The Whistleblower’s Journey – Reflections from Speak Up Voices. By Kernan Manion MD

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

In Speak Up Academy, we host “Speak Up Voices”, where members can share their powerful stories of their own experiences of truth-speaking about wrongdoing in their organizations. These sessions are cathartic especially for people whose concerns were dismissed and even experienced retaliation. Speak Up Voices provides a safe space where members listen without judgment, but to support, validate and reflect back to the speaker.

Kernan Manion MD wrote these reflections after our September session.

We are sharing this for the brave speaker-up-er, but also for management to read. What may seem small to a HR manager or even CEO as they brush off an issue raised by an employee, can be life changing for that employee due to the harm caused. Read on..

Reflections from Speak Up Voices

Two members spoke of the rigors of the journey. And as they shared the strategies used by the “organizational authorities” to discredit, silence, and marginalize them, the same tactics began to come clearer in focus: the “Meeting With CEO Hijack;” collusive gaslighting; indictment by innuendo; and “subpar assessment by a toxic leader” to name just a few. 

Accompanying this barrage of assaults is the profound psychological impact on one’s mental wellbeing.

Perhaps worse is the – perhaps well-meaning or simply ignorantly insensitive – pathologization of the victim. “Surely, the entire leadership team can’t ALL be mistaken in their assessment of you; therefore, you must be the problem, and you’re clearly a bad character because you refuse to take ownership of all the havoc you’ve caused.”

Now, as a psychiatrist, I have seen this kind of strategy used before. And, from a therapist’s perspective, I can see how this line of inquiry is an important part of the holistic appraisal and therapeutic healing process. But it is only ONE part. 

Indeed, it is vital to examine how the victim might have brought their own dynamics, their “agenda” if you will, whether consciously or not, to the event(s).

But it’s ONE component of an integrated “making sense of” therapeutic process. For me, the core ingredient of most therapeutic encounters is exactly that – the opportunity to “make sense of” in all ways. Not just MY ‘pathology’ but that of the organizational and situational contexts and more importantly, the pathology of the system and its select participating members who escalate the whistleblower stance and almost make them crazy just by the intensification of their hostile suppression tactics.

Several spoke about the healing journey, its arduous and lengthy course, and whether you really ever do “get over it.” Early on, the malignant effects of the psychological assault are so profound that they not only crush one’s self-esteem but cause a self-critical appraisal of one’s core attributes, and even more deeply self-doubt about one’s capacity to assess the external world and the immediate circle of people with whom one interacts. 

Coarsely, but sparing the f-bomb vulgarity, it’s an intense mind-screwing experience. And it often takes one years to process it and reintegrate.

As I’ve been drafting notes over the past decade about the psychological aspects of whistleblowing, our discussion gave me an opportunity to reflect out loud and try to synthesize what I believe to be the progression of phases through the whistleblower experience toward recovery and wellbeing. I’ll just name them here to capture the ideas while fresh and will certainly elaborate on them more fully in a separate piece.

1. Reporting

Early in the “speak up” journey, there’s the whistleblower’s (or truth speaker’s or reporter’s – for our purposes we’ll use whistleblower and for brevity, abbreviate as “W’s”) cause itself. It may be reporting bullying of oneself or others; physical danger to oneself or others in the workplace or the recipients of one’s products/services; or perhaps underhanded dealing, i.e. fraud and corruption that one feels compelled to bring to attention.

2. Suppression

Also early in the W’s journey, there’s an opposing force, whether an individual or multiple individuals in the organization, who for myriad reasons not yet known, are intent on silencing the W. What ensues is a host of tactics, a veritable playbook of strategies intended to discredit, silence, marginalize and extrude the W.

3. The W’s Perseverance

The W, committed to bringing the event(s) of concern forward, is determined to press the case and strategizes how best to do this, whether with the suppressor and his/her allies or going above their level within the organization or even beyond.

4. Table-Turning

The suppressors now effectively engage the W in a struggle, not about the event(s) themselves but about the integrity and reliability of the W. The W becomes the subject of scrutiny.

5. Double Battle

The W is now fighting two battles: the raising of the key issues of original concern; and the elaborate tableau playing itself out in the cascade of discrediting and silencing maneuvers.

6. A Third Battle

While navigating these, the W now may be embroiled in a fight for job if not career survival. S/he may have been wrongfully terminated, while a smear campaign has been pursued by the suppressors to give cover for the wrongful termination.

7. Psychological Concussion

As one might expect, this becomes psychologically draining if not impossible to manage, and the W must re-group mentally in order to navigate the multi-fronted assault. This takes immense psychological energy which has already been massively depleted. It has likely also consumed extraordinary financial reserves.

8. Retreat for Survival

The effort to find justice too often futile, the W retreats, mainly for survival and to keep one’s life together, a life already ripped to shreds.

9. Stemming the Hemorrhage and Healing the Wounds

After an exhausting ordeal, one that probably spanned years and exhausted all financial and psychological reserves, and one that may still not be entirely over in the litigation arena, the W recognizes that the Goliath they’re up against is not only formidable but seemingly invulnerable. And like a General after a brutal battle assessing one’s ongoing war-fighting capacity in terms of munitions and supplies as well as the strength of the remaining fighting power of the surviving troops, one may wisely conclude that they’ve simply got to step out of the battle, whether temporarily or for good, simply as a matter of self-preservation. 

