Counting the Stars – The Impact of Moral Harassment – Sitting with anger and transforming it into insight and wise action
“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love” Carl Sagan
“I at least dream of a humanity that will have as its first goal the conquest of knowledge, a united humanity that will travel to the stars” Pavlos Kastanas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pbkWZMeUts
“Recently, a draft law was submitted according to which hazing is considered illegal and any act that humiliates or abases the individual in the school and social-educational environment will be punished. If we do not want our human relations to be completely regulated by laws, we must intervene preventively / proactively in children’s contexts” Marie-France Hirigoyen
“Step back from red zone reactions and observe them, like stepping out of a movie and moving twenty rows back in the theater to watch it.” Rick Hanson
This post is a continuation of the previous two, and it also reflects some of the things I have been engaging with in recent weeks. So, in today’s post I will refer to Dr Marie-France Hirigoyen’s book again, Ethical Harassment: Perverse Violence in Everyday Life, a beautiful cultural event that I attended, which concerned astrophysics and music created by Pavlos Kastanas and Yiannis Roussos. I will also give a link to Dr Rick Hanson’s new newsletter on anger and how we can “sit with it” and turn it into wise action and insight. Finally, I will share a slice of a painting I am working on this month.
Α. Ιn a previous post (August the 6th) I made a brief reference to Dr Marie-France Hirigoyen’s book, which covers a range of topics related to psychological violence and manipulation and the red flags that could warn someone about destructive communication dynamics in a variety of contexts. In that post I focused on this type of perverse communication. In this second part today my focus is on some of the severe consequences of this type of relating and communicating. Hirigoyen discusses the various ways moral harassment can impact the person who has been victimized – often over a long period of time. She talks about the consequences during the influence phase and the long term consequences. The different stages of the influence period are: resignation, confusion, doubt, anxiety, fear and isolation. Long term consequences include shock, dysregulation, separation or resignation from work, for instance, depending on whether it is a personal relationship or a work / educational situation, and finally, empowerment and growth.
Before I carry on I’d like to briefly say that like Hirigoyen I use the term victim to highlight the factual reality of injustice or abuse of some kind having taken place, but I do not imply that the victim identity comprises the totality of a person or that an identity is permanent and fixed and not open to change and expansion. The field of victimology might be important because events can be anticipated and potential victims can become aware of and alert to their own unhelpful attitudes, limiting beliefs, vulnerabilities and gifts, red flags, unsafe situations and potential perpetrators. In the workplace knowledge and awareness helps the individual resist and reduce the possibility of being accused or further undermined. One definition of victimology suggests that it is among other things concerned with the integration of individuals that have experienced victimization. Hirigoyen also notes that ultimately anyone could be victimized. She writes: “According to Rene Girard, in primitive societies rivalries between individuals of the same group created situations of undifferentiated violence that spread through imitation and culminated in the extermination of one person or group of people. The death of the scapegoat caused the heroization of the victim. Nowadays the victims are no longer heroized, but if they are not considered innocent they must definitely be considered weak…. Here, on the contrary, we will see that the victims are usually selected because of a characteristic that they have and that the perpetrator seeks to appropriate….” Even if someone is not “scapegoated” to death, when a member of any group begins to change and become more empowered and more of themselves this threatens the homeostasis of the group / s they belong to, whether familial or societal. When someone decides to not read from the old scripts anymore this calls for change in the roles of those around them, which then leads to pushback with many detrimental short and long term consequences.
In the introduction of the chapter on the impact of moral harassment Hirigoyen writes: “As in a Hitchcock film, but also in Derveny Mamet’s Spanish Prisoner (1997), the plot is always the same: the victim is not aware of being manipulated, and only understands it when the violence is obvious and third parties intervene. The relationship begins with charm and seduction and ends with frightening psychopathological behavior. However, perpetrators leave traces that are interpreted in retrospect, when the victim has somewhat escaped the influence and has realized the manipulation. Hirigoyen writes: “As it has been proven, in the first phase the victim is paralyzed. Extermination comes in the next stage.”
Initially, the exercise of influence causes a) confusion in the victims who often complain that their mind is empty, that they find it difficult to think, that they feel a decrease in their abilities, and a mutilation of every spontaneous part of themselves. Hirigoyen writes that: “In this psychic battle the victim “empties” completely and gives up their identity…”. Confusion causes anxiety and immobilization. In the part describing b) doubt, Hirigoyen writes that “this is an inconceivable process. Victims and potential witnesses cannot believe what is unfolding before their eyes because this kind of violence and analgesia is unthinkable for any normal person and difficult to perceive. There is a tendency to attribute to the perpetrator feelings (guilt, sadness, remorse) which are unknown to him / her. The victim is stunned, does not understand anything and denies the reality… “. It is important to emphasize that the acceptance of the extent of submission by the victim is difficult and causes intense stress.
