You Don’t Own Me: My Experiences with Coercive Control

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I’ve been away for a bit

Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted a blog entry for the last few months. Perhaps people may have thought I relapsed, but I’m happy to say that I haven’t. I have been completely alcohol free now for over 15 months.

The last time I did post was about my disappointment at not getting a job I’d applied for. One of the reasons I was applying for this new job and was so desperate to get it is because I am having a very difficult time with my current boss. Only recently I have come to realise that my issue with him is not simply that he is annoying or bad-tempered, he is abusive. And working for him has made me feel like I am an enabler – a concept that I’m possibly extra sensitive to given my history of addiction.

So why don’t I just get another job? Well I am still looking, but my field is highly specialised and there aren’t a huge number of jobs going in my field at any one time. Moreover, the application process is very intense (each application is usually more than 10 pages long), and it usually takes 6 months to a year for a person in my field to move between jobs. So whilst I am waiting to find another job, I have faced an unfortunate choice: either put up with my boss’ behaviour without doing anything about it, and feel like an enabler at the same time, or do something about it. I have tried the first option for a long time but it has just made me miserable, so today I took the first steps towards option 2: doing something about it. The first steps in a long road, but first steps nevertheless.

*Sciencey bit* People are Obedient

The Milgram experiments were famous psychology experiments carried out in the 1960s that tested how obedient people are. Participants were not told that this was the intent of the experiments, rather they were told that they were taking part in an experiment about learning in which they had to administer electric shocks to another participant that they could hear but couldn’t see. In reality, there was no other participant, it was a person who was ‘in’ on the experiment who kept answering questions wrong. Each time they got a question wrong, the real participant was required to continually administer ever-increasing  electric shocks. A range of different conditions produced variations on the result, but one thing was consistent: an unexpectedly large proportion of individuals (29-90%) were found to keep turning up the level of shock until finally, they’d administer a shock to the other participant that they believed was fatal. That is, they believed they had killed the other person, who’s screams they could hear, just because they were told to.

These experiments would be unlikely to get ethics approval nowadays, but the information they provide about people’s propensity to be obedient is important. In fact, these experiments were devised in order to test the hypothesis that the guards in the SS had carried out the holocaust during WWII because they were following orders; a hypothesis that seems to be supported by the results. I remember a Professor of Jewish studies referring to these experiments, and suggesting that the people we should really be studying is that small percentage that refused to give the fatal shock, even under the conditions that enticed 90% of other participants to give it. The disobedient few. They are the ones, he said, that we should be looking at emulating and aspiring to be like. Those who in the face of injustice, stand up and refuse to simply follow orders. It seems a relevant lesson for current political times, but that’s not the story I’m telling today.

Ever since learning about these studies and their relationship to atrocities that have happened in our history, I have liked to think that, if faced with a situation in which I come across a situation in which I think an injustice is being carried out, I will be a part of that 10% that stands up and refuses to participate. I will stand up to that person or people perpetrating the injustices and I will not, under any circumstances, contribute to or enable them to continue abusing people.

*End Sciencey bit*

Coercive Control in the Workplace

I have been in abusive relationships before, which is perhaps why I have been faster than others to recognise the patterns of abuse in my boss. In domestically abusive relationships there is often (but not always) physical violence, but what really defines the abuse is coercive control. My boss has never done anything so obvious as physical violence, but from the very beginning, the signs of coercive control were there. The attempts to cut me off from my network, my colleagues, and my collaborators began almost immediately. It was classic attempts to isolate me; just as an abusive man (and yes some women) might try and isolate their partner from their friends and family, my boss was trying to cut me off from my professional network so that I relied on him completely.

