“These Things Can Break You”

A Story from Academia*

My burnout happened three years ago, and it took me more than a year to recover from it. I had to stop working because I had panic attacks, sudden stomach aches and I often began to tremble and break into a sweat for no good reason. I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t even able any more to read a simple newspaper article. After a sentence or two, I would get dizzy and feel a sharp pain in my head. Even after I admitted to myself that I couldn’t work anymore, it was still a difficult step to announce it at my department. I had a large number of students whose thesis I supervised. I felt I let them down. I also worried about my colleagues who would have more work because of me.

There is a story behind every burnout. Mine is a story of people who abused their power to intimidate, threaten and bully me, of administrators who backed this behavior up, of Kafkaesque procedures by which university personnel transformed the bullying into apparently legitimate but in reality close to Stalinist forms of control and coercion. Patriarchal abuse of power meets the neoliberal university that likes to boast about its ‘modern’ forms of personnel management but treats people less and less as real human beings and more and more as output generators. To be clear, my “output” was never an issue in this case.

After twelve years of professional experience in the academic world and six years of teaching in my department, I was threatened with dismissal because I had, one single time, openly challenged an assignment. I had expected a conversation and some form of understanding. Instead, I was forced into a year-long process of coaching coupled with “examinations” in which I had to demonstrate that I was developing a “professional attitude” and that I would henceforth “accept decisions”. If the coaching was not deemed “successful” after a final evaluation, a “trajectory” would be put in place that would “lead to” my “dismissal”.

I was intentionally, and skillfully, deprived of any possibility to resist this treatment: On a Friday afternoon I was confronted in an official meeting with the “information” that I would immediately lose my job if I didn’t explicitly “accept” this humiliating scheme and that, on top of it, I would have to make this decision before the end of the weekend. What I had to say did not count one bit, neither during this nor during any of the meetings in the gruesome months that followed. The whole procedure aimed at reducing, once and for all, my possibility of speaking for myself, of making my perceptions heard at my workplace. I was systematically disrespected as a scholar, as a colleague, as a human being. At its worst moment it became a scheme that effectively prevented me of any possibility to speak for myself at all.

“These things can break you” said a wonderful colleague from South Africa after I indicated the outlines of my story to her. Well, it certainly broke my health in the spring of 2013. While it also dealt a heavy blow on my spirit, it did not completely break it. Or, to put it differently: As broken as I felt then, eventually I was able to put myself together again. The most horrible experience in my 40 years of life couldn’t make me give up and leave a job and a profession I was, and still am, passionate about. There was an element of luck, the bully and his main accomplice left the shop at the right moment. But mostly I am still here because my story is also a story of support and of friendship, of colleagues who behaved as real and wonderful human beings when I most needed it.

My main strategy of survival was to individually talk to those colleagues I thought I could trust. I made a list of names, I made appointments with each of them, I told my story again and again, my heart beating every time. Apart from one exception, nobody disappointed me. These conversations helped me in two ways: First, the pure fact of telling my story helped me starting the very long and difficult process of making sense of something that seemed utterly senseless. But, secondly, getting a compassionate reaction and thus being able to connect to my colleagues helped me even more. While the bullying works by pushing the victim into social isolation through arbitrary acts of shaming and humiliation, every single conversation I had was a powerful experience of human solidarity that counteracted this isolation and shame.

There were colleagues who reacted with more empathy than I myself might have been able to show them had the situation been reverse. Nothing humbled me more during that time than this realization. I now know better than ever how social and psychological violence committed in a workplace strains everybody who gets in touch with it. It puts a strain not only on those who support the victim, but also on those who become complicit, most often unwillingly, in a culture which protects the bully and shames the person who dares to speak up. I became a living and breathing warning to my fellow colleagues that this is what might happen if you challenge a decision from higher up no matter how impeccable your record. There is a reason why some countries, one of them France, have laws which criminalize bullying by bosses. Dealing with it privately asks too much of human beings. If such violence remains unaddressed it is like an invisible poison continuing to diffuse in the workplace long after it happened.

