Sexual Harassment Breeds Negative Self Talk: How You Can “Shut Up” That Depressing Voice in Your Head

Victims of workplace sexual harassment often experience psychological “collateral damage.” In other words, not only do victims suffer consequences in the real world (loss of a job, demotion, unfair payment terms, etc.), but they also experience mental scarring that leads to insidious, longer-term damage to self esteem.

If someone at your work propositions you for sexual favors or makes derogatory comments about your clothing, you may consciously reject the criticism/harassment. But your subconscious mind might still pick up — and even begin to believe — the judgments. For instance, say your superior one day makes a comment like: “you look enormous in that skirt. Are you pregnant?” Your conscious reaction might be to laugh off the insult or even to insult him back. But once the exchange ends, the slow poison of that cutting remark can really start to do its work. Hours (or days or weeks) later, long after you’ve forgotten that the exchange even happened; you may find yourself steering clear of that pretty dress. You may even reassess your body image and begin to think that you really are “fat and unattractive.”

Believe it or not, the relationship between the insult and its long term psychological “damage” may be even more indirect. For instance, weeks after the harassment, you may develop a vague sense of anxiety about a work project. Subconscious and unconscious connections can remain entrenched, kind of like psychological scar tissue.

So what can you do to correct this latent damage once it’s been done?

This question is obviously far too big for a single blog post to answer. But consider that different individuals may have different psychological “immune systems.” Scientists are only barely beginning to understand how they function. For some people, insults may not create much, if any, longer-term damage because their “immune systems” function at a high level. For others, the damage can be totally out of proportion to the initial insult. So a tactic to salve the unconscious trauma might work for you, but it might not work for your coworker. Or — even more subtly — what works for you in one situation might not work for you in another situation.

All that said, victims can deploy a surprising variety of tactics and strategies to overcome the ravages of being mistreated. Counseling, meditation, leaving the “offending environment,” and even developing alternative sources of self-esteem (e.g. getting really good at playing darts or aerobics, hanging out with people who value and compliment you, etc.) might be useful measures to deploy.

Another hugely important tactic is to gain successful closure to the offending incident by resolving and even getting compensated for mistreatment. The law firm of Joseph & Kirschenbaum provides a fully confidential and complete free case evaluation. If you experienced something hurtful and possibly illegal at the workplace – harassment, discrimination, wage and hour violations, or the like – connect with their team at (212) 688-5640 or