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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

This Is How You Deal With an Emotionally Abusive Boss (When You Can't Quit)

boss yelling
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For all of our sakes, I wish emotionally abusive bosses didn’t exist.

But I also know that’s a big wish, and I don’t know any genies (at the moment). I do, however, know several people who report to managers who yell constantly or make them cry. I know even more people who’ve been in that situation at previous roles. And the reasons why it took them so long to leave—or why they still haven’t left yet—are valid: They can’t afford to, they’re afraid to, they’re supporting families, they don’t know the next step they want to take.

So, this article isn’t going to tell you that the best move is to just quit (that said, if there’s one piece of advice I can give it’s finding a way to get out as soon as you feasibly can).

I’m writing this for the people who can’t leave right now and need help coping. And to make sure I’m giving you the best possible advice, I turned to Alyssa Petersel, LMSW, therapist, and Founder and CEO of My Wellbeing.

Figure Out What Stress Management Tool Works for You

“I think stress management is really important,” Petersel told me when we first sat down to discuss this topic. “Everyone has tools that work best for them, and it’s about finding something that’s cathartic. That might be exercising, or it could be watching something funny, or it could be spending time with friends and family. Moreover, seek support from others who have been in similar situations to help you feel less alone.”

If you’re unsure of what might work for you, read this, this, and this.

Create Physical Space Between the Two of You

Petersel also suggests setting boundaries—literal, physical boundaries: “Communicate with your boss when you have to, but then give yourself that space.” This could be as simple as taking your lunch break or walking around outside the office when you have a free moment.

This also goes for managing your boss’ outbursts. Says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert who’s quoted in a Forbes article about workplace bullies, “‘When in doubt, if you notice a warning sign, get out of the way. Just as you shouldn’t stick your face near the snout of a snarling dog, you should remove yourself from the path of a manic bully until things cool off.’”

Embrace Mindfulness

If you find it’s difficult to physically remove yourself from your boss, meditation—at your desk or at home—can also help you put up a safety net:

“When things get overwhelming and you need a little bit of space, but don’t necessarily have the physical space or time to actually be removed from the situation, mindfulness helps you create space internally,” says Petersel.

“[Y]ou can’t change your boss or fix his response to stress…If indeed your boss has tipped over the edge, no amount of perfection on your part…will help…What you can do is work on yourself,” adds author of How to Be Happy at Work: The Power of Purpose, Hope, and Friendship Annie McKee in a recent Harvard Business Review article. “Free up some time for renewal…mindfulness meditation has a profound impact on one’s ability to stay grounded and manage stress.”

Here’s one breathing technique Petersel suggests trying out when you’re going through a tough encounter with your manager:

Breathe in for 10 seconds, hold for five at the top, and breathe out for 10 seconds. Breathing in will bring more oxygen to your brain, bringing you energy and clarity. Breathing out will release calming neurotransmitters, to help you stay grounded and calm.

Find Support

But at the end of the day, if you still find yourself struggling and need help managing the stress and anxiety, it may be worth visiting a therapist, suggests Petersel:

Going to HR can be intimidating. There’s fear you can lose your job or it will be taken the wrong way or your boss will find out. Going to someone who’s removed from the company helps you feel safe and gives you the chance to be vulnerable without worrying about it getting back to someone—a therapist will always honor confidentiality…just having the space to be really honest and open is important.

If you’re not comfortable with a therapist (or can’t afford one), you shouldn’t feel stuck. Surround yourself with a support network—whether that’s your family, friends, or even the colleagues you work with, and lean on them when you’re feeling lost, down, or upset. It’s as simple as saying, “I’m dealing with a really tough boss, and I can’t leave right now, so I’d love if you could help pick me up or listen to me vent when things get especially bad.”

While it certainly may not feel like it in the moment, Petersel says, even the most challenging work environments ultimately become learning experiences. You may not be able to leave now, but by focusing on taking care of yourself, you’ll come to figure out what you don’t want in your next manager—and be able to avoid finding yourself in this kind of situation again.

And no matter what you decide to do after reading this article, memorize this and repeat it to yourself when things become too much: You deserve a manager who treats you fairly.