There is a very powerful psychology behind Battered Person Syndrome (sometimes called Battered Woman Syndrome). After prolonged exposure to abuse, battered people go through a psychological transformation that leaves their confidence shattered, oftentimes blaming themselves for their abuse and typically being incapable of holding the actual abusers responsible for their actions. This creates a vicious cycle that all too often makes it emotionally impossible to leave. And even when the person does manage to get out, they frequently wind up in similar positions as their subconscious repeats the pattern.

While this phenomenon is associated with physical and mental abuse, the reality is that the psychology behind it exists in other situations as well.

Most of us know someone who has been at a job for a long time. That person might not seem particularly happy. Maybe they have been passed over for a promotion. Or maybe their bonuses are always terrible. They didn’t get that project lead role they really wanted. They keep getting re-orged to different parts of the organization, and have 7 bosses in the last 5 years to show for it. The professional growth they crave is nowhere. Management hasn’t allowed them to take the classes they want. There is no air cover for particularly difficult projects.

And yet this person stays in the situation – quarter after quarter, year after year. Why?

When you get mistreated in a job, it might not be outright abuse, but it does impact your psyche in ways that you likely don’t think about. Because the behaviors are not outright offensive most of the time, you don’t really identify it as abuse. It just feels like a bad decision or an insensitive boss or maybe an incompetent management team. It is difficult to ascribe the actions to outright malice or ill intent.

This is made still more difficult because the actions are ultimately carried out by your direct manager. Even if the decision is made higher up, most companies will use their first line managers to communicate outcomes. In that moment, the language can be very deceiving.

“Upper management has decided that…”
“I’ve been told I need to…”
“Bonuses are low this year, so I had to…”

Most middle and low-level managers never really take responsibility for these most difficult decisions. They talk nebulously about some higher entity. They might even name the organizational leader. But because the instrument of the abuse is able to pin the decisions on someone else, the recipient finds it difficult to associate the action with a specific person.

And finally, if you like your manager, it is exceedingly difficult to pin the decision on her. She has always talked plainly to you. She appreciates your work. She tells you that you are valuable. She asks about your family. This manager really likes you. Certainly she is just as much a victim as you are, right?

The result of this cycle of behavior is an almost unavoidable drop in confidence. You start to believe that this is just the way things are. You acclimate to a new normal. Everyone is just a victim of circumstance. There are no perpetrators here. And you are just in the unfortunate receiving position.

Over time, you start to doubt your own skills. Maybe you aren’t being promoted into that first-line manager position because you really aren’t an effective leader? Maybe your bonuses reflect an actual talent level that is lower than what you initially believed? Maybe the influx of people from outside into higher positions is because they have more skills to get things done? Maybe the constant re-orgs are because your role is not that important? Or that you are somehow easily replaceable?

When this doubt creeps in, how do you leave? I can’t even be promoted in my current job. I cannot even apply for a higher position at another company. Or if I join another company, I will be at the bottom rung again – I can’t give up my seniority. I don’t even know if I could get a job somewhere else. There is so much risk. And at least I have a job. And it’s not like these things can keep happening. My manager told me what the situation was – it wasn’t really his fault. And he promised he would make it up to me at the next review period. Then the head of our division met with me and told me she was sorry about overlooking my career ambitions and assured me there would be changes.

The rationale here starts to look eerily like Battered Person Syndrome. The abuser blames the abused. “If you hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have yelled.” And then he blames the situation. “It’s just that I am under so much stress.” And then he apologizes. “You deserve better. I am so sorry.” He assures the abused that it will never happen again. “I am going to get help. This will never happen again.”

And because of the fragile psyche from all of the poor treatment, the abused absolves the abuser of all responsibility. Certainly it will get better. This time is different.

But here’s the kicker. It rarely gets better.

In corporate settings, the abuser isn’t your manager. It isn’t his manager. It’s not the Senior Vice President or the CEO. The abuser is the company. Institutionally, companies adopt behavior. And even when you swap players out, that behavior persists. This is why people will go through the same tired story even after a re-org. It takes a very special leader to buck the trend and break the cycle, and if you don’t find that leader, it won’t matter who your new boss is.

It’s horrible to be the boss too. No one is intentionally trying to treat people poorly. Bosses really do feel constrained by the system. They want to do better. They just can’t always do it. That’s not to say that they are free from all responsibility in this, but rather that the blame goes beyond the manager.

So what do you do if you are the battered employee?

First, you need to recognize the situation. If you find yourself blaming “upper management” for issues that are communicated to you by your immediate boss, you likely are an apologetic sympathizer. If you explain away a series of incidents as one-offs that are each justified, you are absolving your abusers of blame. If your family or coworkers ask you why you are staying at a job, it means you have told them about enough bad stuff that they are wondering why you don’t just get out. And if your answer to their questions includes anything along the lines of risk or not being able to find something better, your confidence has already been broken.

If you self-diagnose as a battered employee, the only remedy is to change your situation. If you know who those rare enlightened leaders are within your current company, find a way to get to them. Even if it means making a lateral move in your career, do it. And if you aren’t absolutely certain you can find one of these special people, you need to get out.

When we watch movies about abusive situations, we stare at the screen and mutter things like “She is an idiot. She should just leave.” But it is a rare talent indeed to be able to watch your own life as if it is a movie. So ask your friends, trusted coworkers, and family what they see when they watch your movie. An outside perspective can sometimes provide the jarring force required to break the Battered Employee cycle.

[Today’s fun fact: Dueling is legal in Paraguay as long as both parties are registered blood donors. Hockey is legal in Canada under the same conditions.]