This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, talks about the need to be assertive in the workplace


Dear Douglas,


I have been living in Vietnam for about eight months now, working for an international organisation I won’t name. I am in a mid-level position, not unlike the work I have done for the past 12 years. I am going through an experience I have never had before and would like to get some perspective. I can no longer talk to my husband or teenage children about this. They are tired of hearing it.


I think the problem is my boss. He is so demanding and condescending that I am completely intimidated by him. Last week he was upset over a mistake I made and said, “I wonder if you are just stupid.”


I have been telling myself that the mistakes he points out are right and that I need to do better and work harder to make him happy. But now I am asking myself if he really should treat me, and others, like that. I am wondering if, maybe, I need to do something differently than to try to comply. I am constantly preoccupied with worries about the details of my job. I am sleeping poorly and not much fun for my husband and kids. I could never quit, but can’t imagine living like this for another year of my contract.


— Bruised and Confused


Dear B and C,


I am sorry to hear what you are going through, and yes, it is time to get some perspective about what is happening and what you might do about it.


Because managerial models are often hierarchical, we often believe that we should tolerate behaviour that is hurtful from someone who is above us in the pecking order. His behaviour sounds abusive to me and I will tell you why. When someone attacks you as a person — saying you are stupid — they have crossed an important line. They are undermining your confidence and actually hindering your ability to do the tasks that define your work. The fact you are upset by this, not sleeping and feeling worried, while accepting responsibility to improve yourself, suggests to me that he is not being respectful and supportive. It appears he is caught up in a desire for power and control, at your expense. 


Yes, you need to gain perspective that allows you to feel more empowered and to find a way to assert your thoughts and feelings to him about how his behaviour is affecting you.


You, we all have the right to let someone know if their behaviour hurts, irritates or upsets us. Your boss needs some thoughtful, constructive criticism that will help you restore your confidence and to improve your effectiveness at work. A few sessions with a therapist might help you to find a way to communicate your thoughts and to help your boss see that being a ‘bully’ is really counterproductive.


Sometimes we respond to a threat with passivity because we believe to express our feelings means we are weak, or because we feel weak in the face of someone who uses their position and tactics to create fear. We accept personal (destructive) criticism because the other person was ‘right’ and therefore we have to accept what they are saying about us. Passivity very often leads to the lowering of self-esteem and confidence, and can therefore diminish the strength we need to stand up for ourselves.


I encourage you to read up on the topic of assertiveness, to help yourself find a way to stop the dynamic that is doing you harm in the workplace. You do not deserve the treatment you are getting.


Be well,


— Douglas


Do you have a question you would like Douglas’s help with? You can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Personal details will not be printed

Douglas Holwerda

Douglas is an American trained psychotherapist, writer of the Dear Abby-esque monthly column in the Word, "Dear Douglas". He holds to the notion that the living of life is a creative endeavour... an eternal adventure without promises. And that we are both shaped by the journey and the shapers of what is possible. Our greatest hope is to find love and connection along the way. Live it all.

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