31 August 2008

Antidotes to Groupthink: Travelin' Light - And What To Do When You Can't.

I'm travelin' light
Because my man has gone
And from now on
I'm travellin' light
He said goodbye
And took my heart away
So from today
I'm travellin' light

No one to see
I'm free as the breeze
No one but me
And my memories
Some lucky night
He may come back again
But until then
I'm travelin' light
Billie Holiday
Ms. Holiday might, these days, be less inclined to hope for that man's return, and more inclined to hope that a good life, with or without a good man, might be waiting for her just a little ways down the road. Cycles of abuse were not recognized as such - all too often, they were regarded as the stuff of intense romance - when she was writing and performing. For many people even today, that's still all too true.

But it is also true that "giving hostages to fortune" is one aspect of life that makes it difficult, if not impossible at times, to break away from abusive or otherwise toxic environments and relationships. I've discussed this in an earlier post at some length; I want to return to it here because it is an important factor in the ability to break away from groupthink.

Kipling wrote that "he travels the fastest who travels alone." And it's true. But it's also cruelly hard. We are social animals, and we are family animals. Beyond that hard-wired fact of life, our social, occupational, political and spiritual groupings also tend to be openly suspicious of, if not frankly hostile towards, those who travel alone [with one exception: 'eligible' bachelors or spinsters arriving in venues where they're scarce]. "Loner" is a pejorative, although, as Anneli Rufus eloquently proves, it is often undeservedly so.

This bit of social truth - that humans tend not to travel alone, and that those who don't often ostracise or otherwise penalize those who do - means that there is almost always an added layer of complication for anyone trying to escape a groupthink situation.

Obviously, if the situation in question is peripheral - such as a support group that is visited only by one member of a family, and not heavily invested in by that person - having emotional commitments to others won't be as much of an issue as it is when the situation is much more central - such as an entire family being deeply committed to a cultic church. The person who leaves the house every Wednesday to visit a healing circle probably won't be too torn or confused if she finds that venue to be toxic and groupthink-driven after a few weeks or months; with luck, she'll be exploring her concerns with a supportive family member or with friends, and won't hesitate to break away once she's sure she's seeing clearly.

On the other hand, the person whose entire family is massively involved in a Church That Eats Their Lives, with no day in the week free of some church commitment for one or more family members, is going to have a nightmarishly difficult time breaking away unless other members of her family see, believe, and understand what she is seeing, in parallel with her.

Meg, at Brisbane Christian Fellowship, has mentioned some of the tragedies that can happen when only one member of a family finds himself or herself 'outside the groupthink'. The destructive potential is profound and should be taken very seriously.

I mention this here because it is often one of the deciding factors in whether a person is able to escape. As I said in the earlier post, "When a remorseless abuser holds your loved ones hostage, your freedom is dearly purchased if it comes at the price of their welfare, or even their lives. Few people of conscience will make such a choice. To condemn these people for choosing self-sacrifice over self-preservation at the cost of others' wellbeing is, in many ways, a greater betrayal than their primary abusers have committed." This is true whether the primary abuser is a person or an organization, an abusive cult or an exploitive workplace.

There are, however, still ways to travel light even with family or other attachments to consider.

Insofar as is possible, look for signs of groupthink / toxicity before you commit to any group or organization; avoid or delay committing, if possible, when you have doubts about its integrity or 'health'. If you must commit despite having doubts, try to remain peripheral; even if a large enmeshed, dysfunctional family is involved, it can be possible to 'move to the outskirts' in some cases. You will pay some penalty for being on the periphery, if the group is overtly enmeshing and toxic, but it will usually be less than the penalty you would pay for becoming deeply enmeshed - and then seeking to escape. [Churches That Eat Your Life, however, and Workplaces That Eat Your Life, will start testing you almost immediately to see how much of 'your' time/effort/energy they can commandeer. Any sign of healthy boundaries will be met with pressure. Be prepared to push back, and, eventually, to leave; don't be surprised if they hold the door open for you sooner than you might have expected.]

And if you've previously committed, you've recognized that the environment is toxic, and it's simply not possible to disengage [for example because the toxic organization is your employer, you're over 50, there's a recession, and you have a child in college], then it may be possible to 'move to the outskirts' by investing your greatest emotional commitment outside the organzation or group, as a conscious choice. You can then endure, for a span, while you work to move your 'hostages' to safety [get the child through school and into the workforce, build up your emergency funds, find a shelter for abused women and children that will also take your pets].

Simply finding a counselor who is familiar enough with abuse situations to be able to provide support and validation, while you endure, can be a tremendous source of strength. Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare, in their book "Workplace Abuse: How to Recognize and Survive It", provide other helpful suggestions that can be generalized to abusive situations other than work. There will again be a penalty to be paid for 'disinvesting' in an abusive environment - anything from never being allowed a solo with the choir to never being promoted [and having others promoted on the basis of your work] - and you will almost certainly find yourself 'labeled' by the group in some manner. But with external validation and internal clarity, you can recognize abusive ploys and, often, take at least some evasive action.

If this is your situation, keep your eyes on the prize; you've made a decision to endure, and endurance is not for the weak. But also keep your eyes on the goal, and work diligently to move your hostages, whoever they may be, to safety; because endurance is only 'for a span'; no human being can endure for ever. Once your hostages are safely out of reach, you should follow them to safety, as quickly as you can.


Anonymous millergrl said...

I just escaped from a workplace that you've described. I fought as long as I could to stay and rough it out; I defined myself by my job. When 'the door' opened one morning and I was left standing in the parking lot holding 2 boxes of my stuff I was lost. It's been a month and I've never felt better. I didn't realize how toxic my boss was.
Thanks for sharing

02 September, 2008 07:25  

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