shattered under a sledgehammer blow of toxic criticism from an abusive boss wielding his full power and authority to define who I was. 

I chose broken-open. Or rather, grace and the love of my husband and son chose broken-open for me. I couldn’t leave my family. At least not yet—not like this. 

But what was also clear was that if this completely exposed, raw, vulnerable, and defenseless me was going to survive, it wasn’t going to be by building a new shell of armor, walls, and weapons around me. 

I was going to have to do it differently this time. 

So, piece by piece, I assembled a team to help me figure it out. 

Funny thing is, when broken-open is your path, grace also conspires to have lots of wonderful people show up! Doctors, therapists, coaches, and other amazing practitioners were there for me and saying the same thing: trust the process, be with this, lean into us, you can do this. As I’d tried it my way for a lifetime and it had led to this, I figured I had nothing to lose trying it a different way—learning to rise without the armor. 

The journey wasn’t easy, but it was transformative. 

Trusting the Process

I’d always associated my worth with my performance. My healing was in learning to claim my worth regardless of my performance. My healing was in finding the jewel that’d been hidden behind that hard shell. The jewel was that I was enough. I didn’t have to do anything or be anyone. I was enough, just as I was. And in claiming that jewel I actually stepped into the power I’d been so desperately seeking, and unwittingly undermining my whole career: the power just to be me. 

These days I spend my days happily being me—rather than “doing me” and constantly wondering if what I’m doing is good enough. The positive difference this makes in my energy, my outlook, my confidence, my relationships, my parenting, my productivity, my sleep, and my health is immense. 

And I can’t keep my jewel to myself. That’s rather the nature of jewels. They just want to shine for others. 

All around I hear stories like mine. Amazing, dedicated, caring professionals being broken down by the toxicity of workplaces that relentlessly drive for more, more, more; where their talents are trampled underfoot by micromanagement, lack of trust, lack of autonomy, lack of dignity and respect—where incivility runs rampant.

And so I coach. I coach to help everyone find their jewel. I coach so that I can contribute to the movement that’s saying “enough” to people being treated as dispensable objects, to being used up and tossed out once every ounce of productivity has been wrung out of them. I coach because the most important lesson I learned through all of this is that we can all rise from devastating setbacks. I coach because so many workplaces try to shame us into being small, silent, compliant, obedient, and playing by the rules. And those rules weren’t designed for our health and wellbeing, let alone innovation and creative thinking! 

Shame—the corrosive message that we’re not good enough—runs rampant in toxic environments. Shaming and blaming are the weapons of choice of toxic people and bullies everywhere. 

In my own journey, I learned that no matter our past—no matter how ashamed we feel, or how shamed we’ve been—we can all learn shame resilience. We learn it through empathy, telling our stories, naming it, speaking out. We learn it by finding that our worth—our jewel—isn’t a function of what other people say, or what we do or how we do it. Our worth is found in claiming who we really are, not chasing who we want to be. And when we do that, we become not just shame resilient, but unstoppable. 

So that’s why I say a toxic environment and workplace bullying was the worst (and best) thing that ever happened to me. I broke . . . but I broke open, to the jewel inside. And the place I’m in now is one of more freedom, more joy, more power, more compassion, more contribution, and more meaning than I ever dreamed possible. 

And it’s there for the taking for all of us.

Photo Credit: Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com