Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies 2016 annual workshop: Building a community of caring

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I just finished participating in the annual two-day workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global network of scholars, practitioners, students, artists, and activists committed to the advancement of human dignity and to the ending of humiliating practices. Every December we gather at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City, immersing ourselves in highly interactive discussions and exchanges, amidst a genuine spirit of fellowship.

This card is one of the little gifts distributed at the workshop. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology, not to mention a key mentor to HumanDHS director Linda Hartling.

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“The Five Good Things” were at play throughout this workshop. It was a supportive, enlightening, and even loving gathering at a time when a lot of folks in our group (including yours truly) really needed it. (Summaries of this annual workshop have become a staple on this blog for good reason!)

I have been involved with HumanDHS since 2007, and in recent years my connections to it and the remarkable people who are part of it have grown deeply. In addition to joining the board of directors, I have been increasingly involved in the New York City workshop. This year I presented a short paper on the importance of understanding psychological trauma and moderated two of the dialogue sessions. I also led our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” made famous by Louis Armstrong and an apt song for our event.

Group photo after our board meeting

Group photo after our board meeting

Being part of this extended global community is both a privilege and a blessing. Such a community is not, and should not be, our sole point of connection with the world. In fact, at the workshop we recognized the importance of sharing dignity-enhancing practices with those who are initially resistant to them. Nevertheless, at a time when raw exercises of interpersonal aggression and bigotry are too often rewarded by the dominant power structure, the need for people holding a different set of core values to come together in order to refuel and reenergize is significant.

I’ll be writing more about this year’s workshop and posting some photos from it, but for now I simply wanted to do this quick mention and express my gratitude to those who made it such a meaningful experience.

The importance of hobbies and avocations during stressful and anxious times

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Peter sings, to be followed by a coaching.

Periodically I use this blog to champion the pursuit of hobbies and avocations as ways of enriching our lives, and I’m happy to do so again. For a lot of folks right now, the experience of work and the state of the world generally are brimming with stressors. And while I don’t advocate ignoring those situations, I do think we need healthy diversions that offer positive engagement.

On this topic, I try to practice what I preach. I’ve written before (here and on my personal blog here) about a weekly singing class that I take at the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE). Every Tuesday, our class meets for a 90-minute session, led by Jane (a Juilliard-trained vocalist and instructor) and Maria (a classically trained piano accompanist). The format is simple. After group warm-ups, each student performs a song of their choosing and is coached before the group. Yup, each of us does a solo number every week!

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

He dutifully takes notes during every class session.

Recently I was reminded of the meaning of this class by Peter, a fellow student, who dutifully jots down coaching tips and reflections into a notebook during class. He often performs with his guitar, and he’s good enough to do coffee house gigs if he ever wants to go that route. For now, at least, we are his primary audience. It’s very cool to me that he cares so much about the class that he chronicles his experience on a weekly basis.

Everyone is here because they want to be, which can’t be said for many other life situations! The students find the class via the BCAE catalog (print and online) or through word of mouth. Jane and Maria teach this class in addition to holding down “day jobs,” so this is a labor of love for them, a true avocation. 

After one of our term-ending recitals, clockwise fr L: Maria (accompanist), Kerry, Adeline, Lorin, Xiomara, DY, Brian, and Jane (course instructor).

The singing class generally runs in six to eight week terms, depending on the BCAE’s calendar. We typically use the last session of a term as a little recital, during which each of us sings two songs of our choice, without the coaching. Students may invite guests, and some do. It’s a neat way of wrapping up each term. As you can see from the photo above, we sometimes go out for a bite to eat afterward.

Opened in 1933, BCAE is one of the city’s non-profit fixtures, offering a wide array of adult education classes. Earlier this year, a few of us attended a BCAE fundraiser, featuring morsels and drinks provided by area restaurants and food producers. It was a lot of fun and a nice opportunity to support an organization whose space and staff help to make these classes a reality.

Supporting a BCAE fundraiser, L to R: Bonita, Adeline, Jane, and Maria.

This is one of my primary sources of work-life balance, to the extent that I can claim to have any! I select mostly numbers from the Great American Songbook — the stuff of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, etc. — but others perform contemporary pop, classic rock, folk, country, religious…you name it.

The class attracts a friendly, supportive, and smart group of people who, individually and collectively, comprise a sort of natural diversity across many categories. Among current students, I’ve been there the longest — over 20 years! — but we’ve also got a steady cohort of repeat takers. Some come into the class with remarkable voices. Many others, like me when I started, are neophytes. Novice singers, however, need not be afraid. Jane has this way of helping just about anyone become a proficient singer, even people who might be classified as tone deaf.

Sinatra’s legacy faces no threat when I’m singing.

On occasion we take our voices outside of the class to perform. Our group has gone to several local open mic cabaret nights, and we’ve done karaoke a few times as well. Some time ago, I was part of a small group of voice class singers that did free gigs at local senior facilities. One of our fellow students does the busker thing in nearby Harvard Square!

