“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” Simone Weil
Healing from the mob is about halting the destruction of self. This process has been started by the mob, but it can only be stopped by you. Your friends and family can help, but it depends first and foremost on yourself. Healing is about recognising that you are worthy of recovery and that you have so much love to give the world. Giving in to rage or depression is to join the mob against yourself. Avoid treating yourself as the mob has treated you. Heal yourself and you will begin to get your life back. This new life and narrative may be richer and more rewarding than you ever thought was possible. You will at least know yourself better at the end of this healing process. I can promise that this will give you a better story. It is about finding the narrative thread and beginning to follow it again.
Workplace mobbing leads to trauma. It is important to include some definitions here. At one of the spectrum there is stress. This defined as the ‘non specific response of the body to any demand for change’ (Selye, 1936). At the other end of the spectrum there is traumatic stress, which is defined as ‘the response to shocking and emotionally overwhelming situations that may involve actual or threatened death or serious injury or threat to physical integrity’. It is important to put a box around trauma, so it is understood as something where our survival is at risk. I argue here that mobbing in the way that people are currently experiencing it in the workplace brings about a ‘social murder’ and that this fits the definition above.
Trauma is something that can happen once, or it can be caused by repeated exposure – which is more like the workplace mobbing situation. People are deeply resilient in regards to trauma. However, some people experience post traumatic stress. This is where the intrusion of thoughts, avoidance and arousal and reactive symptoms. The nervous system has too much or too little arousal. The experience of post traumatic stress disorder is where these symptoms continue for a period over a month. At any moment there are a range of experiences happening, and only a small percentage of these will be experienced as PTSD.
The ‘window of tolerance’ is described by Siegel () as a middle ground in the nervous system between ‘too much’ (hyperarousal) and ‘too little’ (hypoarousal). Both of these are deeply intelligent responses and there is no judgement required. However, trauma takes one out of the window of tolerance, and they get triggered into a response that feels deeply uncomfortable.
The question is ‘how do you survive the kind of trauma that is sometimes described ‘social murder’?’ The answer is that ‘you don’t’ – at least you don’t survive as the person that you were. However, if you are going to survive and thrive then you are looking at minor miracles of recovery. I’m using the word ‘miracle’ advisedly, in the sense that you will need to shift paradigm at some level. You are not going to manage to jog along in the same way that you were going before. The experience of being mobbed is nothing less than a ‘cosmic slap in the face’ and it is a wake up call of the first order. I’m not going to say that this is a good thing, but there are many many people who have gone through this experience who say that good things can come out of it. At the very least, the experience of mobbing is to help the workaholic recognise that ‘life is what happens when you are not at work’.
Trauma sensitive practice
Those who work in a trauma sensitive manner will engage with the 4 Rs (Treleaven, 2018). They will realise that trauma is possible; they recognise it when it appears; they respond ; and they avoid re-traumatising.
People who are traumatised find strategies to keep themselves safe. These are not always sustainable or healthy for the individual in the long term, but any therapist needs to respect and trust that the person has a deep knowledge about what they need and to start from where they are.
Post traumatic growth
Much of the rest of this post is going to focus on post traumatic growth. This is not the only recovery approach – but it’s a starting point. Most people are not looking to grow when they identify that they have been mobbed. They are looking for ways to handle the misery as best they can. However, it’s necessary to start somewhere and ‘post traumatic growth’ at least recognises that mobbing is a trauma.
There’s nothing inevitable about ‘post traumatic growth’. It is important to realise that it is not the stress itself that causes the growth. Rather, it is the way that the individual struggles with the new reality that is critical in determining whether growth will happen. In the end, growth coexists often with continuing personal distress.
