Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Bullying: How It Affects You

Today’s guest post is from an anonymous contributor.

Joan Schmelz gave a wonderful talk at the Summer AAS in Anchorage, and I was so glad that a topic that certainly has impacted many people was on such prominent display. In fact, I almost wanted to email Joan and ask if she had heard about my experiences in particular, because it so well matched something I personally had gone through with a bully.

I am not sure if I am unique (I hope I am, but doubt it) in that I have had a chain of at least three bullies strung together in my young astronomy life. From a young hotshot professor who expected their new grad students to perform like postdocs, to a senior person in the field who took it as a personal affront (and went on a personal attack) when a student had a scientific disagreement with him/her, to a person going to my advisor and claiming that I was incompetent to do my own work without his/her having direct control over the science I was outputting. These incidents were daisy chained together: it seemed as if once I'd escaped one bully, another was waiting in the wings to take over. It got me asking many things, but firstly, was there something about me that attracted them to me as a target?

We as a community have a lot of work to do addressing bullying, and for now I have heard a lot of promising things said about policing the perpetrators, but my own experience made me think heavily about what we can do for the victims as well. I suspect that my previous experiences with others have left scars that, though not visible to most, are a bullseye on my back to future potential bullies.

“Gaslighting” is a term that is used to describe when a victim is taught to stop trusting their own perceptions, when things like “so & so is a very honorable and good person and would never do something like what you have described…”, “such & such is just like that. S/he means no harm and you probably just misinterpreted what they said.” are said fairly often. It means that a victim can be convinced that they are the one with the problem and can’t trust their own eyes. This is far worse when bullies are linked together, as they had been in my case. I was convinced I was over-sensitive, and couldn't deal with "normal" behaviors, until I did the research. I found a bullet-point list on a bullying website describing what bullies do -- it read like a checklist for my experiences.

I have come to view a lot of inappropriate and unacceptable behavior as appropriate and acceptable. A bully who constantly tries to push the envelope for what they are getting away with and taking more control has completely skewed my own sense of what is fair and what is unfair. I judge myself extremely harshly. Something a bully did that should not be acceptable to anyone is completely acceptable to me, but when I act myself, I am always terrified and second guessing myself in those actions, because I remember how the bullies reacted when I tried to do that same thing with them. It means every time I must stand up and be assertive, I am flooded with guilt and anxiety, worried about “what that person is going to do next.” I often wonder if this is why I have had a chain of bullies, but also know that it is very likely that other victims of bullying also have this skewed sense of fairness, which other potential bullies can pick up on. It creates perpetual victims, and I don’t know how to change that.

In my case, I use sunlight and limited contact in the rare cases where I must be in touch with my bully. I refuse to have any private conversations with that person, and when a private conversation is attempted, include others on the conversation. “Sunlight is the best form of disinfectant”, right? But again, this is a tactic that works for me right now, in the singular case of one of the bullies I must work with. What about others? I also am extremely stringent about who I work with – making sure that I have an extreme amount of trust in the person before sharing my science with them. I suspect that this is limiting my own scientific life, but because I know that I am a good target, it is a precaution I take. Getting science done with a few trusted collaborators at the cost of diversity of ideas is much better than letting another bully into my life: because the emotional trauma of having to deal with that person, and ultimately, expel that person from my science is a far greater cost.

I know I am not the only victim, even of just the three bullies I have dealt with. And those bullies didn’t just cost me a lot of my scientifically productive time, but they cost the field my productivity too. And I was one of the ones who has survived.

Countless others have packed their bags and exited the field altogether! If bullies are choosing victims toward the front end of their career, can we really excuse this, knowing that the effects on the victim are long-lived, and likely costing science in general a lot of lost productivity? So, without having answers, I ask the community to start thinking about ways not only to police the perpetrators, but also to help reach out and rehabilitate their victims.