By Judith L. Wyatt. Copyright 2000. This recent paper is an extension of Judy Wyatt's earlier groundbreaking article, Understanding Work Abuse written in 1988.
I am writing this paper because I am scared by what's now happening to work in the USA. I am especially frightened because, although we as working people are all affected, we are not addressing the work issue collectively as we should or could. I want to talk with you about what I believe stops us from acting in a collective, collaborative way to stop emotionally abusive work.
We are moving into an era where the term "work abuse," that I first wrote about in 1988, is almost redundant. My clients in therapy come to me more and more desperate about work; even the ones who are not personally scapegoated can't find ways to be successful -- or in many instances, even survive -- in the impossible situations that they face. Whole departments are scapegoated; bosses tell outright lies in job interviews in order to trap people into signing on to jobs that are abusive.
Yesterday I heard on the news that the Supreme Court made a ruling that overturned many of the rights of workers with disabilities. George Bush is removing the ergonomic rules from Osha's purview. This is a blatant policy trend that mirrors the general deterioration of daily work processes. Workplaces in the 21st century are more and more driven by irrational top managers scrambling for control, not only of the market, but of their own organizations. Driven by profits, they rush from one unforeseen emergency to another making demands on employees that are so unreasonable and contradictory that the employees find it impossible to successfully complete a task--certainly not by deadline.
As corporate behavior becomes more erratic and less predictable, it is harder to avoid becoming a target for the irrationality of bosses and coworkers who are struggling not to go down themselves. Blaming, bullying and scapegoating become the norm for passing the buck of failure and saving one's own skin at someone else's expense. Integrity is a thing of the past, replaced by open idealization of ruthlessness as necessary to make it in the "real" world.
In this grim and heartbreaking environment, who among us can even imagine a non-abusive workplace? Who has experienced one?
What's happening here in the U.S. says we have to look beyond our individual work systems to the trans-organizational system to understand the escalation of work abuse. Looking at the big systems picture, we have the trappings of democratic institutions and Constitutional rights, yet our so-called free elections are run by two party machines, rapidly merging into one political conglomerate that represents a small ruling elite. This elite is becoming increasingly overt in manipulating the marketplace and the law to serve the interests of one percent of the people at the expense of the rest of us. If you doubt the truth of this, witness the steady loss of wages, job security, and health care for workers in the U.S. since 1970. A specific example: the U.S. is first in the world in health care spending but 37th in delivery of services (WHO 1998). Top insurance execs are raking off funds that should go to care of workers' families. 40 Million Americans go without any health insurance whatsoever.
Please read along with me while I address the question, "Why is it so hard for each of us to wake up to the reality of this danger---even to see it, let alone act to stop it?"
We Feel The Lack of "Community," but Can We See It?
The contradictions we experience at work are a microcosm of a larger problem. We can't imagine a non-abusive workplace because we don't live in, and can't imagine, a truly supportive community. The isolation we feel at work is reenforced by the isolation and fear we feel on the streets, on freeways or buses, and in our neighborhoods when we get home.
For many of my clients this is true of their family lives as well. We're lucky if we have a partner to live with who is more than a task companion, more than someone else (outside work) to engage in power struggles with. We're lucky to have or make the time to have quality interactions with our kids instead of just managing their lives and keeping them in line. So many people are on the treadmill of two incomes with forced overtime and the trauma of jobs that drain, humiliate and infuriate them, they barely have energy to keep a household running, let alone relate to partner and kids in ways that are not perfunctory, superficial, or frustrated. Everyday I hear of this happening to my clients.
If we have little time for immediate family, of course we have none to spare on neighbors. Even when we do, how many of us are able to imagine forming deep bonds with those who live on our blocks? Can you imagine participating in major life decisions with the people next door, supporting each other when sick, sharing food, shelter, parenting, able to be honest about differences and conflicts, and skilled enough to resolve them, and to share from our hearts? Can you imagine that depth of trust in others, and in yourself, that you wouldn't hold back out of fear or shame? Can you imagine being able to receive this depth of caring without feeling inferior and ashamed: can you imagine being prepared to give support to others without feeling ripped off and burdened?
We are trapped in our miserable isolation because we blame ourselves individually for being in the situation--blame ourselves for failing our children, for letting friendships go, for not being strong enough to work abusive jobs with grueling hours and still have high quality personal lives. The increasingly censored media tells us that the economy is booming, and bombards us with images of consumerist heaven that never pan out for most of us. We don't actually realize and know that the person down the street is as pressed and miserable as we are. We don't know that the apparently unflappable person in the next cubicle has the same nightmares about the boss and the deadlines that we do.
If we insist on seeing fault as located in an individual -- either ourselves or the other person -- then hope is only in a better individual, us or the person we are with. So maybe we keep looking for that person who will solve it all. But then maybe the problem is that we're too flawed. Then we become preoccupied with making ourselves better -- whether that means more pay, status, changing our physical image, measuring up to some ideal. What we say to ourselves over and over, or to our partners is: gear up, try harder. Either way we are hooked, addicted, to the hype of one of the American media dream images just as surely as if it were heroin.
What is wrong with this picture? One mistake is not to see that we're locked into a system that dictates these hardships for all of us and each of us. Another is not to see that we are individually innocent of fault or blame when what's happening to us is a social systems issue. A further mistake is being too ashamed to talk to each other, and not to break the "norm of silence."
We Workers Are also Consumers Under Siege
The institutions that serve us in place of community that we do not have are multi-national or non-profit corporations. They relate to us with the same usury and irrationality as when we work for them. The myth that "the customer is always right" has becomes a blatantly obvious lie.