The idea that suffering and distress can lead to positive change is not new. Most religions teach about the the transformative power of suffering. The origins of Buddhism lie in the attempts of prince Siddhartha Gautama to come to terms with human suffering; Christianity regards the suffering Jesus as a central event that speaks to the suffering of the ordinary person. There have also been major pioneers who have addressed the possibility of growth from an encounter with loss including Frankl (1963) and Maslow (1954) among others. However, there has been a more systematic approach in recent years, starting with literature on resilience and now on post traumatic growth (PTG) particularly in the domains of personal strength, new possibilities, relating to others, appreciation of life and spiritual change. The term was first coined by Tedeschi and Calhoun (1995). The same authors estimated that between 30 – 90% of people dealing with major difficulties report at least some element of growth (Calhoun and Tedeschi, 2006). This means that the experience is not universal and it is not clear to what extent this growth occurs following a workplace mobbing experience.
Abraham Maslow (1954) developed the hierarchy of needs. These are physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem and self-actualisation. They can also be described simply as D-needs and B-needs. The D-needs are the deficiency needs for safety, nourishment, love, belonging, self-esteem and the lack of these can lead to neurosis and other forms of psychological and physical pain. The B-needs are the Being-needs, which are the need to engage in meaningful helpful work and service, to promote justice, creatively express oneself and to find spiritual fulfilment.
The mobbing process tends to push the target into prioritising D-needs. These are described below as: living with the pain, emotional regulation or leaving for survival. The B-needs include narrative, spiritual work and trauma-sensitive mindfulness.
Living with pain
The specific context of the mobbing trauma is that it continues to unfold over time. The trauma emerges over days, weeks, months and sometimes year. The target will be ostracised and suffer accusations in non predictable moments. In some ways this is like flashbacks, but it is actually an ongoing traumatisation experience. A more useful analogy might be with the experience of living with pain. Ostracism triggers the same kind of neural response as physical pain.
One way of managing is to take the temperature of the emotional pain. There is a privacy to pain that makes it particularly difficult to get into context, so asking the person to say where the pain is between 1-10 can be one way of helping them to get their bearings.
This focus on functional capacity is one of the fundamental lessons about living with chronic pain. However, there is usually a journey to try to stop the pain first – and it is only when one learns that the pain is chronic that it become possible to settle into learning how to live with it.
The target will experience enormous swings of emotion, some of which will overwhelm them on a regular basis. The task towards recovery at this point is to find ways of breaking the circuit of the nervous system response. This is repeatedly activated and escalates the anxiety and depression responses over and over again.
Many targets are very conscientious people, which is one of the perplexing parts of the injustice of mobbing. However, the target can possibly take some comfort from the fact that there seems to be an association between conscientiousness and a capacity to self-regulate internal experiences. Conscientiousness is also associated with good problem solving and cognitive restructuring. What the target may need to learn is that they can still do the things that are valuable to them if they do not obsess about the pain that is flooding their consciousness.
There are a variety of ways of breaking the anxiety circuit and it is worth experimenting to find the ones that will work for this time and space. Sensory experiences can be grounding. Think of all of the senses, and then the particular ways that they can provide comfort. One person may reach for a ukulele, another for a paintbrush, or another head into the kitchen to do some baking, or to the bath. What the individual is looking for are grounding experiences. Animals can be among the kindest ways of doing this – walking a dog is a way to get moving in the morning, no matter how depressed you are; greeting and feeding the cats can be a way of remembering that it is possible to be kind.
Traditional forms of meditation may be impossible, because the system is so flooded with thoughts. However, it may be possible to focus on the breath or to use passage meditation. The latter is a method developed by Eknath Easwaran and it involves learning off a passage by heart, preferably a seminal and spiritual passage. The person then says this passage very very slowly, and if they lose their focus they start the passage again.
Once mobbing starts, the simplest and usual advice is to get out of the situation as soon as possible. Create as little fuss as possible, keep your eyes down and make an exit before the mobbing behaviour gets any worse. Because it will. It’s worth repeating: for those who have a choice, and even for those who don’t feel that they have a choice, the best and safest option is to leave and start the process of healing.
