There is a hidden force within us so powerful that it can affect the way we feel about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. Donna Hicks, an expert in conflict resolution advises that that force is our common human yearning to be seen and treated as worthy of dignity. While we all have a deep and abiding desire to be treated well and to be recognized as worthy, our lack of awareness and understanding of the many ways we routinely violate each other’s dignity is wreaking havoc on our lives and our relationships.
Unfortunately, these indignities have become an acceptable way of life in the workplace, marriages, families, and communities. Continued neglect of the damaging impact of everyday indignities keeps us trapped in a survival mode of being together in the world, where we are consciously or unconsciously protecting ourselves from the possibility of being harmed. A little knowledge about dignity could go a long way in helping us live more consciously, more aware of the effect we have on one another.
Dignity plays a significant role in societal conflicts. When the political issues are stripped away, and the human experience of conflict is laid bare, what remains is a common yearning for dignity–to be treated as if it mattered. Human beings have powerful emotional reactions to having their dignity violated. Our emotional responses to the way people treat us are hardwired within us and define our shared humanity.
When we’re treated badly, we get angry, feel humiliated, want to get even, maybe seek revenge; often without being aware of how much these primal reactions are driving our behaviour.
We also have a knee-jerk reaction to withdraw from those who do us harm, even if we physically remain together. Fearing another assault is reason enough to shut down healthy lines of communication and trust. But often people feel that they cannot afford to leave a relationship because they are dependent on it; this happens all the time in the workplace, in marriages and in families. Even though the relationship doesn’t end, there is a cost: openness is replaced by resentment, and it loses one of the most satisfying aspects of the human experience–the freedom to be together without fear of being harmed or humiliated.
The injuries we endure by being treated badly are psychological, not physical. Unlike a physical assault, where bones are broken or blood appears, there are no visible signs of a wound. It is an internal matter, where the harm is felt on the inside. But what exactly gets injured? It’s our dignity. We feel the injuries at the core of our being. They are a threat to the very essence of who we are. What is worse is that people get away with it. And these injuries usually go unattended.
Recent research in neuroscience has shown that a psychological injury stimulates the same part of the brain as a physical wound. There is nothing imaginary about the painful effects of assaults to our dignity. They linger inside, often stockpiling, one on top of the other, until one day, we can’t take it anymore and we erupt into a rage or a depression, or we quit our job, get a divorce, or foment a revolution.
What is at stake is no small matter; it is our capacity to evolve and flourish together as human beings. If we continue to ignore the truth and consequences of these violations, we will remain in an arrested state of emotional development, enslaved by the most primitive aspect of who we are as human beings.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that we are capable of overcoming this critical human challenge to our development.
Dignity is a human phenomenon. Recent findings in neuroscience tell us that we are biologically predisposed to connect to one another. It is a false state of alienation we are living in. The quality of our lives and relationships could be vastly improved if we learned how to master the art and science of maintaining and honouring dignity.