We have only to look at delivery of health care in the U.S., and the way managed care and insurance companies have turned hospitals into factories and doctors into assembly line workers. How much bureaucracy do you have to go through to ask your doctor a question? How much time does he or she give you during appointments? Have you been treated like a criminal by the workers comp system when you were disabled at work, and had your claim denied or drag on for months and years?
Just as bosses lie outright to employees, producers of goods and services lie outright to customers, who are dupes and pawns at their disposal. Products, often made in China, fall apart too easily; promised services or conditions are not fulfilled, putting tremendous pressure on us as consumers as more and more obstacles are thrown in our paths.
The accelerating irrationality of work systems translates into bank tellers, customer service reps and government workers who are less and less informed about their product. They make more mistakes with less knowledge about how to correct them ---and forced to cover up their ignorance and blame the customer.
All of this reinforces us to distrust each other, to be vigilant and on the defensive even outside work. Where do we get relief? Unfortunately, the norms of most churches and community support organizations--even unions--are just as authoritarian and full of contradictions for the people who work there. Most of us do not yet have the skills and consciousness to risk creating intimate collaborative community cultures when we are surrounded by the opposite everywhere else.
Daily we try not to see homeless people on the streets, not to hear stories of people treated poorly by the health care system, or assaulted by the police. We are too terrified of being in their shoes to look at what's happening. Instead, we draw in our resources and protect ourselves. We are driven, manipulated and controlled by fear -- which keeps us from thinking creatively, being open-hearted, or feeling we have much left to offer each other.
Lack of Community Support Forces Us to Adopt an Image
A friend of mine recently joined a group that formed community. The people in the group helped each person question their assumptions about themselves, about the power in the group, about their personal limits. My friend told me of the great relief she felt when she was able to come to trust the group to take on the responsibility of her life with her -- that she no longer felt the burden of having to live up to her own ideal to feel good about herself. Her good feelings about herself came from the vitality of the group, of sharing problems and solutions, and from giving up worrying about her image (how she appeared to others in order to be accepted).
After I spoke with her, I had a major realization. I have long known and often heard that Americans live in a "narcissistic" culture, addicted to image, and that this addiction separates people from real connection to themselves and to each other. Now I see clearly that systemic lack of community and real connection forces people into an addiction to image. I see that people, all of us, are forced to inflate our sense of self-importance as a compensation for the lack of meaningful connection to others. We are obsessively self-involved with our image because we have no one to relate to in a real way, including ourselves.
What is "narcissism" and what do I mean by image? In our book, Work Abuse, we talk about managers who create an ideal self, and they won't tolerate feedback that challenges that ideal. Their subordinates become good at lying to protect bosses from the pain they'd feel if they had to face facts that contradicted their self-image -- and the rage and blame they'd direct at us if we were the messengers of the real facts.
Why is the manager so caught in this ideal image of himself? He is avoiding the emptiness he feels inside, which is the absence of self-worth that's not based on performance. He developed this empty worthless feeling as a child when he learned from his parents and/or at school that his real unique self, his own needs and feelings were useless and unacceptable. Only his performance mattered.
We have all met such managers; we have all seen politicians and movie stars who fit the same description. They are in love with their image, because they have nothing but shame for what's inside. The key to their condition is the lack of genuine connection and relatedness when they were kids.
Do we all live in a narcissistic culture because of our childhoods? The systemic answer is that we are forced into a narcissistic solution to the lack of relatedness we feel at every stage of our development socially. Even if our caretakers were able to connect with our feelings in a supportive way, we lost that support in school, where we were taught to perform, to buckle to authority, to learn to be helpless, to become acclimatized to the conditions of the workplace waiting for us. The lack of community support for us and our parents caused us all to feel competitive, isolated, struggling for worth growing up.
Look at the ideology, propaganda, myth about American self-reliance and individualism that surrounds us. We are taught to place value on going it alone, to deprecate need and vulnerability, to idealize status and performance, to romanticize the tragic hero or anti-hero, to worship competition, and to denigrate group membership. Groups in the U.S. are seen as faceless masses, mobs and mediocrity. Most of my clients feel more worthless about being "ordinary" than about being "bad." Everything is about excelling and standing out from the group; nothing about belonging and sharing.
To turn isolation into something heroic fits the "black is white" disinformation code of the currently censored media, to keep us believing in and hooked on a phony ideal which we can only succeed at by eradicating our hearts completely. Many in my profession of psychotherapy feed the myth by tacitly blaming the individual, especially the individual's childhood, for problems which are systemic and current -- and our social isolation is as much part of everyone's mental health problems as our abusive workplaces.
We Have to Breakthrough A Fantasy of Psychotic Proportions
Our current trans-organizational situation is deadly because the narcissistic denial of our leaders, top managers, and those of us who emulate them and want to be like them. Psychosis is the inability to differentiate fantasy from reality. American society now lives a fantasy so extreme that it threatens our very lives.
Top managers are in psychotic denial when they allow their companies to go under because it is too threatening to their rigidly protected self-image of control and their dream of success to hear from subordinates what the problems are and address them in time to save the situation.
We are all in psychotic denial when due to speed up on the treadmill of daily life we don't confront the assaults on our freedoms, and we don't admit how bad work abuse is getting. Presently, as things get worse, we hang on tighter to whatever we've been doing -- we do it harder, even though it isn't working, rather than to stop, look at the situation and take action to prevent what's inevitable.
It will take great courage for each of us to come down from the dream image of status, power, and the consumerist escape of credit card debt to deal with the pain of real life losses and limits we live with. We have to face the fear of disintegration, the disappointment, disillusionment and emptiness that comes from giving up a drug -- even when the drug is the myth of the American dream. The more discrepant the dream fantasy becomes from harsh reality, the harder will be our fall. If we are willing to take this step together, if we are willing to break the silence, we have a chance of beginning the hard work of building community and bringing back into our lives a sanity that we have to become willing to fight for.