Has this happened to you? Did your boss or colleague say, “We’re like a family here?” Here’s why that’s a problem. This phrase might help you become trauma bonded to your nonprofit job. What does that mean? If you are wondering if you’re in a nonprofit trauma bonding situation, read on. We’re going to find out.
What is trauma bonding?
Trauma bonding is when a person involved in a toxic or abusive relationship forms a strong bond with, and often idealizes, their abuser. When people say, “I LOVE MY JOB I work ALL THE TIME and they ask me to work on the weekends and nights and I don’t even mind!” This can be a sign of trauma bonding. This emotional connection with an abuser is an unconscious way of coping with trauma or abuse.
Ever feel like you’re walking on eggshells with your boss or colleagues, hoping to gain their approval?
This can be a sign of trauma bonding.
What makes a trauma bond more likely if you work at a nonprofit or in movement spaces?
Tada Hozumi says, “Trauma-bonds are essentially emotional entanglements that form when we go through peak experiences together that resonate with pieces of unprocessed trauma in our unconscious and cause us to surpass our emotional thresholds.
Trauma-bonds almost always produce codependent dynamics where the objects of admiration of trauma-bonded codependents become redeeming saviors that can do no wrong – until they do. When enacted in a community, trauma-bonds tend to create cult-like collective dynamics.”
In order to control the person, an abuser might use any of these tactics:
- 1. Financial Abuse: Money and/or ability to work are controlled by the perpetrator. Can you see how it would so easily happen at work? This job can fire you at any time, for no reason, and it can literally feel like your very survival is dependent on you keeping this job. This is an aspect of nonprofit trauma bonding, made worse by the low wages in the nonprofit sector.
- 2. Denial, Minimization, and Blaming: Your feelings and perceptions get dismissed, or made light of, or denied by the perpetrator. You might be told you deserved the abuse, or that it didn’t happen. Maybe a colleague or supervisor says “He’s not that bad” or “You’re just too sensitive” or “all jobs are like this”
- 3. Isolation: Cutting the employee off from friends and family. Have you ever been encouraged to have no boundaries between work and home life, and work all the time? Has this ever happened to you?
- 4. Intimidation, Threats, Coercion: Doing and saying things that instill fear, like, “we can replace you” or “if you’re not willing to work saturdays (or answer your email after hours) maybe you don’t really want to work here”
- 5. Decision-Making: Important decisions made solely by the perpetrator without input from, or consideration of you. Obviously your boss can make important decisions about your work without your input. They shouldn’t, but they do. This can be another aspect of trauma bonding.
- 6. Emotional abuse: Humiliation, name-calling, mind games, criticizing, gas-lighting. This can happen with bosses, or colleagues, often leading to PTSD symptoms
How do you know you’re Trauma Bonding?
Nonprofit jobs can make you feel like you have an emotional and financial trauma bond. You may not feel emotionally or financially safe to leave.
You might have keen awareness of everything the perpetrator wants and expects in order to mitigate abuse. At work, this can get really fuzzy. Your boss or colleagues can put pressures on you that are really not your job.
Someone in a trauma bond might also show signs of PTSD and suspicion of others who point out the trauma they’re experiencing.
Common signs and symptoms of nonprofit trauma bonding include:
- 1. Gratitude for small acts of kindness by the perpetrator (Are you really supposed to be overjoyed for that pizza party instead of getting the raise you deserve?)
- 2. Accepting and agreeing with the perpetrator’s point of view (Do people at your work require you to be on the same page as they are about political or unrelated things to your job?)
- 3. Acting in ways that are contrary to their own values to appease the perpetrator (Have you ever been an emotional dumping ground for someone at work, just to try to ingratiate yourself with them?)
- 4. Denying the abuse or rationalizing it (i.e., believing that they deserved the abuse as a result of something they did) (It’s my fault, I should have answered that email at 9pm. We could have kept that grant!) (I have to be working til 10pm, this is just the nature of the job! Everyone does this!)
- 5. Hyper-focused on the perpetrator’s wants and needs (Let’s face it, an at-will work environment encourages us to try to keep our jobs by any means necessary, and that includes learning the love language of your boss or colleagues to keep on their good side)
- 6. Difficulty leaving the abusive relationship and fear of retaliation from the perpetrator if they do leave (of course it’ s hard to leave a job when you don’t have another one lined up. AND it’s hard when you want to get another job in the sector, so you keep quiet about the abusive ex-boss or colleagues. The cycle just continues.
- 7. Losing your sense of worth. This is a big one. Who would you be without this job or this title? Do you feel like you don’t have value without it? Well, there was a time before this job and there will be a time after it. But it’s hard to see that in the moment!
- 8. Experiencing a strong emotional bond with the perpetrator. Oh no, I could never leave! We’re a work family! Even though they treat me badly, don’t give me raises or vacation and I can barely afford to live! I love my clients/patients/students/donors! We’re there for each other! We’ll get through this!
- BONUS: Perceiving anyone who encourages them to leave the abusive relationship as an enemy. If you’ve ever tried to encourage a friend to leave a bad work environment, this may have happened to you.
What does the cycle of trauma bonding look like?
Maybe when you first got this job, you thought, wow, now my troubles are over! This can happen with all jobs, not just nonprofit jobs. Do any of these sound familar?
Part 1: Honeymoon /Lovebombing
Most dysfunctional relationships start with the abuser listening intently to the victim’s wants and needs, showing them all the affection they lack. Maybe when you started your job, you had a honeymoon period, people were asking you to do simple, small things, and you got these perks to keep you there. However, as time went on, things started to change.
Part 2: Unrealistic expectations
After awhile, the colleague or boss will start complaining or abusing. Sometimes bosses will scream at their employees, and demand absolute perfection and loyalty. The abuser hones in on the victim’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Typically, the abuser will start complimenting the victim on their intellect or personality to make them feel seen, and special. Maybe they just expect incredibly unrealistic fundraising results from you. And you can’t control their expectations, even if you try. You start to worry that you cannot predict their moods, and you start walking on eggshells.
Part 3: Nothing is enough
Once the compliments and validation have won over the victim, the abuser will begin to devalue their victim, and the episodes of abuse will begin. The victim then works harder and harder to please the abuser, often to the point of utter physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Does this sound like a toxic job or what?
The victim becomes consumed with getting back the “amazing” or “thoughtful” person they met by any means necessary. What if that amazing part of the job is never coming back? What if your boss will never be thoughtful, or caring, or help you succeed in moving up in your career? Does any of this nonprofit trauma bonding sound familiar?
Check out the book, The Battle between Somebodies and Nobodies by J. Wambach. Very useful in recognizing the different kinds of power plays at work. If you want to develop better boundaries at work, check out my resource page.
How to break the cycle of trauma bonding
Once you get career coaching, we’ll work on getting you out of there and into something better.
Get a better job. How can you tell if it will be a better job? Ask these 5 questions.
Where can you find a better job? It’s the great resignation, so there are TONS of jobs out there. Here’s a giant list of places to find jobs.
Get out. You don’t have to take this. I mean sure, you COULD. But do you want to? NO!
Stretch your radical imagination. What does a career after fundraising look like for you?
You might want to consider becoming a consultant instead of just going back to another nonprofit job.
Just know that this trauma bonding doesn’t just happen with nonprofit jobs- this happens with jobs in general and it is a class issue.
Let’s break free!