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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In praise of late bloomers

We have a societal obsession with youth and shiny new things. This obsession seems to permeate our popular culture. In terms of work and hiring, organizations always seem to be on the lookout for young, rising stars. We put these early standouts on a pedestal and a fast-track.

But what about folks who might be described as late bloomers? You know, those people who might not make a big splash in their early years, but who get better with age? Journalist Rich Karlgaard puts himself in this category, and he’s written a book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement (2019), that explores the phenomenon of late bloomers and what they have to offer us.

Karlgaard devotes a chapter of his book to “The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers.” They are:

  • Curiosity
  • Compassion
  • Resilience
  • Equanimity (“mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation”)
  • Insight
  • Wisdom

That sounds like a pretty good package of attributes, yes? How many organizational cultures and performances would improve markedly with more of these qualities shaping their workforces?

In an interview/podcast for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School (link here), Karlgaard explains a bit more about the reasoning behind his book:

I wish we’d see more of a push, more encouragement for late bloomers. By the way, this idea that we have unfolding gifts over the many decades of our lives is not my speculation. There was a terrific 2015 study led by Laura Germine at Harvard with a colleague at MIT, and they asked the question, at what decade of our lives do our cognitive abilities peak? It’s a really complex and intriguing answer. It depends what kind of cognitive intelligence you’re talking about. There are many of these forms of cognitive intelligence.

Sure enough, rapid synaptic processing speed, working memory, the things that make you a great software programmer or make you a very effective high-frequency trader on Wall Street, those peak in our 20s. But then in our 30s, 40s and 50s, deeper pattern recognition, empathy and compassion, communication skills — all the things you need to grow and be effective as a leader — come into play. Then in our 50s, 60s and 70s, a whole set of attributes that lead to what we might call wisdom come into play.

For readers of this blog who have suffered setbacks in midlife, Late Bloomers may be instructive and inspirational as they consider potential career options and transitions. It just could be that their late bloomer qualities will guide them towards something much more rewarding and fulfilling.

Bronnie Ware: “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying” (and what she’s learned since then)

For years, palliative care provider Bronnie Ware helped people who were nearing the end of their life’s journeys. Her work included conversations with them about what regrets they had carried into their later years. These shared epiphanies led Ware to write a blog post that went viral and an eventual book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying: A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing (2012). Here are the top five regrets, as drawn from Ware’s conversations:

  1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”;
  2. “I wish I didn’t work so hard”;
  3. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings”;
  4. “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends”; and,
  5. “I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

She explains each of these points in greater detail in this blog post. Her book, which I highly recommend, delves even deeper in this topic.

I wrote about Ware’s work back in 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled from my early 50s to my late 50s, and — my oh my — her words resonate even more strongly with me today.

***

Five years after publishing her book, she shared on her blog “Five Things I Have Learned Since Five Regrets” (link here):

  1. “Courage is the greatest tool for bringing our dreams into reality”;
  2. “Surrender is much more effective than striving or forcing”;
  3. “Our dreams require us to triumph over upper-limits”;
  4. “Self-care is crucial for an authentic life”; and,
  5. “Real life connections are the essence of joy.”

Her full blog piece fleshes out her points and is definitely worth a read.

Great life lessons here. Gifts from those who have preceded us.

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Cross-posted with my “Musings of a Gen Joneser” personal blog.

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?

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

When someone is experiencing workplace bullying or mobbing, understanding what’s happening and assessing options are vitally important towards finding a way to a better place. There are many helpful resources available to targets of work abuse, such as those mentioned on the Need Help? page of this blog and my recently updated list of recommended books on workplace bullying and mobbing. However, the volume of resources may seem overwhelming, so I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I am repeatedly recommend to others.

Let’s start with Gary Namie & Ruth Namie, The Bully at Work (2d ed. 2009). This is the bestselling book on dealing with workplace bullying situations, and for good reason. Gary and Ruth are co-founders of the Workplace Bullying Institute and pioneers of the U.S. workplace anti-bullying movement. They were the first North American subject-matter experts to conceptualize the dynamics of workplace bullying and to communicate their knowledge to the general public. Their work is foundational, and the insights and supportive advice in this book are invaluable. For so many people, this book helped them understand the abuse they were experiencing at work.

Next is Maureen Duffy & Len Sperry, Overcoming Mobbing: A Recovery Guide for Workplace Aggression and Bullying (2014). It’s safe to say that with this volume, Maureen and Len established themselves as the preeminent authorities on workplace mobbing. This book is a bit more academic in tone than The Bully at Work, but it is written in accessible prose and with a very supportive voice. It is also deeply insightful in grasping the dynamics of mobbing behaviors. This book, too, has provided many “light bulb” moments of understanding for people experiencing abuse at work.

Psychological trauma is one of the most frequent impacts of severe bullying and mobbing at work. To understand trauma and possibilities for treating it, Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), is strongly recommended. This is a brilliant, in-depth, and accessible look at the nature of psychological trauma and potential treatment options, authored by one of the leading authorities. Suffice it to say that I have given away a good half dozen copies of this book to others.

Finally, there’s William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (2004). Severe workplace bullying or mobbing is a life-changing experience, and for many, it involves leaving their job and place of employment. It can have long-term effects on careers and livelihoods. In sum, it involves transitions. And while these life changes can be terribly difficult, they’re better than being stuck in place. Hence, I strongly recommend Bridges’s excellent book as a guide for forging and comprehending that path.

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Elizabeth White’s “55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal”

Because of circumstances that I wish were different for so many people, Elizabeth White’s 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal (2019) is one of the most important books of the New Year. Here’s the opening to her Preface:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good years when she was still making money.

To look at her, you would not know that her electricity was cut off last week for nonpayment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps.

