Recovering from work-related trauma and abuse: The nature of “woundology”

“We are not meant to stay wounded.”

That one line from Chapter 1 of Caroline Myss’s Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can (1998) persuaded me to write about her concept of “woundology.” (The full chapter is excerpted here in the New York Times.) It has significant relevance to many people who are trying to recover and heal from traumatic work experiences, including bullying, mobbing, and violence.

Dr. Myss is a bestselling writer on human consciousness and an energy medicine practitioner. Her work is commonly categorized as New Age, spiritual, or alternative, which may cause some people to be immediately attentive and others to be immediately dismissive. Personally, I find myself open to a variety of healing modalities, because what works for one may not work for another, and vice versa.

In any event, Myss writes wisely about her encounters with good, caring, compassionate people who nevertheless could not get beyond wanting to be identified with, and to live in, their emotional wounds. They exhibited a continuing need “to be with people who spoke the same language and shared the same mindset and behaviors,” and they expected others in their support group to be in that place with them all the time. She calls this state one of woundology. She further explains:

So many people in the midst of a “process” of healing, I saw, are at the same time feeling stuck. They are striving to confront their wounds, valiantly working to bring meaning to terrible past experiences and traumas, and exercising compassionate understanding of others who share their wounds. But they are not healing. They have redefined their lives around their wounds and the process of accepting them. They are not working to get beyond their wounds. In fact, they are stuck in their wounds.

Myss goes on to emphasize:

We are not meant to stay wounded. We are supposed to move through our tragedies and challenges and to help each other move through the many painful episodes of our lives. By remaining stuck in the power of our wounds, we block our own transformation. We overlook the greater gifts inherent in our wounds–the strength to overcome them and the lessons that we are meant to receive through them. Wounds are the means through which we enter the hearts of other people. They are meant to teach us to become compassionate and wise.

Related ideas and concepts

Myss’s explanation of woundology is very consistent with concepts that I’ve written about here concerning the challenges that some targets of workplace bullying face in trying to recover. Back in 2014, for example, I wrote that for many bullying targets, getting “unstuck” is among their biggest difficulties (link here):

Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Bullying targets also may be dealing with what psychiatrist Michael Linden has labeled Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, a condition triggering levels of “embitterment and feelings of injustice” to the point of impairing one’s “performance in daily activities and roles.”

In 2015, I expounded upon Dr. Michael Linden’s concept of post-traumatic embitterment disorder as related to workplace abuse (link here):

PTED is a psychiatric disorder proposed by Dr. Michael Linden, a German psychiatrist, grounded in his findings that people may become so embittered by a negative life event that normal functioning is impaired. In a 2003 article published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics…, Dr. Linden defines the elements of PTED:

  • “a single exceptional negative life event precipitates the onset of the illness”;
  • “the present negative state developed in the direct context of this event”;
  • “the emotional response is embitterment and feelings of injustice”;
  • “repeated intrusive memories of the event”;
  • “emotional modulation is unimpaired, patients can even smile when engaged in thoughts of revenge”; and,
  • “no obvious other mental disorder that can explain the reaction.”

Linden lists other symptoms, including severe depression, “feelings of helplessness,” disrupted sleep, aggression, and even suicidal ideation. PTED lasts “longer than 3 months,” during which “(p)erformance in daily activities and roles is impaired.”

Also in 2015, I wrote about how many targets can get beyond constant rumination over their experiences (link here):

Bullying targets often ruminate obsessively about their situations. In a piece for the Greater Good Science Center, therapist Linda Graham defines rumination as “thinking the same negative worrisome thoughts over and over again.” She continues:

Rumination usually doesn’t solve what we’re worried about and, in fact, leaves us more vulnerable to staying in a funk, even becoming depressed. Rumination makes our view of events, and our feelings about ourselves, worse.

Graham encourages her clients to engage in self-compassion, which includes “evoking a sense of kindness and care toward one’s self.” Her full article delves deeper into nurturing practices of self-compassion, and for those who want to learn more, it is well worth a click and read.

There are sooo many overlapping ideas and concepts here. The commonalities are significant.

Peer support groups

Back in April I wrote about peer support groups for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and I suggested some resources that may be of help in forming and conducting them (link here). Such groups can be tremendously validating for targets, especially compared to the high levels of organizational denial and general lack of understanding about work abuse that these individuals often confront.