In the part of the book where reference is made to the c) stress experienced by the victim, Hirigoyen writes: with stress the body reacts, is put on alert, produces hormones, the immune system is taxed and the neurotransmitters of the brain are changed”. We know that when stress is not chronic and the person succeeds to deal with it, the body returns to a certain level of balance. But when a condition is prolonged or repeated at regular intervals, it exceeds our ability to adapt and so the constant changes in the nervous system and the prolonged production of certain hormones in high percentages have chronic effects on the physiology and psychology of the individual. Chronic stress can take many forms and affect a person’s health and life in a multiple ways. In the stage of d) fear the person is in a constant state of alertness as if walking on eggshells. The perpetrator avoids stress, fear or pain by loading / projecting them on the other, and victims have no way to escape until they understand the process and the dynamics. Finally, e) isolation intensifies all of the above. In addition, the victim does not talk to anyone about what is happening, so no help comes. Hirigoyen writes: “This underground extermination cannot be described in words…. Violence is obvious only to the victim. How can those around them imagine what is happening….?
Secondly, the detrimental long-term effects include shock and disbelief as the victim becomes aware of what has happened. Everything seems to be falling apart. Hirigoyen writes: “It is a sense of savage transgression, astonishment, overwhelm, collapse, which the victims describe as a physical assault…”. The person also realizes their pathological perhaps compromise and tolerance that were a fertile ground for the manipulation of others. Hirigoyen reminds us that human abilities are not inexhaustible and the victim will often be led to mental fragmentation and exhaustion, disorientation, dysregulation, health deterioration, post traumatic stress, intense loss weight or court procedures and other tangible losses. Also, during this phase the person might end up in psychiatric care or show suicidal tendencies, especially when they realize the extent and depth of the victimization, that there will not be any restoration and they will probably not find justice. The perpetrator at this stage will often push people to their limits, preferably in a public space.
At this point I will interrupt the narration because the next stages, of separation or leaving the workplace, healing and empowerment are part of the solution, treatment and support, and that is another big conversation and maybe the topic of a future post.
Β. In the previous post I included a quote by astrophysicist Pavlos Kastanas both because it was relevant to the bit about our planet and the universe and our human capacity for destruction, but also, because last week I attended an original cultural event with the title Children of the Stars. It took place out in the open under the trees and a bright lit night sky. Astrophysicist, teacher, speaker, Pavlos Kastanas or Astronio, as he is known, talked about astrophysics, the galaxies, the universe, the Big Bang, and other interesting things, in such a delightful way that could potentially engage even those least keen on science, while his friend musician, Yiannis Roussos, sang songs from the Greek repertoire that referred to planets and galaxies, many of which were poems of well known poets (there has been a long tradition of setting music to poetry in Greece).
Pavlos Kastanas also has a channel on the internet to spread scientific knowledge and news. He believes in the necessity of the democratization of knowledge and is concerned with the fact that we have created an elite of knowledge, which stays in the universities, while the rest of the world who does not understand much or knows what is happening, nonetheless influences the developments on the planet. In one interview he mentions that bridging the gap between scientists and the general public is the main goal of his effort. He says: “Astrophysics has revealed a fascinating universe and has radically changed the way we perceive our place in it. But this knowledge does not reach society and I consider this a huge problem. It is as if there are “humanities of different speeds”. That is, on the one hand, you have people trying to understand what is happening inside a black hole and through what natural processes the universe emerged, and on the other hand, you have people who do not know what the stars they see in the night sky are. This frightens me, it shows that we are divided as a humanity in a very fundamental part of our existence.” (ΚΑΘΗΜΕΡΙΝΗ – 4/3/2019).
C. Finally, I will end by sharing a link (https://www.rickhanson.net/beware-of-anger/) to Dr Rick Hanson’s weekly newsletter, Just One Thing, in which he explores both the importance of feeling and exploring our anger, and also, the negative effects of anger on our physiology, behaviour and relationships. As we know anger can motivate us to act, to set boundaries, to become aware of injustice or abuse, and to alert us to underlying feelings like helplessness, fear and grief, but we need to sit with our anger for a while and pause before we act in order to avoid getting hijacked by our anger or other intense emotions, so that we may act wisely and effectively, both in our private lives and in larger contexts.
As Rick Hanson says: “Anger is a particularly powerful trickster when it plays out inside and between groups. You can see this at all scales, from cliques in high school to office gossip to politics to war. A group will often form around shared grievances, and then defend and proclaim those grievances no matter what the facts are to maintain its cohesion and identity. Whether on the schoolyard in 5th grade or in nations throughout history, authoritarian leaders have exploited our social primate vulnerability to the appeal of grievance in order to acquire and hold on to power, inflating and even inventing grievances while promising to protect the group and avenge it against those who have wronged it. It is no small thing to find your own way inside such a group with such a leader. Or to find a way to relate to those in such groups with moral clarity and strength of heart – without being clouded or infected by anger yourself…… In my meditative tradition, I’ve heard it said that anger is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned. In relationships, families, organizations, countries, and the world altogether, there has been so much burning already in our shared human history. Too much burning. Too many minds burned up with anger.”