But if you paid attention, you would see the sadness in her eyes, hear that hint of fear in her otherwise self-assured voice.

…You invite her to the same expensive restaurants that the two of you have always enjoyed, but she orders mineral water now with a twist of lemon instead of the $12 glass of Chardonnay.

…She is tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

…She has no retirement savings, no nest egg. She exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

White’s book comes from personal experiences that are all-too-familiar for many: At midlife, she made some career & financial moves that didn’t work out, she lost her six-figure job in the wake of the Great Recession, and she burned through her savings. Well into her fifties, job and consulting leads dried up, and applications no longer yielded interviews. In the meantime, she’d get together with friends at pricey eating & drinking establishments and fake normal.

Her underlying message is that there are millions of women and men who now find themselves in similar circumstances, and that’s it well past time for us to take this crisis seriously. There is a lot of wisdom in this book, as well as validation and support for those who are recovering from a midlife job loss and accompanying financial challenges.

White’s publishing journey

55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal is the updated, revised, and commercially published (Simon & Schuster) edition of a book that White launched via a self-published version in 2016 under a slightly different title (55, Unemployed, and Faking Normal). I’ve written several pieces discussing the earlier edition (here, here, and here) that I will draw from here, for if anything, White’s work grows in significance and merits repeated mentions.

White first wrote about her experiences in a 2015 Next Avenue blog essay, discussing how the recession and life circumstances had affected the lives of professional women in their 40s and older. The piece went viral. It also resonated with middle-aged men who had lost their jobs and struggled to recover. It attracted thousands of responses, many by way of personal stories. Excerpts from many of these comments appear in White’s book.

I would not call 55, Underemployed, and Faking Normal an “elegant” work. Rather, it’s an honest, blunt, and humane book, filled with stories of setbacks and genuine hope. It’s a valuable resource guide, loaded with information, guidance, and advice for folks who find themselves in situations like White’s. It’s also a call for us to address broader questions of age bias, economic policy, and retirement security. After all, we are dealing with systemic issues here.

Furthermore, White doesn’t dodge the role of gender and race in discussing the impact of the Great Recession and economic circumstances facing Americans. If you think that these factors don’t matter, then look at the research she summarizes and think again.

Resilience circles

White’s 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 one other, and so on. That’s enough to begin.

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

…Hold meetings even if your Resilience Circle consists of just you and two or three other people at the beginning. It’s hard to navigate these waters alone. Isolation is crazy making. Peer-to-peer support can keep you even-keeled and open to possibility.

The theme of building of stronger social ties echoes throughout the book. It’s about breaking down unwarranted shame or embarrassment and creating healthy connections with others.

For targets of workplace bullying and mobbing

White’s book may resonate with, and be helpful to, many folks who have experienced workplace abuse and lost their jobs as a consequence, especially those in their middle years. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote in 2016:

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.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Workplace bullying and mobbing hits anyone hard, but it can create even more challenges when experienced in later years. A job loss at 55 is often more problematic than one at 25. This book is an excellent complement to the resources available specifically on dealing with workplace mistreatment.

A book for most of us

To some extent, White’s book is a call for us to get back to basics and to ask core questions about how we live and spend our money. When compelled to curb spending, we have to think through our priorities. Obviously food, shelter, clothing, and health care are chief among them, but beyond that we have choices to make.

Perhaps you’re reading this and thinking, well, thank goodness that’s not me, but fortunately I’ve got my personal finances all lined up, and my job is pretty secure. If that is truly the case, then you are among a small percentage of people who can say that with genuine authority. For most everyone else at middle age and beyond, we are but one job loss away from dealing with challenges similar to those addressed by White.

There’s so much more that I could say about this important book, but I’ll stop here and invite you to read it yourself.

Life lessons from Dr. Edith Eger, Auschwitz survivor

Dear readers, if you can spare two minutes, please watch this uplifting BBC video segment featuring Dr. Edith Eger, a noted psychologist, writer, and survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Here’s the BBC description:

Edith Eger was 16 when she was sent to Auschwitz with her parents and sister. Her parents were executed. She survived – but barely. She endured unimaginable experiences, including beatings, starvation and being made to dance for the infamous Josef Mengele. When the camp was finally liberated, she was harrowed by trauma and survivors guilt. In order to understand her experiences she trained as a psychologist, a role she still works in to this day. She’s written a memoir called “The Choice” about her experience. She tells us her top tips for living your best life.

Dr. Edie, as she is known, has experienced and witnessed the worst of what humanity can serve up. Yet she proclaims, “I want to practice love, joy, and passion for life.” She offers four life lessons toward doing so:

First, “don’t be a victim.”

Second, “love yourself.”

Third, “feed your brain.”

Finally, “forget your age.”

The video segment is two minutes well spent. And if you’d like more, then I highly recommend her memoir, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, The Choice: Embrace the Possible (2017):

These lessons are especially valuable for those who are dealing with the effects of workplace abuse. I met Dr. Edie last year at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research. Here’s part of what I shared on this blog:

I had a chance to talk to Dr. Edie during Saturday’s conference events, and getting to know her was such a gift. During the evening session, I had the intimidating task of immediately following her moving and insightful keynote remarks with my presentation about workplace bullying and mobbing. I confessed my nervousness about comparing the eliminationist instinct that fueled the Holocaust to that manifesting itself on a much smaller scale in workplace abuse situations, especially in the presence of someone who had survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. When I finished, Dr. Edie applauded enthusiastically and gave me a nod of approval. Yup, her opinion of my presentation meant so much to me that I looked to her as soon as I was done.

Edith Eger offers inspiring, healing words for those who are dealing with trauma. She is a treasure.

Related post

The Holocaust is a key to understanding interpersonal abuse and systems that enable it (2018)

 

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