Unfortunately, this advice goes against all our instincts to fight for justice. It is also easier said than done, particularly in times of difficult employment. The psychology and culture of the target means that there is generally a long process before they recognise the need to leave. Some people will choose to stay, no matter what gets thrown at them and this requires a whole other level of support.
Regardless of whether you stay or go, naming what happened and correctly placing the source of misery outside oneself is the first step toward recovery. You need to gradually start the process of re-claiming your own story. You are not the first person that this has happened to and you won’t be the last. Some truly great people have had the experience of being mobbed – think of Jesus! This is not new behaviour, and part of growing up is recognising that it happens, that it could happen to you – and that you are bigger than this.
A major piece of work is therefore to create a narrative that encorporates the trauma of the mobbing and allows for the possibility of a new life in the aftermath. By working on the narrative the person comes to appreciate that there are various perspectives from which the mobbing can be interpreted and understood. This narrative has to be continuous with the pre-mobbing life in order to be complete. It needs to show how things relate to each other and how it provides a sense of self. This has been called ‘autobiographical reasoning’ (Habermas and Bluck, 2000). However, it is useful to remember that there will be phases of talking through the injury of mobbing. For example, at the beginning the target is unlikely to talk about their experience to anyone, even those they are most intimate with. This is the time of denial and deep shame. Following this they are likely to talk about the experience obsessively to almost anyone who is willing to listen to them. This time can be very wearing on the listener, but if the target is lucky they will have a social network with the patience to hear them out.
It is only after these phases that the individual is likely to be ready to craft a narrative. This is a very important piece of work, because the individual still has to face the world. They have to be able to tell people, lightly, about what has happened to them. They need to be able to tell this story in a way that does not re-traumatise them. The story needs to be crafted carefully, and it needs to be practiced with different audiences. The story told to HR will be different to the one told to the vice chancellor. However, even more importantly are the ways that the person finds how to tell the story to the friends who are a slight remove from the experience. These are the people who have had nothing to do with the humiliation and who have the capacity to help the individual to see that this is just one experience in a long life. These are the people who will be ready to cheer if you are successfully able to be brave, but who will cringe with you if you are not able to pull it together. You do not want to lose these friends, so it may be necessary to wait a while to tell them your story.
The other audience for this new narrative are potential employers. One of the most devastating parts of mobbing and the spoiling of identity is how this can impact on future employment. There is always something suspicious about not being able to provide a solid reference from a previous employer and it is one of the ways that the mobbing can perpetuate itself. For this reason, many targets must find their way to creating a whole new approach to their work life. In many cases this will require to be self employment – or employment at a considerably lower level with the concomitant loss of career continuity. However, if you are going to face interview panels for the same kind of job as before, then the narrative is particularly important.
There are a series of steps in beginning narrative work. For example, it can be useful to put together a simple timeline of the good and bad things that have happened in life. From this timeline, it becomes possible to point out particular patterns and threads. The victim/target can potentially move into a new ways of looking at who they are – they can remember that they are not targets/victims, but heroes of their own story. They can start to think about what their values are and who and what they want to be remembered for.
There are difficulties with developing a narrative. The person who manages to catch glimpses of the potential for recovery is likely to be pulled back by narratives that discount that possibility. If recovery means the abandonment of a career, it will be difficult for them to comprehend that there could be alternative value systems, which do not automatically prioritise academia. After all, someone who has achieved highly as an academic will have sacrificed enormously to get where they are. They will continually be pulled back to a narrative that describes what has happened as a tragedy. It can feel impossible to allow that there is more to life, or that they could allow this.
Sharing narratives with people who have had a similar experience can be very helpful. One of the most useful things that anyone can be offered in starting out on a long and painful journey are stories of people who have made it safely to the other side. This is similar to people who experienced domestic violence or cancer, where those who have had a direct contact with someone who had experienced post traumatic growth were more likely to report greater levels of growth than those who did not know such a person (Cobb, Tedeschi, Calhoun and Cann, 2006 in Calhoun 2012).
