By Stephanie Thomas

Woman writing notesWhat do you do when a person crosses the line from friendly interaction to sexual harassment?

A loaded question, indeed.

Maybe you directly reject the perpetrator, work to awkwardly smooth over the situation or even struggle with a bit of internal doubt about what happened and why.

Regardless of your response, you’re not alone in your experience, joining 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men who’ve been there too.1

Does Your Experience Constitute Sexual Harassment?

To really work through the pain of sexual harassment you must first give the experience credibility in your own mind. Do these thoughts sound familiar?

  • Maybe I didn’t set boundaries that were clear enough.
  • I must have asked for his inappropriate behavior in some way.
  • He’s probably just trying to flirt, and I’m overreacting.

Employees who report sexual harassment receive backlash at a rate of 75 percent, so it’s no wonder experts often see victims choose not to report an incidence of sexual harassment and instead place the blame on themselves.2, 3 A doubling-down of the pain.

We want to encourage you, as psychotherapist Dr. Judi Cineas does her patients, to trust your gut.3 Still, you may find it helpful to run your experience through a couple of filters.

Assessing the Validity of Your Experience

1. Consider a legal viewpoint.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature
  • Offensive remarks about a person’s sex4

2. Ask a simple question.

Remove yourself and the offender from the situation. Then consider the following:

How would I feel if my dad/brother/boyfriend/husband treated a close friend this way?

If your experience still screams — or even whispers — of sexual harassment, listen to that voice! Do whatever you can to stop ongoing inappropriate behavior and take steps to heal from past and present hurts. We’ll help you get there.

Sexual Harassment Can Upset Your Life in Both Obvious and Subtle Ways

Here’s another reason you should lean into your instincts when it comes to sexual harassment: the impact on your health can be both devastating and long-lasting.

This makes sense, right? Sexual harassment undermines who you are as a person. Among many other negative messages, sexual harassment seems to reveal your lack of power. It’s no wonder victims deal with mental, emotional, physical and practical pain as a result.

Mental and emotional symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Acute stress
  • PTSD5

Untreated these symptoms may become outward manifestations of internal hurt, with the following real physical problems:

  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Unhealthy blood sugar levels
  • Hair loss
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Chronic exhaustion5
  • Ulcers
  • Acne3

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t stop there. Sexual harassment — even harassment that took place 10 years ago — can continue to interfere on a practical level with your work life, sex life and personal relationships.5, 3 Perhaps even more unfortunate: many people struggle to recognize these symptoms in their own life.6

That’s why Rachel Thomas, president of, promotes positive self-care as the way forward.6

The Way Forward: How to Heal from the Pain of Sexual Harassment

Before we work through Lean In’s self-care inventory, let’s discuss a few actionable steps you can take now to give your mental health a boost right from the start:

  1. Document the offenses fully.3
  2. Speak out against the perpetrator if you can.
  3. If you can’t speak out directly, that’s OK. Commit to moving forward in another way.
  4. Reach out for professional help.

By reporting sexual harassment, you work to protect not only yourself, but also others from future harm. Of course, in some situations speaking out may actually cause more problems. If that’s true for you, follow Dr. Cineas’ advice to seek out trustworthy people in your organization who can help.3

Ideally, you’ll also find a therapist or mental health professional who can process the pain with you in person. To get started you can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.

Conduct a Self-Care Inventory

Because sexual harassment tends to make victims feel quite low, it’s important that you put yourself in a position to experience natural highs. You can do this by thinking back on times when you felt more happy, healthy and whole.7 suggests considering the following seasons and their contributing factors:

  • A time when you felt physically healthy
  • A time when you felt well rested
  • A time when you felt happy and grounded7

What habits or circumstances were in place during each of these seasons? How can you repeat those situations now?7

In other words, how can you take back the control stolen from you through sexual harassment and use your newfound power to make the most of your life moving forward?


1 Chatterjee, Rhitu. A New Survey Finds 81% of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment. NPR, February 21, 2018.

2 Golshan, Tara. Study Finds 75% of Workplace Harassment Victims Experienced Retaliation When They Spoke Up. Vox, October 15, 2017.

3 Yuko, Elizabeth. The Impact of Sexual Harassment on Mental Health. She Knows, January 10, 2018.

4 Sexual Harassment. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Accessed March 14, 2018.

5 Spector, Nicole. The Hidden Health Affects of Sexual Harassment. NBC News, October 13, 2017.

6 Carpenter, Julia. How Sexual Harassment Can Affect Mental Health. CNN Money, January 26, 2018.

7 Self-care After Sexual Harassment., Accessed March 14, 2018.