Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Understanding workplace bullying and mobbing: Some lockdown resources

Especially here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic is compelling many of us to shelter-in-place in our homes, or at least to judiciously limit our trips outside. For those who wish to use this time to do a deeper dive into understanding workplace bullying and mobbing, I’ve gathered together a handful of links that serve as portals to a wealth of resources.

Workplace Bullying Institute (link here) — Dr. Gary Namie, co-founder of WBI, has given their information-packed website a welcomed facelift and streamlining. There is a wealth of information, expert advice, and research material here.

Workplace Bullying University (link here) — Dr. Namie facilitates an intensive, interactive, graduate-level seminar for those seeking advanced understanding and training about workplace bullying and potential avenues toward addressing it. Now available via Zoom, this is simply the best source of advanced instruction on this topic.

American Psychological Association, Center for Organizational Excellence (link here) — I served as a subject matter expert to assist the APA in developing this webpage of resources on workplace bullying. There are valuable listings and links for both employers and workers here, as well as a short animated video that can be used for training sessions.

Workplace bullying and mobbing: Recommended book list (2018) (link here) — For those who want to engage in the serious study of workplace abuse, these volumes will provide considerable food for thought.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (2019) (link here) — If you are experiencing, or recovering from, bullying or mobbing at work, then I strongly recommend these four books.

“Disastershock”: A free handbook for coping with disaster and trauma

Disastershock: How to Cope with the Emotional Stress of a Major Disaster is a free handbook (link here) for individuals and communities, co-authored by Drs. Brian Gerrard, Emily Girault, Valerie Appleton, Suzanne Giraudo, and Sue Linville Shaffer. First appearing in 1989, this valuable book has just been updated to include mental health challenges wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s a brief description:

This Disastershock book is intended to help families and communities to cope with disaster related stress such as that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Part I describes ten effective methods to be used to reduce stress. Part 2 describes 12 stress reduction methods to be used with children. Although Part 2 was written primarily for parents, teachers and other adults working with children will find it useful. A unique feature of Disastershock is that its practical stress reduction methods are described in an explicit manner making them easy to learn. 

You may freely download an English-language version of Disastershock by clicking here. It is currently being translated into languages of nations significantly affected by the coronavirus crisis.

Disastershock has been praised by mental health professionals and educators from around the globe. Practicality, accessibility, and brevity (under 50 pp.) are among its key strengths; you won’t feel overwhelmed by it. I became aware of the book from one of its co-authors, Dr. Brian Gerrard, emeritus faculty member at the University of San Francisco and chief academic officer and core faculty member at the Western Institute for Social Research, on whose board I serve. I recommend it enthusiastically.

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Along these lines, I’d like to reiterate my earlier recommendation of the John Hopkins University’s Psychological First Aid course (link here) taught by Dr. George Everly and offered for free by Coursera, a leading provider of online, continuing education courses. As I wrote in a blog post last September

Dr. Everly developed his PFA model to provide first responders who are not trained as counselors with knowledge and training to assist those who have experienced traumatic events, such as displacement due to wars, severe weather events, and other man-made and natural disasters.

In addition to completing the course myself, I assigned it to students in my Law and Psychology Lab course at Suffolk University Law School, and they responded very favorably to it.

Ten popular MTW posts from 2019

Dear Readers, I’ve collected ten of the most popular MTW posts written during 2019. If you missed them before, I hope they will prove interesting and enlightening to you this time around. Here goes:

Man faced surgery, while bullying co-workers bet on his survival and gave him a toe tag (link here) — When Charlie Bowlby faced heart surgery, his co-workers placed bets on the likelihood that he would survive and gave him a mock toe tag before he went off to the hospital.

Speaking truth to power: Incivility & abrasiveness vs. bullying & mobbing (link here) — Bullying and mobbing are forms of abuse, not bad manners, and we should treat them accordingly.

Workplace bullying, DARVO, and aggressors claiming victim status (link here) — Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s conceptualization of DARVO — Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender — applies to many workplace bullying and mobbing situations.

Workplace bullying and incivility: Does kissing up fuel kicking down? (link here) — One study suggests a link between kissing up to one’s superiors and picking down one’s subordinates.

It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige (link here) — The burgeoning college admissions scandal has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Workplace bullying: Should “creative” folks get a pass? (Uh, no) (link here) — A workplace aggressor should not be given a free pass simply because they happen to be creative.

A short list of recommended books for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing (link here) — I thought I’d offer a very selective list of four affordable books that I repeatedly recommend to others.

A short speech in Rome (link here) — The text of my acceptance speech after receiving the Bruce Winick Award for contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence, at the International Congress for Law and Mental Health.

Boston Globe: Two important features on workplace bullying (link here) — Discussing two feature articles, one a piece on a former corrections officer who faced savage bullying and sexual harassment, the other a piece on bullying of resident physicians.

On following evil orders at work (link here) — What if an employee is directed or enlisted to take part in the bullying, mobbing, or harassment of a co-worker?

On living an “undivided life”

Parker J. Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life may have been published originally back in 2004, but it seems to have a special significance for today’s world.

Palmer suggests that many folks are living a “divided life” that can manifest in several ways:

  • “We refuse to invest ourselves in our work, diminishing its quality and distancing ourselves from those it is meant to serve”;
  • “We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values, even when survival does not absolutely demand it”;
  • “We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits”;
  • “We harbor secrets to achieve personal gain at the expense of other people”;
  • “We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change”; and,
  • “We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked”

Palmer says that we’re living in a “wounded world,” and it sure feels that way at times. (U.S. readers who wake up each morning to news of the latest mass shootings may specially agree.) Much of his book examines how to do inner work in response to these outer realities.