I am also still here because a good colleague and friend of mine did not stop telling me again and again to get myself a lawyer. She ended every single of our many skype conversations with that point. She knew what she was talking about, she had been through a similar thing. Luckily I followed her advice. I didn’t have to go to court to finally make my torturers lift the threat of dismissal they had placed above my head for a whole year in order to discipline me into a nice and quiet girl without a sense of justice and without a voice to raise. I knew I had to act, when the bully himself likened my situation to a “snake hole”. I understood then that as long as he could, he would use this threat to keep me in an utterly helpless position completely at the mercy of his arbitrary attacks. He used the expression (“slangenkuil” in Dutch) in the presence of several other people attending the meeting in an official function. That’s how save he felt in his posture. That’s how unsafe my own workplace had become for me.

Continuing this work situation was not an option any more. It was either quitting on the spot or activating my lawyer. Although there was nobody else in my immediate surrounding who really supported me in this, I chose the latter. Sometimes things become so clear that you know what you have to do even if all your friends worry that it is unwise. But then, they were safe, I was not. They did not, could not feel exactly what I felt. They even, I often thought, had to protect themselves to a certain degree from recognizing the intensity of my ordeal in order to be able to help me at all. As it turned out, the pure presence of my lawyer, a very smart woman, in just one meeting was enough to end what I can only call a sadistic game.

This one last meeting has burned itself in my memory in a way that superimposes all the other memories of humiliation. It was an act of psychological hygiene for me. Neither she nor I had to actually say what became clear simply through her presence: Had the sadistic game not stopped, I would have gone to court and I would have won. There was a certain kind of beauty in that clarity, there was also a beauty in two women knowing exactly what to say and what not to say to make sure the bully was put back in his place. Yet, that I endured a year of unbearable harassment supported by my university in spite of this clear legal framework is still painful, even now. It brings to the surface again the stain that stays with me, like the shadow of a stigma once burned on my forehead: the shame of having been an outcast. It is the trace of this stain, I think, which usually makes people with a story like mine, and there are way too many of us, remain silent about their experiences.

Thanks to the introduction of my lawyer the game was over, I had won a fierce battle that had been forced upon me. But the feeling of relief lasted only for a short moment, only until the psychological and physical repercussions of a year in hell truly hit me. I had been at war, months and months on high alert, always anticipating what the brains of my bullies had in store for me next, constantly figuring out my strategies of survival. While keeping up my teaching I had refrained from most research activities because I sensed from the beginning that this situation was dangerous for my health, that my capacities in such a toxic surrounding were very limited. Several times I was very close to giving up and resigning immediately because I thought, because I feared, I could not endure it even a day longer. This is what persistent humiliation does, what it always does, to anyone exposed to it.

The breakdown was in that sense no huge surprise. But when it hit me it shocked me nevertheless. Its first clear signs occurred at the end of the only conference I attended during this academic year, shortly after the battle was over. Coincidentally, it was a conference on “post-traumatic cultures” – as if fate had found an ironic way to announce the next phase of my life. To be exposed to such inhumane behavior at your workplace, to experience that it threatens your physical and mental health, to understand, as a consequence, that even if you have successfully and with great enthusiasm done everything you are supposed to do in your academic life, such an event can force you to leave your work and give up what you have achieved and what you love in order to, literally, safe your life – this kind of an experience shatters the ground you thought you were standing on.

At a certain point, when I started to look back and to begin the long and agonizing process of comprehending it all, it slowly dawned on me that I had experienced a form of reality shock after which the world would never look the same to me. The following year I crawled in, through and eventually out of the rabbit hole of complete exhaustion, mourning and physical and mental reconstruction. At the other end, I came out as a different person. A person who would live with and honor her scars and vulnerabilities in order to be able to connect to others with similar, or worse, experiences. A person who knew she would never again let herself be silenced any more. A person who knew about the wonders of solidarity. In short: A person who would more than ever embrace the idea that “going human” is the only sensible reaction to a dehumanizing world.

* This story from academia is not told with the intention to attack anybody, neither my current employer, the administration of my faculty nor any particular person. What I do intend, however, is to engage in, and thereby encourage, an honest and open conversation about experiences of (patriarchal) harassment that have increased with the neoliberal management of universities and that are very difficult to talk about. To break open the paralysis produced by these developments we need a new language and new forms of conversation. We need these new forms if we want to safeguard and nurture the university as a place in which learning, teaching and exploring the world through research is understood as a creative, and therefore vulnerable and complex human activity. This activity cannot fulfil its promise of insight and emancipation in a culture of fear. I tell my story because I am not willing to give up this promise.


