Moving from Mess to Message by Dawn M. Johnson

One Author’s Journey to Share Her Emotional Truth

I reflected on those times that I had attempted to write in the past. I wondered why it was suddenly so much easier to put my story on paper.

When my book, Outwit the Workplace Bully, was published in January of 2022 it was not the first time I had attempted to write about my experiences with workplace bullying. Although, I knew there was power in my story, I struggled to put my thoughts on paper.

Let me share a little about my experiences for context. During my career, I’ve had two encounters with workplace bullies. In 1996, I went to graduate school at a large, public, university. I took a position as a research assistant. Quickly, it became clear that my supervisor did not like me. I was regularly humiliated in staff meetings, blamed for team errors, and punished with extra work. After several months of witnessing this behavior, a senior research assistant shared that the behavior was a known pattern with this supervisor. Each year the supervisor selected someone to “pick on.” This year, that someone was me. I left my program early and did not go on to complete my degree.

I thought that this graduate school experience would be an anomaly in my career. I was wrong. Years later, I encountered a different, more covert workplace bully. In my second experience, a coworker, whom I considered a friend, told lies, and spread rumors about me to company leaders. Why? The reason became clear when I was threatened with demotion and my bully became my boss. By silently destroying my reputation, the bully made a case for their ultimate promotion.

These two scenarios are vastly different examples of workplace bullying. Both experiences had lasting impacts on me personally and on my career. They stirred strong emotions when I thought or talked about them. After my second experience, I felt a calling to write about it, but I struggled to write coherently. Thoughts and emotions spilled out into a tangled mess on paper. The writing helped me process, but it was NOT ready for public consumption.

I started drafting my book in April of 2021. By November of 2021, I had a completed, edited, and formatted book ready for publishing. I reflected on those times that I had attempted to write in the past. I wondered why it was suddenly so much easier to put my story on paper. I concluded there were three elements that came together at the same time—I found the right format, the right amount of time had passed, and I was authoring this book for the right reasons.

Finding the Right Format

My first attempt to write my story was in fiction form. Some of the incidents were “stranger than fiction” so I figured the story might be more believable as a work of fiction. Fiction also allowed the cover I needed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. I had read a lot about writing fiction, but my lack of experience with the format led me to quickly abandon this route.

Several years later, I took a memoir workshop sponsored by Lake Superior Writers. I thought perhaps this was the format that would allow me to share my story in a coherent and meaningful way. In the workshop I learned about the key elements of a memoir. One, it needed to be true. Two, it needed to have a transformation. Three, it needed to tie to a universal experience to which others could relate. Well, my story was true. But, at that point I didn’t see a transformation. Plus, I believed my story was so unique that I didn’t think it would be relatable to others. I set aside my goal of putting this story to paper.

Years went by. I started to share my story with close friends and family members. As I shared, others told me about their own workplace horror stories. People began coming to me to ask for advice on dealing with difficult people, ineffective leaders, and toxic workplace behavior. I began to realize that my experience wasn’t so unique. I had lessons to share. The right format was in the form of non-fiction/self-help. I mind-mapped my concept and eight lessons emerged that would eventually become the chapters of my book.

Finding the Right Time

Early on in my attempts to write about my experience, the emotions were raw. Inside, I held a raging mix of anger, sadness, embarrassment, disappointment, and grief. I needed the time to let some of those emotions subside. I needed the time and distance to be able to reflect on what happened and how I might grow from the experience. As a writer, my urge to put pen to paper with all these emotions was a healthy instinct. Writing in the moment was helpful to me, but I was in no condition to be writing for others.

More than a decade had passed since my second experience when I started my book. I had moved on to a better place in my career. I had done hard emotional work to be able to rebuild my confidence, heal emotionally, and forgive those involved. Even more importantly, I had reflected on all the positive that had emerged since I had left those situations behind. Some of the positives include going back to study for my master’s degree, meeting new friends, and moving into a career path I’m deeply passionate about. Time needed to pass for me to uncover the good and discover the lessons that I needed to learn from my experience. This time for reflection and learning ties directly into the final topic—finding the right reason.

Finding the Right Reason

My first attempts to put my experience into words were born out of a desire for revenge. Even though I knew that I would be masking the identities of the aggressors, I wanted people to understand how I had been wronged. I was hurt and embarrassed and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t the incompetent professional I was painted to be in both scenarios. During the memoir workshop, I remember the instructor saying that memoir couldn’t just be your story. Memoirs had to have a payoff for the reader. How would the reader benefit from learning about my story? At the time, I couldn’t see through my emotions to reach others. I couldn’t teach them lessons that I hadn’t yet learned. Once I discovered the lessons from my own story, and I approached the writing with the goal of teaching and helping others, the words flowed onto the page.

My two experiences with workplace bullying were some of the most difficult and traumatic times in my career. Today, I can say with confidence that I have gratitude for my experience. I wouldn’t be who I am today without those experiences. I wouldn’t be doing the work I do today without those experiences. I certainly wouldn’t be able to call myself an “author” without those experiences.

Are you are wrestling with your own emotional story that you keep trying to put onto paper? Maybe you haven’t found quite the right reason to share your story yet. Or maybe more work needs to be done to fully heal and let go of emotions. Keep writing. None of it is wasted. It moves you closer to the right format, time, and reason to share your truth with the world.

Dawn is an author, speaker, and the founder of On the Rise Development, LLC. As an advocate for thriving workplaces, Dawn has dedicated more than a decade to helping leaders and employees grow in their careers.

Her first book, Outwit the Workplace Bully: 8 Steps You Need to Know to Reclaim Your Career, Confidence, and Sanity, was published in early 2022.

When she’s not writing, you might find Dawn capturing family memories in a scrapbook, losing at a game of Hand and Foot, or cheering for her niece and nephew at the ballfield or ice rink. She resides in northern Minnesota.