One of the very, very hardest challenges in dealing with workplace mistreatment is, well, dealing with it. By this I mean not letting it consume us. The fight or flight response ratchets up, and soon the situation rents way too much space in our heads.
Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:
We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.
When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”
Given the title of her piece, one might question whether it applies to forms of workplace mistreatment. After all, severe bullying, mobbing, discrimination, and harassment are not varieties of conflict, but rather forms of intentional abuse. However, I suggest that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the neuroscience and that Hamilton’s descriptions of the triggering response are spot-on.
Her advice on calming your brain in the midst of these experiences will sound familiar to those who do mindfulness practice. One point, however, may be especially hard to process:
Step 2: Let go of the story.
This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.
Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment.
But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.
That said, the triggering response can be a powerful one. It has an unfortunate way of focusing our attention and emotional energy with a laser-like intensity. As I’ve written before, targets of workplace bullying have described the experience as a nightmarish “game or battle.” It’s not easy to put that on one’s emotional shelf.
So herein lies a challenge: How do we keep the narratives of workplace injustice alive, without letting them consume us personally? This is one of the most difficult intersections of individual recovery and social change, and for many it is an ongoing work in progress.
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