Dignity: A most important ingredient for healing and practice

I speak not for myself but for those without voice… those who have fought for their rights… their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated.

~Malala Yousafzai

My objective for this blog is to offer both clinicians and consumers some practical information, especially as it relates to helping young people struggling with behavioral health problems. This is the blog of a child and adolescent psychiatrist after all. But more and more I am hearing both from my colleagues and patients that they are very interested in a deeper purpose and meaning of our clinical work together. What comes up more and more is the question of where the spiritual or the more deeply meaningful enters into our practice and clinical relationships.

So today I want to consider one concept I have found meaningful for healing and practice, which is the idea of dignity. A simple definition of dignity is the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. My question in response to this definition is, who is not worthy of dignity? Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai says it clearly in the quote above. So many individuals, especially young people, go through life without voice or without being treated with dignity. Yet, those who work in the area of conflict resolution know that it is very hard to heal relationships if the parties involved cannot honor each other’s basic human dignity. Those of us who work with trauma know that one’s core sense of dignity and integrity is harmed by violence, abuse and neglect. The Christian baptismal vows in fact call us to uphold and protect the dignity of all people. Can we think of any major violence, discrimination or social injury which does not have harm to human dignity as a central part of the problem? The Black Lives Matter movement is about justice but it is also about upholding human dignity. The movement for civil rights for sexual minorities is an issue of justice and dignity. And when dignity is upheld and we witness it, these are often the most moving moments in our lives. When we see dignity reclaimed in the consultation room this too is moving and transformative. So my five pointers for upholding the dignity of another in the consultation room (even and especially with young people):

  1. Listen to and hold each story for the sacred reality it is, with compassion. Being truly listened to and truly seen is central to our dignity.
  2. Believe in the wisdom for healing that each person possesses. As clinicians we can offer a lot of good advice and expertise, but we do not by any stretch of the imagination hold all the answers available in the room. Sometimes we do not think a teenager or child to be wise…but think again.
  3. Perceive the whole person, not just the broken and hurt, but the complete person who does not need you to change them but needs you to honor what they strive to be. Sometimes that means listening to their songs, or worries, or ideas, or even noting their acting out. But listen to it, be deeply aware of it.
  4. Walk (even run) with them. One of the interventions I respect a lot is one where counselors run with adolescents and children and they train for a 5 K race, or even a half marathon. This is a community-based intervention, but it speaks to the power of doing, being and achieving together so as to offer an opportunity for growing into one’s full potential, and being heard and witnessed on the way. (SOLE TRAIN HERE)
  5. Respect, honor and create a space where your own humility makes space for the dignity of others. If as clinicians we can let go of our own rigid expectations and actually open up to the unexpected and the possibility, be open completely to outcome…then we are upholding the dignity of those who sit before us.

It brings up yet another quote, this one from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” Let us undertake that labor with painstaking excellence.

Some of my picks this week for resources and examples of practicing and upholding dignity:

Sole Train

Boston Runs Together is a free, non-competitive, long distance running program based at Boston Public Schools and Department of Youth Services. In Sole Train, teens from Boston neighborhoods, many of whom have never run before, train for and complete a half marathon or 5-mile race.  In the process, they find their place in a supportive community that celebrates them and helps them discover just how far they can go.


Creating safe space for GLBTQ Youth: A Toolkit


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