Reading recommendations:

On fear and silence in organizations: Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart et al., “Silenced by Fear: The Nature, Sources, and Consequences of Fear at Work”, Research in Organizational Behavior 29 (2009) 163-193; Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison and Frances J. Milliken, “Organizational Silence: A Barrier to Change and Development in a Pluralistic World”, The Academy of Management Review 29 (2000) 4, 705-725.

On workplace harassment and its physical and mental consequences see the work of Marie-France Hirigoyen, especially her Malaise danls le travail. Harcèlement moral. Démêler le vrai du faux (Paris: Éditions La Découverte et Syros, 2001).

On bullying and shame in academia see Duncan Lewis, “Bullying at Work: The Impact of Shame among University and College Lecturers”, British Journal of Guidance and Councelling 32 (August 2004) 3.

Finally, as inspiration for how the university might reinvent itself as a creative space that actively engages in fostering a fear-less environment, I want to recommend Ed Catmull (with Amy Wallace), Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (New York: Random House, 2014). It is somewhat ironic that Catmull, the head of a profit generating company (Pixar Studios), seems to understand much better what kind of management a creative workplace needs than the majority of today’s university managers, including those at the head of (semi-)public places of learning.

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The Inhumane Superego

A German Cultural Heritage

I just counted. More than half of my German friends has been in psychotherapy, once or even several times, myself included. Some of these friends tell me, that this actually holds true for everyone in their circle of friends. This, of course, does not have to mean much, or it could mean many different things. To me, though, it appears to be a symptomatic fact. A fact that designates exactly the point at which the history of the twentieth century resides in our bodies.

Seen from the outside we are doing well, often we are even doing very well. We are, or so it is said, successful, we have mastered some challenges, have prevailed in conflicts at work or found something new at the right moment. In so doing, we have found satisfying fields of activity in which we generally earn enough money to live a comfortable life. Mostly, we live in fulfilling relationships to our partners, with or without children, and we tend to have well working social families, friends, for whom we care and on whom we can count.

Most of my friends, who all have a university education, belong to the generation after the baby boom and were born between 1965 and 1975. A generation that a German journalist once called the “generation Golf”. He identified them with the Volkswagen Golf in order to emphasize their consumerism. In a recent high school reunion, however, I did not meet anyone whose way of life could have been reduced to a materialism obsessing about the difference between two brands of cars. To the contrary, shallowness is certainly not our main feature, but rather the very serious will to do everything in life just right.

At the evening of the reunion I met an old schoolmate from whom I had withdrawn quickly after high school graduation. The reason for breaking up our friendship was a postcard he sent to me after we had seen each other at a party. On this postcard he asked me: “Why did you try to present your life as a perfect life when I was talking to you?” I was very upset about this question. I found him horribly egocentric and insensitive, and what did he want from me anyhow? As we talked about this, twenty years later, I suddenly realized that he had not only hit a nerve, but actually hit home with his postcard at the time. To present my life as a perfect life, or better, to be driven by the idea that I have to live a perfect life, indeed belongs to a heritage that is inscribed deeply in my body. After so many years, I finally understood that this friend, to whom I used to feel so superior, always had a decisive advantage over me: serenity and the knowledge not to be able to control everything that would happen in and with his life.

Many stories around me sound very different. There was that fellow student who was so extremely active that she always seemed to be able to accomplish the double amount of what everybody else could. She was admired by many and sometimes a little bit envied. Her positive energy apparently had no limit. Some years later I heard that she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and that this diagnose threw her heavily off the track. It took many months until she could adapt to the new situation mentally and physically. As a result, working long hours without the time to breathe necessarily belonged to the past. Or another friend, a man as good as gold, warm-hearted, always helpful, always friendly, very committed to his study and his political work, cultivating his friendships as the most valuable thing on earth. But he got stuck with his doctoral thesis in a time of crisis. Both his parents died shortly after another and the theme of his dissertation was a heavy moral weight on his shoulders. In the end, he pulled himself up, chose a profession outside academia and nevertheless even finished his dissertation. But there was a time when all of this seemed very uncertain.

Many of my friends and acquaintances in Germany were very ambitious when I met them at the university. Not necessarily ambitious to make a ‘career’ in the conventional sense of the word, or to earn a lot of money, but to ‘do something’ with their lives, something interesting. To do it right, that life thing, to achieve something, produce something meaningful and have a certain success with it. In my generation this rather likable kind of ambition is something which can break you to pieces. Because we take life much too serious. So serious that we forget that we are mere humans. The remorseless way in which we demand the highest accomplishments from ourselves is thoroughly inhumane. We are driven by an inhumane superego. It is a cultural heritage that has a particularly sharp and sometimes destructive edge in Germany.

