How a Workplace Bully Taught me Boundaries

I used to have a work bully, “Angela.” The first week at my job, multiple people pulled me aside. 

“Watch out for Angela,” they whispered. “She doesn’t like women. She’s really difficult to manage.” 

The principal had assigned Angela as my assistant and I didn’t want other people’s opinions to change the fact that I was going to give Angela the benefit of the doubt. I did my best to work together peacefully. 

Maybe it was doomed from the start. From the beginning, beneath her plastic smile, she smoldered with resentment. 

She went out of her way to make my life difficult. I was new at this job and she wasn’t, which meant every day, she had a chance to capitalize on my ignorance. 

Parents would come to me upset, because I hadn’t responded to information that Angela was supposed to have shared with me. When I spoke to Angela about it, she turned and criticized me. 

“How could you not have known?” 

“But you were supposed to tell me,” I replied.

“They should have told you and not me,” she retorted. “You should have known better. How disappointing!”

I didn’t know about gaslighting at the time. It was unclear which parts of the interactions and missed communications were my fault and which parts weren’t. 

Every day I tried to do my best, approaching the day as a blank slate. There weren’t enough deep breaths and calm mantras to keep down that nagging feeling that I was stuck with a Mean Girl as my teammate.

Six weeks in, Angela and I had our first mediation with the director. From then on, we had mediation every month. 

Every mediation, she played innocent. She shrugged and couldn’t understand why she kept “forgetting” to complete required tasks. She always promised to try harder with lots of head nodding and enthusiasm.

The next day, she forgot to do her assistant tasks and went right back to blaming me and making trouble. 

She was written up for insubordination multiple times, but nothing ever came of it. Among staff and students, it was clear, there were no consequences and no disciplinary action. 

I was struggling to come in every day with a smile. I was determined not to stoop to her level, but I was running out ways to handle the situation. I prayed about it nightly. My heart told me to take the high road and get some support. So, I started going to a counselor. 

After a month of seeing her, I asked my counselor, “Am I failing as a manager? Am I escalating things? Why is Angela always gunning for me?”

“Hold it,” my counselor stopped me. “Look. This isn’t in your head. I know you are doing the best you can. There are some problems at this school.”

I looked at her with surprise. She never interrupted me.

“I can’t name names, but I am seeing someone else at your school. There are major issues there. The dynamics are not healthy. Your feelings are right, something is way off there.”

Fifty pounds of stress lifted off of me. Suddenly I realized it wasn’t about what I had done or not done. 

Maybe there was nothing else I could do. Maybe I couldn’t ‘fix’ anything. I decided to finish out the year and then leave the school. 

I focused on getting through every day, one at a time. 

Two years later I started to feel gratitude for Angela. I was in another new job and within a week of starting, a coworker was treating me how Angela had. Red flag!

I wouldn’t repeat the past. Even if she wasn’t as extreme as Angela, I was not about to let her abuse me. I immediately began setting boundaries and looking out for myself. And it worked. After a week or two, she mostly left me alone.

Working alongside bullies taught me to set good boundaries. Just like with our kids, setting firm boundaries is helpful. No matter how nice someone is or pretends to be- don’t let them push you around. You can set standards for how you want to be treated.

I think most people don’t hold good boundaries for one of two reasons- you were either never taught how or you don’t like making others uncomfortable, so you sacrifice your own needs for their sake. 

Sweet soul, don’t lose your gentle heart, but please protect it. Don’t let anyone stomp all over you and treat you like you are less than. I’m rooting for you! 

If you feel that maybe you are being bullied at work or in another setting, I have 3 suggestions for you.

  1. Seek out and connect with Zenica Chapman. You can watch a video here where Zenica and I talk about workplace bullying and how she helps people to regain their confidence. 
  2. If your work has an HR department, connect with them. Reach out to others. Document what is happening.
  3. Book a 1-to-1 reading with me if you want clarity regarding whether or not to stay at your job or whether moving on is your best option. Every situation is different. And no matter what you discover in a private session with me, you are the one who gets to decide what works best for you.
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