Of course, the experience of defeat combined with the still retained rage makes for a huge bitter pill to swallow. 

10. Reflecting On One’s Case

As one tries to heal and assess the damage, there’s still the erosion of morale that comes from the seeming insurmountability of defeat and the impossibility of prevailing. Whether surrendering the war effort or deferring making a decision, one is compelled to revisit the entire conflagration. Of course, this risks reenacting the trauma; it also has the tendency to block out searchingly honest review of all aspects of where one’s own strategic decisions were flawed. Here I’m thinking about my own experience of impulsively reactivated defiance “hmmm, how much of this prodding and provocation did I bring?”

I would surmise that, after a long and painful ordeal in which one comes away in worse shape than when they entered, it is virtually impossible not to mull about the cascade of events. And it is here that reflection and journaling are so important. 

Also important is an agreement with oneself to limit the amount of time that that “book” is open and to try to develop a ritual of “agreeing to close the book and come back to it tomorrow.”

11. Revisiting the Crime Scene – Compulsively

Just as so many were compelled to re-watch the videos of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center in NY on 11 Sept 2001, so too the W is compelled to revisit the composite experiences which constitute the original events and the ensuing debacle. And each viewing is a striving of the mind and brain to make sense of what is essentially non-sensible, non-sensical, a series of events that have served to shatter multiple schemata we have held as solid understandings of the way our world works. In psychology, schema violations are speculated to be the underlying mechanism of the intense and prolonged pathology of PTSD and moral injury.

12. Telling – and Re-Telling – One’s Story

In revisiting, it’s as though one is drawing a pictograph of the scene and looking for what one missed earlier. And so one recounts it to others, not just for venting or empathic support, but for help in seeing something that one in their inherent blind spot might not be seeing.

As with misperceptions and erroneous interpretations of events and their motives, retelling has the major potential of embedding error, akin to false memory syndrome. An antidote to this is using reflective writing, journaling, as a means of having a conversation with oneself, a dialog striving to “make sense of.”

Unfortunately, in some therapeutic approaches, the strategy of inviting the W’s re-telling is thought to have its value in venting, in detoxifying the experience. In part, this may be valid. However, there is also the danger that the therapist might be inclined to make unhelpful speculations about the W’s accuracy of perception and self-portrayal as “the victim.” While such radical honesty is a vital part of the process, as mentioned previously, there is the risk of the therapist then inadvertently turning the tables on the W and having them see themselves as the provocateur. Especially when already experienced at the hands of the suppressors, this is a majorly wounding psychotherapeutic assault.

While it’ll be covered in a separate article, it must be stressed that the re-telling of the story to oneself and to others can have a tremendously beneficial effect. The more one reflects, the more one steps back away from the smoke of war, the more one can see the complex interplay of events that, like falling dominoes, occurred in rapid sequence. Sometimes, one can come away with a “so that’s why that likely happened …” understanding. And often also, overlooked details emerge which add to one’s understanding, details you simply couldn’t remember at the time, nor could you make sense of their relationship to events outside of your limited sphere of perception.

14. Deciphering ‘What Is This About?”

Once one gets a little more distance on the toxicity of the assault, one may find themselves asking “at its heart, what is this about? What has it been about throughout? What is the fundamental unfairness or wrongdoing here, and why am I concerned about it?” 

This is a crucial reflection as one is really getting down to the bones of it, the skeletal infrastructure which is the central organizing theme about one’s struggle.

15. Finding Commonality With The Multitudes of Unfairly Treated Others

As the W drills down and finds “the nut,” the key theme about which this struggle has been, one can then hold that theme up to the light like a stained glass window and begin to discern common elements to the struggles of one’s peers. Now, the struggle for one’s truth and for justice takes on a larger, perhaps nobler, energy. And a new realization can arise – that the personalized assault that the W experienced was both individualized and at the same time part of an even larger systems pathology tableau. This often alleviates some of the poisonous sting of the seemingly uniquely directed suppressor assault. “Part of my W experience was directed towards me by these suppressor characters, but part of my experience is universal and it’s as though those in suppressor positions are simply playing out an archetypal role defined by their role positions.”

16. Becoming An Agent of Change For One’s Organization/Industry Towards Its Needed Improvement

And when one realizes that “wow, this is not just happening here in this organization but in organizations throughout my entire industry,” the W may be motivated to recraft one’s change efforts toward the larger newly perceived theme.

“If this is what it feels like to be marginalized, I wonder how others who have been marginalized have managed?” “What about others who have been ganged up on, systematically disenfranchised? What does my experience now help me understand about their plight, and how can their endurance and strategies help inform me?”

And then even further reflecting,

“Just as I have felt isolated and furious and defeated and longing for support, how have they felt? Did I reach out to them? If I had known about their plight, would I have reached out?”

17. Re-shaping One’s Orientation Towards Restorative Healing For Many

And in so reflecting, one is now more empathically mobilized towards helping others in similar plights. The W may decide to redirect their energy from an exclusively ego-centric survival battle to one that is now somewhat battle-hardened and deepened by the experience. The individual battle – one’s own case – may or may not continue. And the W may or may not take on a larger cause. But I think it’s fair to say that the W can emerge from their ordeal a wiser, more broadly compassionate person.

“We Become Stronger In All the Broken Places”


Contact us if you would like us to host a Speak Up Voices session for your group.