On being “in the arena” and “daring greatly”

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

In April 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, titled “The Man in the Arena.” It was, in many ways, classic Teddy Roosevelt, full of manly vim and vigor, urging citizens of democratic societies to participate in the world of public affairs. One particular passage from the speech has become rather famous as an inspirational call to living a courageous, engaged life:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Two words from the quoted passage inspired the title of Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly (2012). As I wrote previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. She builds much of the course’s early foundation around that passage. However, Brown’s conceptualization of daring greatly draws us away from the kind of boyish, chest-thumping image that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s public persona. Rather, she associates vulnerability with daring greatly. According to Brown, only by being vulnerable to setback, rejection, disappointment, and failure can we reach these higher places in our work lives, personal lives, and other endeavors.


Brené Brown’s lessons are resonating with me personally and professionally. In terms of my work, they relate directly to efforts to mainstream human dignity as our core societal value, to promote therapeutic jurisprudence as a primary vehicle for understanding and reforming the law, and to make human dignity the framing concept for workplace law and policy. I believe that in order to advance these interrelated spheres, we must dare greatly — or, to put it in more contemporary, pop culture terms, go big or go home.

It means taking the risks of getting knocked down a bit . . . or perhaps a lot. For example, it’s no fun, as Brown notes, to see one’s work being mocked, twisted, or unfairly criticized online. Calls for more dignity in society are not likely to be greeted with open arms within many circles of our world today; some may even make fun of them. But such responses only underscore the need for change. Even if the world that we want to see is unlikely to become a reality during our lifetimes (regardless of our respective ages), we can be part of what moves things in the right direction.

Coping with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse: Letting go of the story (but not completely)


One of the very, very hardest challenges in dealing with workplace mistreatment is, well, dealing with it. By this I mean not letting it consume us. The fight or flight response ratchets up, and soon the situation rents way too much space in our heads.

Mediator and facilitator Diane Musho Hamilton, writing for the Harvard Business Review, delves into brain science in describing what happens when we feel threatened:

We have two amygdala, one on each side of the brain, behind the eyes and the optical nerves. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score, calls this the brain’s “smoke detector.” It’s responsible for detecting fear and preparing our body for an emergency response.

When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sounds an alarm, releasing a cascade of chemicals in the body. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood our system, immediately preparing us for fight or flight. When this deeply instinctive function takes over, we call it what Daniel Goleman coined in Emotional Intelligence as “amygdala hijack.” In common psychological parlance we say, “We’ve been triggered.”

Given the title of her piece, one might question whether it applies to forms of workplace mistreatment. After all, severe bullying, mobbing, discrimination, and harassment are not varieties of conflict, but rather forms of intentional abuse. However, I suggest that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of the neuroscience and that Hamilton’s descriptions of the triggering response are spot-on.

Her advice on calming your brain in the midst of these experiences will sound familiar to those who do mindfulness practice. One point, however, may be especially hard to process:

Step 2: Let go of the story.

This might be the most difficult part of the practice. We need to completely let go of the thinking and judging mind. This is a very challenging step because when we feel threatened, the mind immediately fills with all kinds of difficult thoughts and stories about what’s happening. But we must be willing to forget the story, just for a minute, because there is a feedback loop between our thoughts and our body. If the negative thoughts persist, so do the stressful hormones. It isn’t that we’re wrong, but we will be more far more clear in our perceptions when the nervous system has relaxed.

Wait a minute, let go of the story?! As a law professor and activist, my knee-jerk response is that it’s all about the story. In fact, just two months ago, I devoted a blog post to the topic of storytelling for social change. And our campaign to enact workplace anti-bullying legislation is built upon the stories of abuse at work shared by people who want stronger legal protections against this form of mistreatment.

But that’s not what Hamilton is talking about, and I know many of you understand that. She’s saying that we have to break the feedback loop of letting the story of injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment rule our emotions in a toxic, 24/7 sort of way, for the sake of our own health if nothing else.

That said, the triggering response can be a powerful one. It has an unfortunate way of focusing our attention and emotional energy with a laser-like intensity. As I’ve written before, targets of workplace bullying have described the experience as a nightmarish “game or battle.” It’s not easy to put that on one’s emotional shelf.