However, these support groups must also be cognizant of the dynamics of woundology, as suggested by Caroline Myss. Ideally they can help targets process their experiences toward recovery and renewal. On the negative side, they risk creating a core of individuals who, with the best of intentions, nevertheless enable one another to define themselves by, and continue to live in, their respective wounds.

Indeed, perhaps the best kind of peer support group is one in which the composition changes because members willingly depart after their hard work within them is completed. Some may continue to be involved in responding to the kind of abuse or mistreatment that caused them to have to “go deep,” but now from a position of greater strength and renewal. Others will find rewarding endeavors that have little to do with the experiences they endured. There are no right or wrong choices at this juncture; all steps forward are healthy and life-affirming.

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Hat tip to the Wisdom of Sophia for the Myss book chapter excerpt.

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Speaking truth to power at work: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing

Image courtesy of Clipart Panda

As I’ve shared with you before, dear readers, I sometimes use this blog to develop ideas-in-progress. This means engaging in some thinking out loud, so to speak. Back in 2015, I wrote about distinguishing workplace incivility and abrasiveness from bullying and mobbing (link here):

Readers from outside of academe may be amused to learn that research on bad workplace behaviors has broken down into several camps. Two of these are the incivility researchers and the bullying researchers. At organizational psychology conferences, it’s not unusual to hear remarks such as “oh, she’s an incivility person” or “no, he’s more into bullying.”

When I started this work over 15 years ago, I treated these behaviors as parts of a spectrum, with many overlaps present, but it’s clear that sharper lines are being drawn, at least for the purposes of putting together panel discussions and writing dissertations.

For me, the most significant line is where behaviors become abusive, motivated in significant part by a desire to cause distress or harm. When that line is crossed, it’s not about incivility or bad manners; we’re now into the territory of bullying or mobbing.

I went on to add that although incivility and bullying have both been receiving greater attention, the former has still gained greater acceptance among employee relations stakeholders and the mainstream media:

Over the years, both incivility and bullying have attracted greater attention from employee relations stakeholders and the popular media. However, we’re still at a point where workplace incivility, rudeness, and abrasiveness are more readily acknowledged than bullying and mobbing. I have many ideas as to why this is the case, and they tend to circle around the nature of power. Those in charge are much more threatened by allegations of bullying than by claims of incivility.

I greatly value the growing body of research and commentary on workplace incivility. After all, the more we understand incivility at work and how to prevent and respond to it, the better. However, I think that for some organizations, it’s safer to use the incivility label than to acknowledge the more abusive realities of bullying.

Along these lines, I’d like to gather my thoughts about why many organizations and other employee relations stakeholders are reluctant to recognize workplace bullying and mobbing:

  1. Bullying and mobbing involve abuses of power, not bad manners. Especially because these abuses are often top-down in nature (i.e., managers and supervisors directing abuse toward subordinates), acknowledging bullying and mobbing points a steady finger at the values, ethics, and practices of senior management.
  2. On an individual level, it’s one thing to say that a boss “doesn’t play well in the sandbox with others,” “is a little rough around the edges,” or “can be a jerk at times.” Such characterizations can be tagged as merely uncivil, not abusive, and thus don’t carry a heavy stigma. However, to recognize that a boss (or any other individual, for that matter) is abusive is very different thing.
  3. The abusive nature of bullying and mobbing also implicates the psychological makeup of leaders and organizational cultures. This means opening the door to characterizing individuals and organizations as possibly having qualities consistent with narcissism, sociopathy, and/or psychopathy.
  4. In the U.S. especially, where the rule of at-will employment (which includes the right to terminate a worker without cause) and its underlying theoretical legal framework of master-servant relationships still hold sway, accusations of work abuse directed at bosses and managers are extremely threatening to the power structure.
  5. Practically speaking, under at-will employment, a subordinate who bullies a boss can be fired without cause, while a boss who bullies a subordinate usually doesn’t have to worry about job security — unless the bullying is discriminatory in nature (race, sex, etc.) or in retaliation for legally-protected whistleblowing.
  6. Preserving this top-down power relationship is, no doubt, among the reasons why some employers and their trade associations oppose the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Even if they have no intentions of treating workers abusively, they want to retain the right to do so, without fear of being held legally accountable.

Related posts

“Master and servant”: The roots of American employment law (2013)

At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch (2011)

When the workplace causes depression and anxiety

In a recent piece (link here) on coping with depression and anxiety in today’s workplace, Yahoo finance writer Jeanie Ahn acknowledges that organizations themselves can trigger these conditions:

Workers should also recognize that the organization they work for could be dysfunctional: “The more disturbing the workplace, the more vulnerabilities and personal foibles will emerge,” says Dr. Lynn Friedman, a clinical psychologist and executive career counselor based in Washington, D.C.

Just like physical ailments, mental health can worsen from working long hours, lack of sleep, stress, overwhelming workloads, and toxic work environments.“One way to support people to be healthy is to look at areas of dysfunction in the workplace and address them in a direct and straightforward way,” says Friedman.

Of course, this plays right into the topic of workplace bullying and mobbing, which is responsible for causing a host of physical and mental health problems.

Disclosing to an employer

Regardless of whether a mental health situation has been caused or exacerbated by a toxic work environment, the question of disclosing the condition to one’s employer is full of complexities. If a condition rises to the level of a disability, then disability discrimination laws may require the employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for it. However, there are no guarantees here. Especially if the organizational culture is hostile or dysfunctional, it’s quite possible that disclosure and an accommodation request will yield negative results, including retaliation and/or being pushed out of one’s job.

Adds Yahoo’s Ahn:

“In an ideal world, you should be able to disclose a mental health issue without being discriminated against, but the reality is we don’t live in that perfect world,” says Darcy Gruttardo, director at the Center of Workplace Mental Health.

About half of workers in [a recent American Psychiatric Association survey] expressed concerns about discussing mental health issues at work; a third worried about consequences if they seek help. For those thinking about talking about it at work, Gruttardo recommends talking to your primary care doctor first to get any symptoms under control, before approaching human resources or an employee assistance program (EAP).

Missing from this analysis is the potential role of labor unions. Unionized workers will typically be able to approach their union representative for advice and support. In some cases, additional protections relevant to mental health treatment may be contained in a collective bargaining agreement. Like all types of organizations, some unions are much better than others at serving their members, but at the very least they provide options that other workers don’t enjoy.

As I say often on this blog, there are no easy answers when it comes to handling such matters. Organizations differ markedly in their fairness and integrity, as do individuals within them. At the very least, it’s important that we continue to understand organizational roles in supporting or undermining the mental health of workers. Only then can we consider solutions and responses.

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Workplace bullying: Does adversity nurture compassion?

 

Does experiencing bullying at work or another form of interpersonal mistreatment make us more compassionate towards those who going through similar situations?

Ideally, we’d like to think that experiencing such adversity would build our sense of empathy for others who are dealing with like challenges. However, a 2014 study (link here) by Rachel Ruttan (Northwestern U.), Mary-Hunter McDonnell (U. Penn.), and Loran Nordgren (Northwestern U.) advises us to check those assumptions. Here’s the article abstract:

For those who are struggling with a difficult experience and who seek the support of others, it is a common assumption that others who have been through the experience in the past will be more understanding. To the contrary, the current research found that participants who had previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment) more harshly evaluated another person’s failure to endure a similar distressing event compared to participants with no experience enduring the event. These effects emerged for three naturally occurring distressing events, as well as one experimentally-induced distressing event. The effect was driven by the tendency for those who previously endured the distressing event to view the event as less difficult to overcome. Taken together, the paper’s findings present a paradox such that, in the face of struggle or defeat, the people we are most apt to seek for advice or comfort may be the least likely to provide it.

Let’s understand that this study is not claiming any absolutes. It suggests that those who have “previously endured an emotionally distressing event (e.g., bullying, unemployment)” may be less likely to support others who going through similar experiences. It’s not a blanket characterization of all people who have experienced mistreatment.

Personal observations

In fact, I know darn well that people who have experienced bullying and mobbing can be extraordinarily supportive of those who are enduring like abuse at work. The core of the workplace anti-bullying movement has been built on the shoulders of these folks. This includes countless numbers of people who, on a professional or volunteer basis, have helped and are helping targets of workplace mistreatment through counseling, coaching, and informal support.

Of course, as the study suggests, this is not always so. And I have witnessed this, too. For example, years ago, I took part in an extended online conversation in which a self-identified workplace mobbing target dismissed the experiences of self-identified targets of workplace bullying, claiming that her suffering was much greater than theirs. It was not an easy exchange.

In essence, the psychology of abuse is complicated and yields a variety of responses from those who have been subjected to it. Nevertheless, the large cadre of bullying and mobbing targets who have joined together to support each other and to advocate for change embodies our efforts to enhance the dignity of work and workers.