If this sounds interesting to you, then I recommend the paperback edition that includes a very detailed reader’s guide and a DVD with interviews of Palmer.

Authenticity

The themes contained in A Hidden Wholeness also resonate with the notion of personal authenticity, which I have commented on in previous entries. The professions, especially, can foster an emphasis on posturing as opposed to authenticity. As I wrote back in 2014:

What do I mean by posturing? In the context of meetings and conferences, posturing is the practice of saying “learned” things or raising “clever” questions primarily to make an impression, rather than to enrich a discussion. The two fields I am most familiar with, academe and law, are positively rife with posturing.

I’ve also suggested that inauthenticity at work can plant the seeds for an early midlife crisis. From 2013:

As a law student, lawyer, and law professor, I’ve spent a lot of time around people whose career ambitions are largely defined by others. To some extent, I have internalized some of those messages myself.

But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to pick and choose wisely among these markers of achievement. If you fail to do so, you may find yourself living an inauthentic life (at least the part spent at work), and your psyche may struggle with the grudging realization that you’re pursuing someone else’s definition of success. It’s an easy recipe for a midlife crisis.

In sum, it’s hard to be true to one’s self by living an inauthentic and divided life. Here’s to more wholeness for all of us.

MTW Revisions: July 2019

In this regular feature, each month I’m reviewing some of the 1,700+ entries to this blog since 2008 and opting to revise and update several of them. I hope that readers find the revised posts useful and interesting. Here are this month’s selections:

After being bullied at work, what next? (orig. 2009; rev. 2016 & 2019) (link here) — “Oftentimes, workplace bullying leaves a target’s head spinning. Whether of the overt or covert variety, or perhaps both, work abuse can be quickly destabilizing. It’s hard to get one’s bearings. …All of this boils down to the fact that targets must often consider their options on their own. For those who are in such a position, here are several questions to ask and answer, ideally earlier rather than later….”

The sociopathic employee handbook (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “I once had an opportunity to review provisions of an employee handbook from a large, mostly non-union employer in the non-profit sector. . . . Heh, among my reactions was that this handbook read like the handiwork of a sociopathic lawyer!”

What is at-will employment? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “The legal rule of at-will employment is the presumptive employment relationship in the United States. It means that an employer can hire or terminate a worker for any reason or no reason at all, so long as that action does not violate existing legal protections. . . . Outside the U.S., at-will employment is not the norm. In many industrialized nations, workers can be terminated only for just cause, which usually means inadequate performance, serious misconduct, or financial exigency.”

Tribes for brewing ideas and engaging in positive change (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “Today, tribes may form and sustain with members spread across the land. Physical proximity helps a lot, of course, especially in the form of periodic conferences and meetings. But the online world can be a way of sustaining and building those bonds too, especially when face-to-face interactions are less feasible.”

The privileges of creating a “body of work”

Four years ago, I wrote about Pamela Slim‘s Body of Work: Finding the Thread That Ties Your Story Together (2013), which invites us to examine — in the author’s words — “the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created” (link here). She defines “body of work” this way:

Your body of work is everything you create, contribute, affect, and impact. For individuals, it is the personal legacy you leave at the end of your life, including all the tangible and intangible things you have created.

I first wrote about this concept in 2009:

Until recently, I’ve regarded the term “body of work” as being somewhat odd.  It refers to an individual’s total output, or at least a substantial part of it.  We often hear “body of work” invoked when assessing an individual’s creative, artistic, or athletic endeavors, as in looking at the career of a great musician, writer, or baseball player.

But I’ve come to realize that we all produce our own body of work, even if we are not famous artists or athletes.  It may include work we are paid for, but it also may capture contributions as parents, friends, caregivers, volunteers, and members of the community.  For some, their “day job” of showing up to work or caring for children may be complemented by starting a band, coaching a softball team, or singing in a community chorus.  Taking into account all of these possibilities, our body of work represents our contributions to this world while we are a part of it.

And here’s another dimension that I’ve come to realize with much greater clarity: If one is sufficiently fortunate to be able to conceptualize their life in this manner, then one is very privileged. For countless millions around the world, it’s not about building a body of work; rather, it’s about meeting basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, health care, and safety.

This understanding leads me to a popular maxim: To whom much is given, much is expected. The phrase actually has its roots in Scripture. Here’s one version from The Oxford Study Bible:

When one has been given much, much will be expected of him; and the more he has had entrusted to him the more will be demanded of him. (Luke 12:48)

I don’t usually go around quoting the Bible. My own religious beliefs are that of a non-denominational believer, i.e., believing in a God whose truth is to be found somewhere in the intersection of various faith traditions. I also respect those who are devout believers, agnostics, or atheists.

Nevertheless, the basic sentiment sticks with me. Those of us who are privileged, nay, blessed, to think of our lives as encompassing a body of work have a responsibility to help others and to make the world a better place. How that is done is an individual decision, hopefully rendered with gratitude, empathy, and understanding.

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.

If you’re on Facebook, please consider “liking” my new Page for this blog and the New Workplace Institute, where I’m regularly adding content and hosting conversations that don’t appear here. Go here to sign up.

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.

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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.

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