How to Heal From Workplace Sexual Harassment

Learn how to accept what happened and move on

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Sexual harassment is not just embarrassing and uncomfortable for victims, it can be devastating for them too. In fact, sexual harassment can cause a victim to experience everything from depression and anxiety to shame, guilt, and self-blame. If you have experienced sexual harassment at work, there are a number of things you can do to heal from the experience. But it is going to take some work.

What the Law Says About Sexual Harassment

One of the first steps in overcoming sexual harassment is to acknowledge what happened to you and recognize that it was wrong.

In fact, sexual harassment is such a serious issue that it is regulated by the law. For instance, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says that it is against the law to harass a person because of that person’s sex. It also is against the law to make unwelcome sexual advances, request sexual favors, touch someone inappropriately, make sexual remarks, engage in sexual bullying, and share sexually-offensive jokes. Basically, anything sexual in nature that creates a hostile work environment is considered sexual harassment.

What’s more, sexual harassment is not limited to male-to-female abuse even though it is the most common form of harassment. Female-to-female sexual harassment, male-to-male sexual harassment and female-to-male sexual harassment also take place and are against the law. While the law does not usually apply to isolated incidents of teasing or offhand remarks, it becomes harassment when it creates a toxic work environment or when it results in adverse employment conditions such as being fired or reprimanded due to sexual harassment.

How Sexual Harassment Impacts Victims

While every person deals with the trauma of sexual harassment differently, if you have been victimized by sexual harassment, you may start off feeling shocked and then move to denial. These responses are normal and are usually followed by feelings of victimization, which can lead to low self-esteem.

Additionally, your response can be so significant that you may even have trouble functioning from day to day. The key is to address the issue or leave the work environment.

It also is not uncommon for victims of sexual harassment to have difficulty sleeping, getting up in the morning, eating, exercising, or doing anything that they used to consider fun. Other symptoms that sexual harassment can lead to might include headaches, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, stomach issues, and elevated blood pressure. You might also feel betrayed, angry, powerless, hopeless, and out of control. And in extreme cases, victims may experience depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide.

Tips on Healing From Sexual Harassment

Moving on after being sexually harassed at work can seem like a daunting task. You may feel stuck or hopeless about your situation. But with a little work and some outside counseling, you should be able to make sense of your experience, heal from it, and move on. Here are some steps every victim must take in order to heal from sexual harassment.

  • Accept what happened. What this means is to validate your experience. Do not minimize what happened or make excuses for the perpetrator. It is also important to allow yourself to experience your emotions. Do not bottle up the hurt and anger you are feeling. Find healthy ways to express these feelings. Some options include, prayer, meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing activities.
  • Talk to someone about the harassment. It always helps to talk with a safe person. Try to find someone who will respect your feelings and your perspective. Don't share your thoughts and feelings with someone who is going to tell you that you are overreacting or being emotional. If you do not have anyone to talk with about your experience, consider joining a support group or starting one of your own.
  • Journal about your experience. Describe how the sexual harassment affected you. Explore the different emotions you are feeling. Sometimes it is helpful include in your journal a letter to the person who harassed you. Say all the things you wish you would have said, but didn't. It can be very healing to get all of that out of your system. Journaling also may help you make sense of what happened to you. And it is a safe place to say whatever is on your mind without trying to filter anything out.
  • Stop blaming yourself. What happened to you was not your fault. You did not cause it and you could not control the other person. Remind yourself too that you have nothing to be ashamed of and you should not feel guilty. Blaming yourself will slow your healing. The only guilty person is the perpetrator. He made a choice to sexually harass you. The only choice you have in the matter is how you are going to deal with what happened to you. Remember, you have complete control over your response and where you go from here. Focus on that fact and let it empower you.
  • Bring closure to your experience. An important part of the healing process is putting the past behind you and detaching from the trauma you experienced. Sometimes this means changing jobs or careers. It also could mean discovering who you really are. Too many times, a person's identity is tied to her work. Instead, rediscover what makes you you. Start a new hobby and develop new interests. And most importantly, do not dwell on what happened to you. Find a healthy way to put the past behind you and try to remain positive about things in your life.
  • Use the experience to help others. Sometimes, you can bring meaning to what happened to you by integrating your experience into your life in some way. For instance, you could write a blog about what you have experienced and offer suggestions to readers. Or, you could lead a support group, build a website for harassment victims, or speak to others. Another option is to volunteer with non-profit groups that address sexual harassment. The key is taking a negative experience and turning it into something positive. Doing so helps build your resiliency.
  • Find a counselor. If you find it difficult to move on after your experience, you may benefit from seeing a counselor who specializes in dealing with workplace sexual harassment. Counselors that specialize in sexual assault or abuse may also be helpful. Additionally, if you have been harassed at work or school, advocates advise not using your school or employer's mental health staff. Sometimes the lines of confidentiality get blurred and the counselor will share your information about you to others in the organization. In extreme cases, they may even try to protect the organization from liability. It is always best to find a counselor outside of where the sexual harassment occurred. Not only is it an added protection for your privacy, but you may find it easier to open up to someone that is not associated with the organization where the harassment occurred.

Tips for Friends of Sexual Harassment Victims

If you have a friend or family member who is dealing with the aftermath of sexual harassment, you may want to help, but just don't know where to start. Simply being there to listen and be supportive is often all that is required.

You do not need to fix things for your friend, nor do you need to offer sage advice. Your most important role is to be patient with what she is going through and support her where you can. She needs to know that she is safe with you and that you believe her. You also could remind her that the harassment was not her fault. Here is a list of additional tips for when you are interacting with your friend:

Remember not to judge her. Try to understand her feelings and offer support. Be there for her when you can and encourage her to talk to others as well.

Encourage her to stay connected. The worst thing your friend can do is become isolated or spend a lot of time alone. While it is common for any victim of harassment to withdraw from others, this is not helpful to her healing. Nudge her to stay connected to you and other people.

Respect her boundaries, and give her space if she needs it. Remember, her boundaries were violated when she was sexually harassed so she will likely fight pretty hard to develop new ones. Allow her the freedom to do that. Do not smother her with attention or help.

Allow her to heal at her own pace. Do not rush her or try to fix things for her. Everyone heals at different rates. Try to be patient if she is taking longer to get over her experience than you think she should.

Support her decisions even if you do not agree with them. It is very important that your friend make her own decisions. She needs the space and the control take back her life on her terms. While it is fine to make suggestions, do not try to control her or tell her what to do.

A Word From Verywell

Dealing with trauma of sexual harassment is something that should not be put off or ignored. It is important that you explore your underlying feelings and find healthy ways for dealing with these emotions. Too many times people try to numb their feelings with other things like busy work or food. Some will even resort to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and forget for a period of time. But these are not healthy ways of coping. If you find that you cannot develop good coping skills on your own, be sure to ask your doctor for recommendations for a reputable counselor. Remember, it is not a sign of weakness to get counseling. In fact, it is a sign of wisdom and courage.

"Facts About Sexual Harassment," U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/fs-sex.cfm

"Sexual Harassment," Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, https://www.rainn.org/articles/sexual-harassment

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