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Emotional Abuse at Work: Knowing When It's Time to Go

If you've been struggling with persistent feelings of anxiety, dread, or inadequacy in your workplace, you may be experiencing emotional abuse. This form of psychological mistreatment can be insidious and hard to pinpoint, leaving you questioning your own perceptions and capabilities.

While no job is perfect, ongoing emotional abuse is never acceptable. If you're unsure whether your situation warrants a job change, consider the following signs.

Constant Criticism and Belittling

In a healthy work environment, feedback is constructive and aimed at growth. In an emotionally abusive one, criticism is harsh, personal, and unrelenting. If your boss or coworkers routinely belittle your ideas, appearance, or character—especially in front of others—it's a red flag.

Look out for comments like:

"What's wrong with you?"

"Can't you do anything right?"

"That was a stupid suggestion."

Criticism, when genuinely warranted, should be specific, actionable, and delivered with respect. Anything else is unacceptable.

Unpredictable and Volatile Moods

Emotionally abusive individuals often have erratic, explosive tempers that keep you walking on eggshells. One moment they're praising you, the next they're flying into a rage over a minor issue.

This unpredictability is destabilizing and stressful. You may find yourself constantly trying to anticipate and avoid their outbursts, rather than focusing on your actual work.

No job is worth sacrificing your emotional safety and stability.

Gaslighting and Manipulation

Gaslighting is a form of manipulation that makes you question your own reality. Emotionally abusive bosses or coworkers may:

  • Deny events that you clearly remember.

  • Accuse you of being "too sensitive" when you express hurt.

  • Twist your words to make you seem at fault.

  • Play the victim while subtly blaming you.

Over time, this manipulation erodes your self-trust and makes you doubt your own judgment. If you frequently feel confused, on edge, or "crazy" at work, gaslighting may be at play.

Isolation and Exclusion

Emotional abusers often try to control and isolate their targets. At work, this may manifest as:

  • Leaving you out of key meetings or emails.

  • Ignoring or interrupting you in group settings.

  • Forbidding you from collaborating with certain colleagues.

  • Physically separating you from the team.

If you feel increasingly alienated or cut off from decision-making and communication, it's a concerning sign.

Sabotage and Undermining

In some cases, emotional abuse can cross over into sabotage. This may include:

  • Withholding critical information or resources.

  • Taking credit for your ideas or work.

  • Setting impossible deadlines or workloads.

  • Misrepresenting your actions to others.

If you sense that someone is actively trying to undermine your performance or reputation, it's time to take action.

What to Do About Emotional Abuse at Work

If you're experiencing emotional abuse at work, remember: It's not your fault, and you don't have to tolerate it.

Here are some steps you can take:

1. Document absolutely everything. Keep a detailed record of abusive incidents, including dates, times, and any witnesses. Save copies of hostile emails or messages.

2. Confide in trusted colleagues. See if others have experienced similar mistreatment. There's strength in numbers.

3. Review your company's policies. Familiarize yourself with the processes for reporting harassment or abuse.

4. Consider involving HR. If your company has a responsive HR department, they may be able to intervene or mediate.

5. Set boundaries when possible. Calmly call out inappropriate behavior in the moment. Limit contact with abusive individuals.

6. Prioritize your mental health. Seek support from friends, family, or a therapist to process the emotional impact.

7. Start an exit plan. Update your resume, reach out to your network, and begin looking for new opportunities. Your safety and well-being should be the priority.

Remember, leaving an abusive job isn't giving up. It's protecting your mental and physical health. You deserve to work in an environment of respect, professionalism, and basic psychological safety.

Don't settle for anything less.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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