My Story: Breakdown to Breakthrough
My Story: Breakdown to Breakthrough
In early 2016 I landed the job of my dreams. I was beyond excited. It was pulling together all my skills and experience. I was on cloud nine.
A year later that dream was completely shattered.
I didn’t see it coming. When that first hurtful, and unjust, criticism hit – I tried to just swallow my hurt and take it – as I been taught a seasoned professional should – on the chin, as feedback to learn from. When there was the first explosion of rage, I figured I had done something to provoke it.
And so it kept on going. My stress and worry and anxiety and panic escalating and escalating, as I kept on desperately trying to get it right. To do what I was hired to do. To figure out what I was doing wrong and to try to correct it.
If I just worked harder. If I just had better communication skills. If I was more of a good girl. If I was less of this or more of that, then it would stop.
Again, and again, and again, the message was delivered: I was the one who was difficult; I was the one who couldn’t take feedback; I was the one who was too sensitive and thin skinned; or too arrogant and too assertive.
I felt haunted and cursed. That I could do nothing right. That I was a complete failure. Useless. Worthless.
I kept on trying to hold it together. Until I couldn’t. It was just too much. And I fell apart – completely and utterly. All I could do was move myself from bed to couch and back again. I spent my days crying, numbing myself mindless on Netflix, or sleeping from the exhaustion of crying, wave after wave of panic attacks, sleepless nights, nightmares and the endless replaying of awful awful conversations again and again and again in my head.
I felt completely and utterly broken.
With some amazing support I slowly began to inch my way back towards rejoining the world. It took a long time – 9 months, before I was really recovered. Along the way, work – of course – fired me, doubling down on the accusations. And indeed even ratcheting them up to a whole new level of degradation and humiliation.
But in that same 9 months, two crucial things happened.
First, I stumbled across the research around workplace bullying. And the puzzle pieces fell into place. It all made sense, all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. As I read and read and read, I saw how my situation followed an almost text-book pattern.
- Target my sense of self and sense of identity – check.
- Distort and manipulate what I said or did – check.
- Dismiss and invalidate my experiences and feelings (gaslighting) – check.
- Inflict swift and harsh retribution for any attempt to stand up for myself or to call it out as bullying or harassment – check.
- The behaviour and its perpetrators tolerated – even encouraged – by the organization – check.
As I immersed myself in understanding the phenomenon of workplace bullying, it really helped me to be able to name my experience and have it validated. I could see now that I was not alone in my story. My suffering was the suffering of others too. This wasn’t just about me after all.
There is a power, and a healing, in being able to name something. And this is what I experienced.
But even more amazingly, I experienced something else. I fell apart from the trauma of workplace bullying. And in the trauma-field, there is a concept called Post Traumatic Growth. That out of even the most horrific of experiences, can come the most amazing flowering of hope. That falling apart, feeling completely broken, can actually be a breaking open.
And that is what I experienced. As I broke – open – I shed a lifetime of armor and baggage. And what I discovered deep down on the inside was the beautiful abiding truth: that I am enough, just as I am – with all my imperfections, faults and insecurities. And from this place of opening an incredible deepening of compassion – for myself, and for others – could emerge. As could a renewed, and even stronger commitment to a life of purpose, meaning and fulfillment.
And so from out of time of pain and brokenness, I came to feel the most profound joy and peace – unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I knew unequivocally who I was. I knew I had done nothing to deserve the treatment I had received. No matter what I had (or had not) done, no person ever deserves to be treated this way. None of us ever go to work wanting to be degraded, humiliated, demeaned and shamed.
In this period of incredible personal flowering and growth, I came to see that the most subversive and radical act I could engage in was just to be my authentic self. Inside falling apart there was actually joy and freedom and hope and strength – to just be me.
And so I choose to be me. The real, authentic me. The me who, because of her upbringing in apartheid South Africa, learned to question all forms of power and authority. The me who is a romantic at heart. The me whose seemingly strong exterior hides a heart that is tender, idealistic and prone to feelings of inadequacy and depression.
And, like many who have recovered from traumatic events and experienced post-traumatic growth, I am now dedicated to being a part of the solution to the very thing that brought me so much shame and pain.