I am fortunate to have a career that engages my attention, but this class offers activity and community that provide needed contrasts from the world of work. I often remark that the class and the people in it have saved me thousands of dollars in therapy costs. For me singing class is a form of mindfulness, an opportunity to be in the moment with music I enjoy, buoyed by terrific people who make it a supportive and fun experience. I count many of these folks as good friends. All things considered, it’s about as ideal a hobby as one could expect, and for that I am very grateful. 

Related posts

With “encore careers” increasingly for the wealthy, avocations and hobbies should take center stage (2016)

What’s your hobby? (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Pursuing healthy, immersive activities away from the job (2015)

Our avocations and hobbies: The third pillar of work-life balance? (2012)

Will our avocations save us? (2010)

Embracing creative dreams at midlife (2010)

Related article

Jennie Bricker wrote about avocations in a 2015 piece for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, “Poets, Tramps and Lawyers,” citing pieces in this blog.

 

Elizabeth White’s advice for “Jobless After 50”

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Elizabeth White received a lot of well-deserved kudos for her Next Avenue blog essay, “Unemployed, 55, and Faking Normal,” which looked at the lives of unemployed professional women, many of whom were caught in the throes of the Great Recession:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

Now White is back with a new Next Avenue piece, “Jobless After 50? Here’s What To Do First,” which draws upon her new book containing advice, guidance, and resources for those who find themselves unemployed at midlife.

Her first piece of advice is to create a “resilience circle”:

You likely already know one person among your friends and friendly acquaintances who is faking it, and that person likely knows another, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

Approach that person. Tell him or her that you’d like to start a small Resilience Circle to support each other and to discuss issues related to aging and living a good life on a limited income.

Don’t make the group too big. You will be sharing personal information and don’t need a cast of thousands for that (what’s said at the meetings should be kept confidential).

For those in situations similar to what she found herself in, she further recommends:

  • “Stay active.”
  • “Intensify or reinvigorate your sidelined artistic endeavors.”
  • “Keep a journal or several, each with a different purpose.”
  • “Never accept anyone who thinks you’re old.”

Targets of workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse

In a 2015 blog post, I related White’s first piece to the challenges that often face middle-aged workers who have been bullied out of their jobs:

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

I also cited survey data from the Workplace Bullying Institute “showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets” and noted that I’ve talked to “many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances.”

In sum, there is a lot of overlap between Elizabeth White’s work and the realities that face those who have been severely bullied at work in midlife. I have her book on order and look forward to spending time with it.

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Relevant past blog posts

Holiday roundup: Reflections

Rockefeller Center during NYC's post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Rockefeller Center during NYC’s post-Christmas blizzard, 2010 (Photo: DY)

Dear readers, I’ve collected seven previous blog posts from past holiday seasons that invite us to do some reflective thinking about our lives, our places in the world, and how we might engage in positive change. Several posts suggest books that may be good gifts for relatives, friends, or colleagues — or perhaps a present to yourself! Enjoy.

Holiday reads: Fueling heart, mind, and soul (2014) — “If you’re looking to get beyond the hurly-burly of holiday consumerism, here are three books that will put you in a more thoughtful and reflective frame of mind. I’ve recommended them before, and I’m happy to do so again.”

Chris Guillebeau’s advice: Do your own annual review (2014) — “Chris Guillebeau is a prolific writer, entrepreneur, and global sojourner who is playing a lead role in encouraging people — Gen Xers and Millennials especially — to think creatively and independently about what to do with their lives. One of his recommended life-planning activities is to do your own annual review as the year comes to a close. Using his blog, he shares his annual reviews with readers and asks for their feedback.”

Holiday reflections: The end of limitless possibilities (and that’s good) (2013) — “For me, among the genuine blessings of the passing of time have been authenticity and self-definition. I have been afforded the extraordinary privilege of being able to make choices — hundreds of millions of people in this world are not so fortunate. I have squandered some of that privilege, but thankfully a kernel of inner wisdom has helped me to narrow down the limitless possibilities, rather than struggling to keep them open.”

Ch-ch-ch-changes: Some books to guide us toward good transitions (2012) — “As we turn the calendar to a New Year, I wanted to gather together some recommended titles for those who are engaged in or contemplating a major work or personal transition. In several instances I’ve borrowed from previous blog posts mentioning the books. If you’re in the midst of big changes, these books may prove a worthy investment in terms of your livelihood and well-being. I hope you find them helpful.”

On happiness: If you’re going to spend, buy experiences, not stuff (2010) — “If you’re going to treat yourself to a little present, your happiness quotient is more likely to go up if you drop your money on a nice trip instead of a shiny new computer. Research on the ‘buy experiences’ vs. ‘buy stuff’ debate clearly sides with the former. “

A 12-step program for compassion (2010) — “Karen Armstrong is a noted author on religious affairs. Her latest book is Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2010), a mix of faith, philosophy, and self-help. In it, she offers a 12-step program to help make the world a more compassionate place….”