So herein lies a challenge: How do we keep the narratives of workplace injustice alive, without letting them consume us personally? This is one of the most difficult intersections of individual recovery and social change, and for many it is an ongoing work in progress.


Related posts

Post-traumatic embitterment disorder as a consequence of workplace bullying (2015)

Helping workplace bullying targets get beyond rumination (2015)

Targets of workplace bullying: Getting unstuck (2014)

Dealing with a bad workplace: Getting to tolerance (2014)


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Trying out Brené Brown’s “Living Brave Semester”


For some time I’ve wanted to explore more deeply the work of Dr. Brené Brown, one of the most interesting thinkers and writers around today. Her work on courage, vulnerability, and bouncing back from life’s setbacks is very intriguing to me.

So I’ve signed up for her online course that starts this Monday, the “Living Brave Semester,” built around her two most recent books, Daring Greatly (2012) and Rising Strong (2015). Here’s a description from the course webpage:

The Living Brave Semester is a unique, online learning experience that provides participants with the opportunity to explore what it means to fully show up in our lives – to be brave, lean into vulnerability, and to rumble with the challenges that come with living a daring life.

I quoted a brief passage from Daring Greatly last month in a post about shame-based organizations, and I liked how Dr. Brown doesn’t pull her punches in discussing how shame can be used by management:

When we see shame being used as a management tool (again, that means bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people), we need to take direct action because it means that we’ve got an infestation on our hands. And we need to remember that this doesn’t just happen overnight. Equally important to keep in mind is that shame is like the other “sh” word. Like shit, shame rolls downhill. If employees are constantly having to navigate shame, you can bet that they’re passing it on to their customers, students, and families.

I’m looking forward to this course! It feeds the lifelong learning junkie in me, and I’m sure that I’ll gain some insights worthy of sharing with readers of this blog as well.

Sacrificing privilege to advance social change

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

For what it’s worth, I do not recommend sacrificing one’s privileges willy nilly, as if to prove some level of courage or principle to the world. It’s not about that.

Rather, it’s about taking smart risks in support of something bigger than ourselves, of possibly “giving up” some advantage for a greater good.

I’m hesitant to give illustrations because I don’t want the examples to define the map on this one. But I know that some readers here, hopefully many of you, get what I mean.

Especially in times when fear and scarcity drive people to seek security, it may be something of a twist when those who have a lot of advantages are the most cautious about taking risks for reasons of principle. (It’s the opposite of the line made famous by Janis Joplin — “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose” — in “Me and Bobby McGee“!) In any event, if only the have-nots (however we define them) are willing to stick out their necks, then the path to more humane workplaces, institutions, and organizations will be all the more difficult.

Changing the world from a streetcart, one small book at a time


Urbanmonks Thinktank founder Douglas Krisch displays some of his books, with Urbanmonks author John Francis Mcill in the background.

While I was in New York last week, a walk over to Union Square introduced me to the Urbanmonks Thinktank and its founder, Douglas Krisch. Here’s a snippet of the Urbanmonks mission statement from its website:

What we call anxiety and depression have existed for many generations. Though we’ve used different words and applied different forms of treatment, one thing has remained constant: we have primarily diagnosed and treated the individual.

. . . Today, tens of millions of Americans struggle with anxiety and depression. We continue to focus on healing the individual, which is essential and life-saving work. But when anxiety and depression have become common parts to all our families and communities, we must step back and examine the system, the culture.

The Urbanmonks Thinktank proposes that we, in the face of widespread anxiety and depression, must shift our approach from solely diagnosing and treating the individual to concurrently diagnosing and treating the culture.

Douglas introduces himself this way on the website:

I am a life-long learner and life-long teacher. Working with plants and bees grounds me. Producing books and selling them on the streets excites me. Any day I have connected with others feels like a day well-lived.

At Union Square, Douglas further explained his commitment to promoting emotional health in our society. He is doing so in part by writing and publishing short books that educate us about wisdom, reflection, and community, and then selling them via his Manhattan streetcart and online. I ended up buying a bunch of them, including The Weather of the Mind (2015), book 1 of the “Urbanmonks Wisdom Curriculum.” He also is forming a small team of compatriots to work together on various projects.


Douglas explains his publishing philosophy and practice in The Small Street Book Revival (2014) pictured above. Urbanmonks will consider manuscripts from potential contributors and consult with others who want to write short books. (Go here for more info on that.)

