The first time I was seriously bullied at work, I convinced myself it was no big deal. As the first woman in my family to graduate from a four-year college, I thought could handle anything.
But my body knew something was wrong. My heart would beat faster when the elevator was about to open up to my office’s floor. I’d have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, despite being an early riser my whole life. I stopped wanting to socialize with friends, despite being an extrovert. Most of the time, I was just too exhausted to go anywhere.
Then the dark thoughts showed up, uncalled for. No one can see me here anyway, I kept thinking. I would replay scenarios in my head from interactions with coworkers. Initially, I would feel shame for not knowing how to respond to subtle acts of exclusion (also known as microaggressions) like having my name mispronounced and my English complimented, as well as being the only woman of color in my department. But soon I felt self-loathing and anxiety when I was at risk of being fired after a senior leader made a complaint about how I was difficult to work with, without giving any reasons or examples to back it up.
Having no women of color to turn to, I felt like I was living in an alternative reality. Today, I know there’s a word for what I experienced: racial gaslighting. But back then, I questioned myself literally every day. Eventually, the burden became too much to bear. I could see myself turning into a cynical, bitter shell of myself. I saw up close how the rules were different for my white peers — the white men and women who got promoted despite underperforming, the male leaders who only hired attractive white women. I was left out of meetings, social gatherings, and inside jokes, and I never saw anyone who looked like me.
It took a toll — not just the bullying, but the daily acts of exclusion. Eventually, I quit, despite advice from my family and friends that I shouldn’t leave such a lucrative opportunity. But I was broken mentally and spiritually.
“It’s common for victims of workplace discrimination to conceptualize how they are the problem. That conceptualization takes the form of guilt and shame, severe anxiety, and panic and worry, such that you can no longer be effective in your role,” says Danielle Jenkins Henry, licensed marriage family therapist associate (LMFTA) and founder of Dream Life Out Loud, a psychotherapy practice for Black women. “You’re isolating yourself because of the embarrassment and shame that you might feel for raising these types of concerns or trying to shield yourself from scrutiny,” she notes. The cognitive distortions I started experiencing, where every interaction with my coworkers had me feeling stressed or anxious after the bullying incident, is common. “It becomes a cycle, and there’s no way to get out.”
I interviewed hundreds of women of color for my book, Inclusion on Purpose. What I found was that my story wasn’t unique. And due to a variety of factors, including a lack of mental health providers of color, women of color aren’t getting the mental health help we need. It’s a crisis where individual women of color begin blaming themselves for systemic bias.
“There’s no cover or safety. You don’t know whom to trust. You feel shame and embarrassment: How did I get myself into this? What could I have said or what did I do? Or maybe I can try harder? Or maybe I can contort myself so that they’ll see me and they’ll recognize that I’m a high performer? And that is just a cycle of abuse,” says Jenkins Henry.
It’s why she set up her psychotherapy practice to ensure Black women would get the mental health support they need. The genesis of it was personal. Jenkins Henry struggled with her own mental health after facing severe workplace discrimination in her previous career in marketing.
“After five years as a high performer, I took on a new role. I felt powerful and strong,” she recalls. But soon after, a white woman on the new team publicly humiliated and ridiculed her. When Jenkins Henry brought it up with her manager, they said the woman had a history of making racist comments but she shouldn’t “pay her any mind … she’s just toxic.”
When Jenkins Henry was purposely excluded from meetings and emails related to a project she was managing, her boss suggested she take a different approach. But nothing worked. Instead of addressing it with the white woman, Jenkins Henry’s manager decided to hand off her project to a white man with less experience, sending an email to the team with the announcement, stating Jenkins Henry hadn’t been “effective” in the project.
“I was devastated,” Jenkins Henry said.
After facing an even more egregious incident of racism from a very senior leader at the organization, Jenkins Henry complained to HR and an investigation began. But the Black woman investigator “laughed at [her] and basically told [her] this was not going to go anywhere.”
That’s when Jenkins Henry knew she had to get out. “I didn’t even know what support looked like — I never needed support. I never experienced anxiety. And so when I left … I realized that I needed to heal. I needed to heal parts of myself that I had never seen or considered,” she said.
So she decided to get her degree to become a licensed therapist. “Now I get to support other women who are suffering in their workplaces, who are struggling to find support and break generational patterns that they don’t even know they can heal from.”
Women of color facing workplace bias and discrimination must take care of their mental health first and foremost. Here’s how.
1. Know you can leave.
“You don’t have to keep going in there and taking abuse,” Jenkins Henry says. Many women of color feel like they have to “go in there and fight,” especially if they’re the first in their family to have a corporate career.
But she urges women experiencing discrimination or the cumulative impact of microaggressions and bias that “you can fight a different battle.” While many of her clients feel like they have to prove that they have what it takes to prevail at work, Jenkins Henry urges them to think about what the cost is to do that. “There are parts of ourselves that we need to protect,” she says. Parts we forget about when we’re caught up in distortions, anxiety, depression, and isolation. “There are parts of our spirits that are being damaged, and that is what needs protecting when we experience discrimination in the workplace.”
2. Find adaptive coping strategies.
Jenkins Henry notes that often, even while facing bias or discrimination, her clients may not be able to leave for financial reasons, or they need to stay on while being put up for promotion or to wait for stocks or benefits to vest.
“So I always tell my clients, we need adaptive coping strategies for them to be able to continue to show up and do their job, if that’s what they want to do.” These include meditation practices or other strategies to ensure they’re getting enough rest, eating, and exercising. Building internal reserves is key to navigating the external challenges of biased workplaces for women of color.
3. Find a support network.
Jenkins Henry encourages women of color to reflect on who’s in their support network. “Is it a church organization? A sorority or a fraternity? A network of colleagues, perhaps in an employee resource group? Identify who can support you, who is aware of what is happening, and where you can go so that you don’t feel so isolated,” she says.
A support network can help you find your power, strength, and healing. Other support partners can be a therapist, coach, friends, or your partner. It takes a village. Most importantly, Jenkins Henry urges women of color not to isolate themselves.
4. Plan your exit strategy.
Some of the questions women of color should ask themselves is: Is it the right time to leave? Should I be making a plan B? Am I suffering so much that it’s time to leave right now?
If women of color need to leave immediately, Jenkins Henry advises them to consider options like filing for medical leave or seeking a clinical diagnosis. Other exit strategies could be finding a new role within or outside the company, or taking a break like a sabbatical.
Of course, it’s important to look at your financial resources to understand the options and support available to you. “What I try to prevent for my clients is what I experienced, which is that you go to work one day and you just simply can’t go back,” she says.
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It’s only more recently that we’re understanding how much facing racial bias and discrimination at work takes a mental health toll, so it’s critical for women of color to prioritize their own well-being. Develop coping strategies, find a support network, and make an exit strategy. Most importantly, understand that you’re not to blame for systemic bias at work.