On following evil orders at work

In a piece for Medium (link here), Sarah Griffiths interviews psychological researcher Julia Shaw (University College London) on her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side (2019). Here’s what Dr. Shaw says about the negative implications of our tendency to follow orders:

Following orders is the default human tendency, so if there’s someone in authority, or someone who has authority over you, then you are likely to follow their orders, unless you are in danger. That’s for a host of social reasons, not the least of which is that we are generally trusting of our fellow humans and if we’ve placed them in a position of responsibility — a political office, for example — then we trust the decisions they are making are not going to break social norms or moral values.

It’s also a lot of work to stand up against authority and think for ourselves in a situation when we feel we don’t have to, so we quite readily outsource immorality as our brains are effectively a bit lazy and are constantly trying to conserve resources.

Among other things, these dynamics can lead us to take part in cruel and abusive behaviors. History is riddled with examples of this, including participation in torture and genocides.

In response, Shaw suggests three things that we can do to avoid engaging in mistreatment of others, at the behest of someone in authority:

There are three things you can do. The first is to learn about things and prepare yourself when times are good for when times are bad.

…The second thing you can do is “foster heroic imagination,” … (s)o you can picture yourself swimming against the tide of “evil” and going out of your way to do good things for other people — playing the hero.

…The third thing is to make sure that when you are in a situation requiring morally challenging decisions, that you deliberately fight the urge to give in and go with the flow.

At work

Naturally I’m translating this into workplace settings: What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker? How should that individual respond? What are the costs and consequences of resisting versus going along?

Certainly we can all grow as individuals and develop stronger moral and ethical groundings in terms of how we respond to directives to do wrongful things to others. In that sense, it seems that the three things suggested by Dr. Shaw require a lot of foundational work on ourselves, well before the precipitating events arise. Those events will test us, and decisions on how to respond will emanate from our core foundations.

That said, I am only mildly optimistic about our collective ability to respond to work abuse in the individualized manner suggested by Shaw. Typically these forms of interpersonal mistreatment are enabled or endorsed by organizational leaders. Our tendency to take our cues from the top — the very tendency centrally acknowledged by Shaw — creates shared presumptions that succeeding on the job means accepting, or at least not resisting, the accompanying values and behaviors. By contrast, someone “playing the hero” in the face of wrongful behaviors is often left to do so on their own, with all the accompanying risks.

Rather, the solutions are more systemic. We need a stronger, more inclusive labor movement to provide a countervailing voice for everyday workers. We need laws against workplace bullying. We need stronger enforcement of existing workplace protections. Ultimately, we need to embrace dignity as the primary framing value for our society, joined with a commitment that dignity should not be sacrificed for the right to earn a living and pursue a vocation.

True, advocating for these changes often requires speaking truth to power, but at least if we do so more collectively, our chances of success are much greater than going it alone.

On peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying and mobbing

From the World Health Organization

Periodically I am asked about the value of peer support groups for those who have experienced workplace bullying or mobbing. Although such groups exist, I have not participated in one. However, I have given this topic much thought over the years and read into a number of resources that shed some light on the potential benefits and downsides of peer support. Furthermore, during the past 20 years, I have had countless exchanges with targets of workplace bullying and mobbing, and these discussions have yielded invaluable insights as well.

With all this in mind, I decided to gather together some resources and suggestions that may be useful to those who are participating in peer support groups for targets, especially those who are organizing and facilitating them.

Training/expertise in peer support group facilitation

Good intentions alone are not sufficient for creating a peer support group, especially given the deep and complicated emotions and consequences of bullying and mobbing at work. Rather, it’s extremely useful to get some expert guidance. A lot of that information is provided in the mental health context.

The best short, accessible, and free(!) guide for mental health peer support groups that I’ve found is Michelle Funk & Natalie Drew, Creating peer support groups in mental health and related areas (2017) (pdf link here), published by the World Health Organization. In only 28 pages, this excellent guide provides a wealth of helpful advice and guidance on creating, facilitating, and participating in peer support groups. It also contains a rich reference list for those who want to learn more.

Mental Health America provides a Center for Peer Support (link here) with an array of valuable resources. For those who seek more formal training in peer support, MHA offers a national certification program (link here).

Training/expertise in workplace bullying/mobbing/abuse

Especially for group facilitators, but really for any participant, gaining expertise in dynamics and impacts of workplace bullying and mobbing is very important towards understanding how to support one another and finding ways to move forward.