It made my day to talk with Douglas and John Francis Mcgill, an Urbanmonks author. You can’t go wrong when you connect with good people who want to create an emotionally healthier world. I look forward to watching how the Urbanmonks Thinktank continues to unfold.

Growth-fostering relationships at work


In addition to understanding toxic and abusive work environments, we must comprehend and embrace what good organizations can give to the world. Healthy workplaces nurture, among other things, growth-fostering relationships.

The little card pictured above was distributed at the annual Workshop on Humiliation and Violent Conflict, hosted by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) last week in New York. “The Five Good Things” come from the late Jean Baker Miller, a psychiatrist and pioneer in the field of relational psychology:

Growth-fostering relationships empower all people involved in them.These relationships are characterized by:

1. A sense of zest or well-being that comes from connecting with another person or other persons.

2. The ability and motivation to take action in the relationship as well as other situations.

3. Increased knowledge of oneself and the other person(s).

4. An increased sense of worth.

5. A desire for more connections beyond the particular one.

Let’s apply “The Five Good Things” to the workplace! Quality organizations understand that psychologically healthy work environments not only make our work lives more rewarding, but also fuel productivity and positive results. It’s all good, with no downsides.


Jean Baker Miller’s “Five Good Things” and the work of relational psychologist and HumanDHS director Linda Hartling strongly inspired the New Workplace Institute’s “Eightfold Path to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace.”

Embracing human dignity locally and globally: A brief report on the HumanDHS workshop

One of the inspiring, energizing events of my year is the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict sponsored by Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS), a global, multidisciplinary network of scholars, activists, practitioners, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing the experience of humiliation. This year’s workshop was held on Thursday and Friday at Columbia University Teachers College in Manhattan.

Yup, there were group photos, some music and singing, and a big hand-holding circle at the end that, from a distance, could’ve caused someone to confuse this for a “feel good” gathering. But make no mistake, much of our two days together covered challenging, difficult subjects, such as:

  • A report on a 2015 HumanDHS conference in Rwanda,  (Go here for a 20-page summary of that conference.)
  • A dialogue about the meaning and challenge of forgiveness even in the face of terrible human rights abuses.
  • Current and former law enforcement officers discussing organizational cultures within police departments and the intersection of race and policing in the U.S.
  • A dialogue about “shamed-based” rules in dysfunctional families. (I’ll have more to say about that in a future post.)

At times people had disagreements, sometimes earnestly so. Nevertheless, participants at this workshop jointly aspire to create an atmosphere of mutual respect, while acknowledging and validating deeply held beliefs and strong emotions. I believe that we largely succeeded.

Framing the big picture

One of the highlights of this workshop for me is the annual Don Klein Memorial Lecture, presented by psychologist Michael Britton. Michael has a unique gift for synthesizing the big picture challenges we face as a global society, using a psychological lens. His talk this year was built on the theme of dreams made, destroyed, and recovered.

Humiliation, he said, “is the burial ground of dreams.” We live in a world filled with too much brutality, which he defined as “relating unchecked by empathy.” Michael singled out the professional classes for their emphasis on “wealth, influence, expertise, and esteem,” embracing “markets and money” while “using law to subdue resistance.”

Michael stated that our response should include “creative thinking and moral imagination to reorganize institutionally as a generous world.” Achieving “empathic realization” can spur “modesty, humility, and community.” We need to nurture “life-affirming dreams” embracing dignity as a counter to the current dominant culture.

(This summary hardly gives justice to the beautiful flow of Michael’s talk. I hope to be able to post a video of it later.)

Sharing stories and thanks

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of sharing stories and narratives that facilitate social and individual change. I used one of my segments to share a particularly egregious case of workplace bullying, adding how it illustrates the importance of storytelling (1) to impress upon others the human impact of mistreatment and abuse; and (2) to remind ourselves about the meaning of what we do in the face of frustration, weariness, and temporary defeat.

At the workshop, I was honored to receive HumanDHS’s 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award. I am especially grateful to founding president Evelin Lindner and director Linda Hartling for this honor. In my last post, I referred to my association with HumanDHS as a “values-clarifying experience.” (I don’t think I’ve ever used that term on this blog before!) Translated into plainer English, it means that this connection helps me to sort the important stuff from lesser priorities.


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