Does life begin at 46? (2010) — “Conventional wisdom about life’s journey, suggests The Economist magazine, is that our path is ‘a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death.’…Conventional wisdom, according to research, is wrong. True, we start off our adulthoods pretty happy and become increasingly disenchanted as middle age approaches. However, our outlook then gets better as we age.”

 

Workplace bullying and the experience of humiliation

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Humiliation is a word that can make us squirm uncomfortably. It is one of the least desirable of human emotions. Over the years, many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse have invoked the term to describe their experiences, especially when the mistreatment has played out publicly, ripped apart relationships, ended a career, or undermined an ability to earn a livelihood. In such cases, coping with and healing from humiliation are key parts of the road to recovery.

For those seeking insights on the mental health implications of humiliation, Drs. Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) network have authored an important article, “Healing Humiliation: From Reaction to Creative Action,” published in the Journal of Counseling & Development. Recognizing the “confluence of global crises that threaten, inflict, and intensify feelings of humiliation in the lives of countless numbers of individuals, families, and communities at home and around the world,” they take this approach to their topic:

We will briefly explore the history of humiliation research and explain how this experience is moving to the forefront of concern. We will apply a relational perspective to examine how degrading and derisive interactions inflict traumatic stress and social pain. Finally, we will offer a case example to illustrate specific ways counselors can help victims of humiliation heal, leading them out of destructive reactions into creative action.

I have known Linda and Evelin for many years, and I cannot praise too fulsomely their pioneering work on humiliation and human dignity. This article is among their latest difference-making contributions. 

Publishing in a journal for counselors, their focus blends the social change framework with the need for skilled and sensitive clinical intervention. Here is part of their conclusion:

The study of humiliation is in its early stages. As the research develops, counselors need to apply their most sophisticated relational skills to read and repair the complex intrapersonal and interpersonal damage that can lead victims of humiliation to react with aggression or despair. . . . Victims of derision, degradation, and debasement need a safe relational space to begin the journey of transforming the pain of humiliation into constructive and creative action. By providing this healing space, counselors may find they are not only saving the life of a client but also healing society.

This piece is worth sharing with any counselor or therapist who might benefit from such wise and humane insights. It also may be a helpful read for those who are experiencing humiliation in connection with interpersonal abuse at work or in other contexts.

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Linda Hartling and Evelin Lindner are Director and Founding President, respectively, of the HumanDHS network. Last year it was my pleasure to join the HumanDHS board of directors. We will be holding our 2016 Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict in New York City on December 8-9, including a free public event on the evening of the 8th.

Do you have what it takes to be a super-achiever?

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For those who want to get a head start on making New Year’s resolutions, here’s a full on possibility. Tanya Prive, writing for Forbes.com, mines The Art of Doing, a new book by Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield, for “The Most Common Practices of Super-Achievers.” The co-authors “interviewed 36 super-achievers at the tops of their fields” and identified these common traits:

  • “Practicing Patience”
  • “Managing Emotions”
  • “Constantly Evolving”
  • “Fostering A Community”
  • “Testing Ideas In The Market”
  • “Intelligent Persistence”
  • “Pursuing Happiness”
  • “Listening And Remaining Open”
  • “Dedication To A Vision”
  • “Good Storytelling”

It’s a neat little feature that includes explanations of each key trait, and there’s nothing in it that should cause any major disagreements. You could do a young person a favor by sending a link.

In my observation and experience, many of these traits come together naturally when you find your purpose or mission. Motivation kicks in with common sense and — bingo — suddenly you’re functioning like, well, if not a super-achiever, then at least a decent facsimile.

Speaking for myself, I’ll say that as a Chicago Cubs fan, I’ve owned the first two qualities big time: I’ve practiced patience for over 45 years, and I’ve managed plenty of emotions during that stretch! And now I can add a third: At least for one shining moment this fall, I was able to pursue happiness.

Renewing a commitment to bullying-free workplaces

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

(Drawing by Aaron Maeda, copyright 2016)

Here in America, it should come as no surprise that in survey data released by the American Psychological Association earlier this fall, “52 percent of American adults report[ed] that the 2016 election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress,” with the figures cutting fairly evenly across political lines. Many of these stressors and anxieties have continued in terms of the post-election aftermath and the evolving transition in Washington D.C.

Under such distracting (and, for some of us, distressing) circumstances, it can be hard to turn our attention back to the tasks at hand, which for many readers of this blog include preventing, stopping, and responding to bullying, mobbing, and abuse in the workplace. But that we must. As I see it, our basic agenda as we head into 2017 holds steady:

  • Engaging in public education about abusive work behaviors;
  • Educating and persuading employers and other employee relations stakeholders about the destructive effects of abusive work environments and the importance of effective prevention and response;
  • Expanding the pool of mental health providers who are competent and knowledgeable to assist targets of bullying and mobbing at work; and,
  • Enacting legal protections such as the Healthy Workplace Bill to provide targets with a legal claim for damages and to incentivize employers to take these behaviors seriously, as well as building a stronger safety net of public and private employee benefits to help those transitioning out of toxic workplaces.

And so the work goes on, fueled by a continuing recognition that building workplaces that value and practice dignity will benefit us all.

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