The gold standard is the Workplace Bullying Institute’s “Workplace Bullying University” program, a three-day, intensive, graduate-level seminar facilitated by Dr. Gary Namie (link here). I have attended this program and can attest to its comprehensive, immersive, and interactive learning approach.

For those who want a less expensive alternative, Dr. Namie offers a 2.5 hour video seminar, “Workplace Bullying Action Plan & Tutorial,” for targets of workplace bullying (link here). The Workplace Bullying Institute’s main website (link here) is a freely accessible treasure trove of information as well. Furthermore, although mainly for employers, I worked with the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence to create a deep webpage of resources on workplace bullying (link here).

For those seeking an encyclopedic, authoritative, but concededly pricey, resource on workplace bullying and mobbing here in the U.S., I’m happy to recommend Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada, editors, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (2018), a two-volume treatise with some two dozen chapter contributors (link here).

Finally, several weeks ago I recommended a “go-to” list of four affordable books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here): 

  • Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009);
  • Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014);
  • Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014); and,
  • William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004).

Training/expertise in psychological/mental health first aid

Training in psychological first aid will help peer support group participants understand trauma and recognize the boundaries of when people should be referred to counseling or medical assistance.

Johns Hopkins University offers an online course in Psychological First Aid via Coursera (link here). The course is free, with a modest charge to receive certification:

Learn to provide psychological first aid to people in an emergency by employing the RAPID model: Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition.

Utilizing the RAPID model (Reflective listening, Assessment of needs, Prioritization, Intervention, and Disposition), this specialized course provides perspectives on injuries and trauma that are beyond those physical in nature.

The course is taught by Dr. George S. Everly, who is the co-author, with Dr. Jeffrey M. Lating, of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychological First Aid (2017).

Training/expertise in coaching

Training and experience in personal coaching may come in useful here. Many basic coaching skills are useful for peer support interactions as well. In contrast to common belief, coaching is not about being prescriptive or directive. Rather, it is mostly about asking the right questions, listening, and helping individuals discover insights, answers, and solutions. 

Coaching training programs abound, and the one I heartily recommend is the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC, link here). Some six years ago, I did the year-long IPEC core energy coaching program, and I’m very grateful for it. Although I eventually decided not to set up my own coaching practice, the personal growth I experienced and the communications skills that I developed continue to provide welcomed benefits today. Having undergone that training, I’m confident that a good coaching program can enable one’s growth as a peer support group facilitator.

Legal, liability, and ethical issues

I would be remiss if I didn’t put on my legal hat with this topic. Although the risk of a peer support group facilitator or participant being sued may be remote, I’ve seen a few pages for peer support groups that suggest requiring all participants to sign liability waivers.

I’m not going to start rendering legal opinions on that possibility here, especially given the global readership of this blog and the varied legal jurisdictions represented. However, suffice it to say that legal, liability, and ethical issues should not be ignored, especially the importance of avoiding what could be interpreted as providing psychological counseling or legal advice.

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I hope this information has been helpful for people involved in peer support groups for bullying and mobbing targets. Readers who have identified other useful resources are invited to mention them in the comments section.

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A simple question to ponder

I’m reading The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life (2016) by historian Michael Puett (Harvard) and journalist Christine Gross-Loh. The book is an outgrowth of Dr. Puett’s wildly popular undergraduate course on Chinese philosophy, which Gross-Loh wrote about for The Atlantic in 2013 (link here). In touting his course, Puett promises that “This course will change your life,” and apparently the students are buying into the claim.

The book starts us with Confucius. In contrast to philosophers who “jump right in with big questions” such as “Do we have free will? and “What is the meaning of life?,” Confucius “asked this fundamental and deceptively profound question”:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

It’s a question that can take you very, very deep. I’ve been pondering it since reading the passage over the weekend, and I’m far from done.

Puett and Gross-Loh go on to suggest that this inquiry can lead us to change how we live and act, built on the assumption that we are not destined to be stuck in place. 

The Path is one of those short (200 pp.), profound-sounding, easy-to-read books that makes for a popular graduation gift. However, I think it resonates even more strongly with those of us who have been around the block a few times.

Of course, positive individual change is not always so simple as wishing or allowing for it to occur. If, for example, someone has been subjected to severe abuse, the trauma from that experience can have serious impacts on mental and physical health and personal behavior. Nevertheless, I submit that this simple inquiry can be a pathway towards positive change in our lives. In fact, it may be especially enlightening for those who are dealing with significant challenges and who want to make positive transitions in their lives.

So, once again, ask yourself:

How are you living your life on a daily basis?

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