This inhumane superego seems to strike its most heavy blows on some of the generation’s very best. Unbelievable talents, whose oversized ambition and resulting frustration about insufficient recognition turns their existing sensibility in its cynical and often aggressive opposite. They prefer to make others the victims of their obsessive and fear driven ambition instead of admitting only one crack in the pitch perfect image of their achievement-self. Society often confirms their approach to life by way of success. Others invest all their gifts and energy not only for themselves but even more for others. They are in danger to break down as a result of this strenuous effort if the circumstances are all too resisting. For in the end they are responsible for everything, above all for their failure, which in their eyes already occurs whenever they miss the ideal they are aiming at. And precisely because they feel the burden of responsibility on their shoulders, some of them, quite paradoxically, have the tendency to exclusively blame the evil in the world around them for their disappointments.

In an anthropological article I once read that moving from one place to another causes a nearly similar amount of stress as the death of a loved one. If that is true, it should apply even more to moving abroad. When I moved from Germany to Amsterdam some years ago I thought it was the most natural thing in the world to just ‘soldier on’. I had no clue why I found it so hard during the first months to get out of bed in the morning. Of course I would publish my dissertation, edit an art catalogue, start my life as a postdoc, learn Dutch, get to know the city, get to know the country, get to know the university system, search for an apartment constantly throughout a whole year, move three times in eighteen months, teach in English, commute to Cologne and finally start my first job in the Netherlands and teach in Dutch. What was the big deal? I love foreign languages, I could work in my profession of choice and I had moved to a beautiful and exciting city together with my husband. Plus we are all Europeans and I had already studied in Bordeaux and done research in Paris. Just business as usual. I was only worrying a little bit because I thought I did not publish enough and because I found it difficult to make new friends.

A little while later some American colleagues opened my eyes. Whenever I told my story I saw in their faces, in their compassionate eyes, what I was not able to feel myself, namely how exhausting and difficult all of this is, how much it asks of you. But even today, even right now, in this moment, I hear this voice in my head, that says: “Don’t be a whiny!” And when I talk to my German colleagues, I immediately feel at home with this attitude of minimizing my own vulnerability. These things are no big deal for them, either. Exhausting, sure, but necessary and somehow a normal part of the life we have chosen. If it happens all the same that somebody does not come to terms with it, we are completely helpless. Quickly the thought creeps in that she or he apparently did not have what it takes, simply was not tough enough. And in the end everything is always also about being tough, or so they say.

There has been much talk about burnout. Burnout is known to be a phenomenon that exists in many countries. Why then should we think about national features? Is it not caused by the neoliberal boost to our achievement-driven societies? That is indeed very probable, but it seems to me that it does not completely grasp the phenomenon. In the way this problem occurs in Germany, something is interwoven that shapes our culture in a very specific way. It is a lack of empathy, with ourselves and thereby very often also with others. In my home country this lack is so natural that we can barely notice it.

After having published a book about her burnout, the media scholar Miriam Meckel was asked on a German radio program about the reasons why it had been so difficult for her to find a balance between work and rest; why she had the disposition to work excessively up to the point of total exhaustion. She answered that this had to do with her parents, with the generation to which they belonged, with the model that they had lived. I recognize myself and many of my friends in this remark. Our parents’ way of life was often based on work and achievement and the absolute duty to always do the right thing, without a break, without rest, without restriction, I am even inclined to say: without mercy. This way of life is not designed to hold a place for treating yourself humanely. Treating yourself humanely would mean to acknowledge, even to welcome, one’s own fallibility and weakness, and thereby also the weakness of others, as a part of our humanity. For this is precisely what makes us human. Many people in Germany (but surely not only there) have a panic fear of this insight, reinforced by an unforgiving logic of achievement which has been fueled further during the past twenty years of neoliberal politics.

But we cannot develop a culture of empathy if we are that much afraid of what has piled up inside of us. We have inherited the biggest part of it from our parents, and they have inherited it from our grandparents. This part of us belongs to the history of the twentieth century. It is a cultural heritage, that drives us to the highest achievements and that, at the same time, threatens to engulf us in the abyss.

(Written in Konstanz, Germany, February 2012)