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Are We Powerless?

I have a story to tell about my workplace bully. So after graduating from my social work degree, I was really lucky to land the “perfect” job. Everything just somehow fit. The position was perfect for me.

I was placed in a team with two individuals, Mary and Alice (names changed). Mary was incredible, and one of the most amazing people I know. Alice, on the other hand, was a nightmare, and had inner demons that she never dealt with.

Alice’s demons would show up constantly, in the form of verbal abuse, manipulation, control, and gaslighting. And being the pleaser I was at the time, I was powerless to her bullying. I was insecure, I was fearful of conflict, and I constantly looking for approval. And all these meant I willingly gave up my power to her (more on this later).

The bullying went on for three of the four years that I worked there. During the fourth year, I started keeping notes on her behaviours. I was preparing for the eventual war.

On a random day, after months of taking notes on her, Alice came at me with her usual abusive behaviour. We had a back and forth. Clearly upset, she then picked up the phone to call our manager for a meeting. So as a response, I emailed our manager to request the same thing.

The meeting was facilitated by our director and our manager. And I was ready to go. The gloves were off. I brought in my notes, I countered all her abusive tactics, and I called out her attempts to control the narrative of the conversation.

Now, this isn’t a fairytale ending. She was still the same person. But you can bet that she was very careful in how she interacted with me after all this. And I didn’t really care whether she liked me or not, or whether her allies in the workplace liked me or not. I had my own allies, I know I’m a likeable personnel there, and I no longer sought their approval.

So What Changed?

The situation certainly didn’t change. Our work environment was the same. Both our positions at the agency was the same. Nothing about the situation changed.

The change was me. Internally, I was a completely different person from when I first started working there.

Power is a funny thing. Sometimes, we willingly give up our power to certain people. Alice doesn’t have any true power over me. We both work in the same agency, in the same team, holding the same position.

But from our very first interaction, I handed her all my power. And the message I continued to send her was “I really want you to like me and to approve of me, and I will do anything for it.” It was unspoken, but we both knew this was our “relationship contract.” And she abused the hell out of this, and I willingly perpetuated this “relationship contract.”

And there’s a lot of mental health implications behind all this. My shame, insecurity, and fears has led to my need for other's approval. This is from longstanding personal trauma and intergenerational trauma.

But once I began healing from my own trauma, I began to change as a person. The newfound sense of internal security and confidence has placed me in a position where I no longer give away my power.

Social Justice and Power

I’ve read LOTS AND LOTS of critical theory and social justice theories. I didn’t know it back in the day, but part of my impulse to learn about these theories was due to my own sense of powerlessness.

Critical theory armed my mind with the theoretical tools to understand and fight internalized oppressions…my internalized racism, and internalized toxic masculinity.

But these theories are meant to analyze our societal structures of oppression. It doesn’t always translate very well, when we apply it to individual experiences.

But there’s also a seduction of applying these theories to our own individual experiences. I’ve experienced that seduction, along with many of the clients I support. These theories justifies our struggles. It validates our feelings of helplessness, which temporarily reduce the shame and self-blame that we feel.

While these theories help us understand the oppression that we experience and temporarily reduce self-blame and shame, it isn’t here to provide practical solutions for the mental health effects of these oppressions.

And when we understand our own oppression, but do not have the skills to build our internal sense of power and healing, we’re left in a vacuum of powerlessness. We end up feeling shame and anger. And we don't always make very good decisions when we are angry and ashamed.

And sometimes, we end up subconsciously using social justice theories to justify our sense of powerlessness, and to justify why we shouldn’t/can’t change and heal. This is a topic I will dedicate a later blog on, as it is a much larger conversation. So stay tuned for that!

So What’s the Takeaway From All This?

You’re not powerless. We can work to build our own internal power. But I'm not going to lie, it requires WORK.

But dang, you’ve survived everything that life has thrown at you. I have full confidence that you’re ready to do that healing work.

As always, thanks for tuning in. If you found this helpful, get my free Asian Survival Guide.

Ready to change your life? Schedule a free consultation and let's get started!

Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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