Finally, the person who has been mobbed has an enormous amount to offer others. Traditionally, one of the ways of demonstrating that one has been able to move on from a trauma or difficulty is the emergence of a new capacity to help others. Of course, this may come with some strings – there are potential dangers of becoming re-traumatised by the stories of others. This is less likely to happen to the person who has worked through their particular experience thoroughly. There is an enormous satisfaction in being able to offer this kind of help. The simple knowledge that this is one person who was exposed to mobbing and has not been destroyed by it is enormously valuable.
Trauma sensitive mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness can either be helpful or unhelpful for people with trauma. It is helpful to remember when facing someone with trauma that these tools can be a double edged sword. Mindfulness is the ability to know what is happening when it’s happening. It is a kind of dual awareness. Mindfulness can bring you into the present, and developing this ‘present moment’ muscle is helpful when trauma is continually responding to the past.
However, for those who have experienced trauma – sometimes the trauma gets re-activated by a focus on the breath only. Sometimes it’s useful to advise someone to continue with usual mindfulness practices, and other times it is necessary to move into trauma-sensitive practice. One knows that it is time when there is a level of discomfort in emotional regulation for the therapist/teacher and they need to with deep care hand this person over to a one to one situation. Alternatively, the client can begin to feel real discomfort and this needs to be an honest process.
At this point it is useful to provide other anchors and these suggestions come from David Treleaven (2018). For example, one can bring the focus to different areas of the body (the buttocks or the feet), or to the sounds one is hearing. It is also possible to use the hands to regulate the breath, gradually opening and closing the hands like billows in time with the breath. It is also useful to touch the body in a way that provides another kind of anchor. One can lay a hand on the heart and another on the stomach area, doing this with a feeling of love and care; alternatively one hold the back of the skull with one hand and placing the other on the forehead, and holding the intention of protecting the deepest part of the brain; and finally, hugging oneself at the biceps or with one hand under the armpit and one on the biceps.
There is nothing quite like being chosen as a victim to help one to understand that life is completely random. The questions and justifications are likely to come thick and fast. Why has this happened to me? Has it happened for a reason? The only reason will be the one that the victim makes for themselves. This is a situation that is completely unsupported by society and culture, and it is one where the question of meaning must start from scratch. There is a deep aloneness in this experience, which is in some ways like the aloneness of losing someone very dear. What one has lost is the connection with self and with a precious professional life.
It is difficult for anyone to predict the particular course that a spiritual journey will take – There should not be an automatic assumption that people will find a spiritual direction. It is worth asking whether the spiritual path is taking the individual towards or away from some form of wellbeing. One hint or hallmark of potential wellbeing is if a spiritual narrative is roughly leading towards some kind of common good, where the good of the individual is mixed with the good of all. It is important to be observant about whether the spiritual beliefs are being used as a way of internalising the pressure from the mob – for example, with beliefs that are about ‘deserving it’ in some way. Finally, a spiritual path that will lead to wellbeing may avoid the extremes of fanatacism or hostile rejection of the previous belief system.
The kind of person who might be able to guide through this kind of experience might take what is described here as a pragmatic spiritual constructivist approach. This is based on the assumption that there is no one reality, but it would be best to work within the parameters of the world view of the person who has been mobbed.
There are many spiritual practices that may help with this kind of trauma. The ones that I can personally recommend include ‘passage meditation’ (Eknath Easwaran), where the individual chooses a meaningful verse and goes through this very slowly. This can be an alternative form of trauma-informed mindfulness practice (see above), with the added benefit of the meaning that starts to leak out of the words and into the soul; another path might be to use the ‘Course in Miracles’, which lays out a daily practice of gradual diffusion into reality.
Calhoun, L. G., Cann, A., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2010). The Posttraumatic Growth Model: Sociocultural Considerations. In Posttraumatic Growth and Culturally Competent Practice: Lessons Learned from Around the Globe. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118270028.ch1
Treleaven, D (2018), Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing