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Some people are so scarred, they’re unable to speak. The silenced speak the language of self-injure. Self-injure is corporate anger inverted – e.g., ritual picking that’s meant to harm the recipient. In a conflict situation, self-inflicted pain can become a fallback position.

Research shows that men’s response to abuse is anger and depression, whereas women respond in ways that are “easier” alternatives to confrontation: depression, self-injure, and suicide. As a consequence, ritual picking and voluntary maiming are almost exclusively a women’s affliction. Powerless to confront the aggressor (and conditioned to avoid conflict), women turn psychological pain inward. Self-injure is a safety valve, the well-hidden scratches that provide temporary relief.

In her book Living with Self-Injure, Hyman notes that for some women it’s simply easier to accept disrespect with an obsequious “whatever you say” attitude, and self-injure at a later time. This response may be common for those whoare taught (from a young age) that anger and expression of feelings are inappropriate.

Hyman (1999) provides a graphic description of the physical maiming some women inflict on a regular basis: “Women’s anger and rage repeatedly emerge as feared and disallowed emotions expressed through cutting, hitting, or burning their own bodies.  Self-injury becomes a form of communication that reveals the unspeakable.” Self-injure is a cover for shame, and the release valve for persons who are not allowed to speak (or who are thwarted in their attempts to be heard).

Harassment victims at Astra Pharmaceutical reported repeatedly picking their backs and chests raw in response to chronic managerial misconduct. Repeated stress response over a prolonged period of time creates a process called “kindling” in which long-term imbalance results in our brain’s inability to distinguish between small and large stressors. Consequently each subsequent stress (no matter how small) is perceived as if it were traumatic. 

Self-injure happens when the odds are stacked against us – for those excluded from the old boy network, disenfranchised from free expression, invalidated (and invisible) when attempting to speak. Pain is then is the only portal to expression: One of the purposes of self-injure is to calm turbulent, racing thoughts”… To ask for help without using words, to make the outside look the way the inside feels…[from a victim] This is how I silently speak, talk, cry and shout” (Hyman, 1999).

Self-mutilation, hitting, and ritual picking are more likely to surface if placed in a no-win, lockdown regime – a space where everything you do can be used as evidence. Speech goes underground when individuals are restrained. Unlike a skilled servant who deftly appears only when needed (unobtrusively accomplishing his/her business), some bosses appear at inopportune times and linger for too long. They are a form of pseudo-affection, “smother love,” which by force goes further than necessary. 

One down communication does little to establish rapport(and, there’s the added risk that fostering two way discourse may result in loss of control). It’s difficult to feel motivated when navigating in a sea of don’ts, and dealing with a grab bag of behavior from on high. Injurious conduct occurs when everyone plays their cards close to the vest, and where fellow workers are seen as spies.

Employees quickly get the message to stay under wraps and remain under the radar. The number of closed doors and the level of interaction (or lack thereof) is testament to whether discomfort is felt at your firm. If this is your company’s MO, be assured that workers will find a way to rattle their cage.

How to provide a more functional release valve for employees?

  • Diversity task forces, like at IBM where workers are treated as partners 
  • 360 degree appraisal, where managers receive an honest opinion of how they can developmentally improve
  • A zero tolerance policy for bad behavior communicated from the CEO [Does your organization have a civility policy?]
  • Swift and immediate sanctions for people who expropriate status from their peers
  • Management by wandering around – keeping your pulse on what’s transpiring, and ensuring your company is a place where voice is both welcomed and expected
  • Support: don’t let employees go it alone

Implosion occurs where arrogance trumps egalitarianism, and where free expression is stifled. Companies that discourage voice get exactly what they deserve: repression, rebellion, and a fast track to fallout.


Hyman, J. W.  (1999). Women living with self-injury (p. 54).  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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