There was also gaslighting. Promising me certain things and then acting like they had never been promised. Making statements and then denying that he ever made them. Twisting and turning reality to suit his own purpose, all the while skirting the edges of what, if you take each incident in isolation, seems pretty reasonable. But when you add together the bulk of the actions you can see that there is a concerted and systematic attempt to get me under his control. I remember having a moment before I signed my contract when ‘Bossman’ said to me half-jokingly that he favours the hire of females. Part of me did wonder if that was because he considered females easier to get under his control. Now I know that that is indeed why. Well oopsie for him, I guess he made a mistake with me.

No More Enabling

Once I had a boyfriend who I thought was going to kill me. He drank too much too, and smoked weed every day. But he was a typically entitled white man who tried to isolate me from my friends, control what I wore, control where I went, and control what I did. The abuse escalated gradually, but it wasn’t until I had finally left him for good that he’d come around to my apartment drunk to talk about the ‘break up’ and we got into an argument. He threw my phone out of the window (I lived on the 6th floor), hit me and kicked me several times. I ran into the bathroom to try and lock myself in and get away from him but I wasn’t fast enough, so he wedged his way in. Motivated by alcohol, misogyny, and entitlement, he held me up against the wall by my throat and started to strangle me. I saw my life flash before my eyes at that moment, I seriously thought I was going to die. This was it, I thought, at the age of 22 I was going to be murdered by my drunk boyfriend. Somehow I found the strength to kick him in the balls as hard as I possibly could and he let me go. He started crying then ran and got an iron and started smashing it against his head until blood was pissing out. By some grace of something, my flatmates came home at that exact moment, and I screamed at them to call the police. Before they could call however my boyfriend ran outside the apartment off into the street, and my female flatmate came in and showered me to wash off all the blood and tears, dressed me like I was a little baby, and put me to bed whilst stroking my hair. Bless her.

That was over 15 years ago, and it is just one of many incidents that I have been through that make me so determined now that I will not enable the behavior of a narcissistic, paranoid person believes that they are entitled to subjugation and recognition that they didn’t earn, even if its unlikely that my life will ever be directly in danger as a result. Further, unluckily for him, but luckily for me, I’m sober now.

So I have taken action. I don’t want to give too many details about that in the name of anonymity, but formal proceedings are beginning. Most importantly for my peace of mind, for me to feel like one of the 10% of Milgram’s subjects, not of the 90%, no more enabling. No more agreeing to ridiculous requests because its easier than arguing, no more trying to placate situations by going along with things I don’t agree with. No more putting this man on my grants and publications and giving him success that will enable him to treat other people the same way he has treated me.

For today, this journey has only just begun. I’m not sure where it will end up. Maybe I’ll lose my job, maybe I’ll ruin my career. I sincerely hope not because I love what I do, and it would be such a shame to lose all that I have worked for. But that’s the risk I’m currently willing to take, because I toed the line for so long and I know how miserable it made me. Even though I know what I am risking, I feel so much happier knowing that I am finally standing up to this man.

Wish me luck…

NB: I feel like I should put some links in for people suffering from domestic abuse, but it really depends on what part of the world you are in. Here are some excellent books that contain information about where to get help. If this applies to you, please do get help. You don’t have to suffer alone.

See what you made me do by Jess Hill

It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover








6 thoughts on “You Don’t Own Me: My Experiences with Coercive Control

  1. I truly wish you the best, this sounds like a horrendous working environment. I believe if you have documented his behavior towards you and go through channels, they will have no choice but to support you. If you were to lose your job, get a good lawyer and sue them into the ground. I hope your boyfriend went to jail for his assault and perhaps began a road to sobriety. Alcohol brings out the devil, for sure.


    1. Thanks Eric. Nope I was young and felt very powerless so did nothing about my boyfriend at that time. No idea where he ended up, he’s not on my facebook or anything. I’ll keep you posted on how the work situation develops. REALLY hoping that I get a different job by the end of the year

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this this morning before coffee, in a bit of a warm fuzzy open and receptive haze… I don’t think I will ever forget this post. Sending you every bit of powerful energy I can muster to break free of your current situation and hopefully take down the abuser. Too too too much unchecked absuse going on in the world right now.


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