6 Techniques For Coping With Moral Injury
Imagine this scenario – your immediate supervisor takes full credit for one of your colleagues’ contributions in a crucial meeting. As a result, your co-worker misses out on a promotion you know they need. You know you should speak up for your friend. But doing so in a working environment full of toxicity, backstabbing, and secrecy could backfire, costing you a job you need or making your daily existence miserable.
You need your job to keep food on the table. What do you do? Welcome to the world of moral injury. What is it and how do you deal with it?
SEE ALSO: Judging Is Holding You Back From True Health
What is moral injury?
A moral injury typically occurs in high-stakes, life-or-death situations like the battlefield or an emergency room. Decisions that seem right and justified at the time – for example, taking an opposing soldier’s life – can haunt you once the immediate danger passes and you evaluate your choices. However, moral injury can also occur in other workplaces, setting off toxic shame that destroys productivity and even your desire to report to the office. For example, witnessing ongoing unfairness and harassment kills your impression that the world is a just and safe place and marks your employer as a force for destructiveness and abuse, not mutual success and support.
Moral injury can occur any time you feel compelled to act contrary to your deeply held belief systems. Unless you can find a way to integrate your actions with your schema, you’ll experience guilt – which can evolve into shame, anxiety, and depression. For example, a cashier concerned with global warming might struggle to put customer purchases in plastic bags, even though keeping their job depends on doing so. This type of trauma results in greater brain activity in the inferior parietal lobule and the precuneus, which are areas of the brain involved in processing guilt and moral cognition.
Unfortunately, people often cope with moral injury in maladaptive ways, such as self-medicating with alcohol or drugs or rationalizing bad behavior. For example, a soldier deployed in a war zone may start to see all people with a particular ethnic heritage as bad and automatically treat them like the enemy. While such mistrust might have once kept them alive, it can translate into justifying racist attacks.
Tips for coping with moral injury
Moral injury shares much in common with PTSD. You might not have felt an immediate risk to your life, but your body responded the same to workplace conflicts that potentially threaten your livelihood. The ongoing stress response you experience when exposed to a daily environment that violates your deeply held belief system could result in worse physical outcomes than a single decision, though every trauma is unique.
What can you do to cope with a moral injury if you are unable to completely eliminate the offending situation? The following six techniques can help.
Talk to someone
Dealing with moral injury requires integrating your judgment about your behavior with your vision of who you are as a person and your greater worldview. Talking your feelings out with an impartial third party is often the best way to make the pieces fit. Choose your confidant with care. You want someone who will listen without judgment and suggest alternative ways of looking at the same event. Ask them for their time, setting a date when you both feel relatively unstressed and unrushed.
Identify your emotions
A moral injury can make you feel bad without recognizing why. Check-in with yourself and identify your emotions. For example, if you’re concerned about climate change, you might feel disgust if you have to use unsustainable products or methods at work. You might also fear for the future. Identifying your emotions can help keep guilt from manifesting as toxic shame. It’s one thing to recognize “I did this and I feel bad about it.” It’s quite another to snap at others or engage in the blame game to mask your perceived inadequacies.
What if you’re the unfortunate cashier whose boss insists, “Plastic costs far less than paper. I don’t care whether it biodegrades.”? In that case, can you intentionally put your emotions to the side long enough to do your job? For example, you could focus on customer satisfaction instead of devoting eight hours of energy to wishing people would simply bring reusable bags. The trick to this approach is to make sure it feels intentional and serves a greater good, such as the overwhelming need to pay your rent. If you can’t justify your actions, use that energy to propel you toward another job more aligned with your values.
Practice dialectical thinking
What is dialectical thinking? It recognizes there is always more than one way to look at the same issue.
For example, perhaps you’re a vegan chef. However, your customers want beef and you can’t dissuade them. Can you focus on the health benefits of their meal instead of the environmental or animal impact? If you can, you’re golden. If not, it might be time to dust off your resume.
Mindfulness is key to managing moral injury. You can reflect on what made you choose the behavior you did. Would you do the same thing again if you had a second chance? If so, carry that knowledge with you and congratulate yourself on learning from the experience instead of chastising yourself. Ask yourself how your ideal self would behave in the exact circumstances you were in. This process includes mindfully evaluating all the external and internal factors that compelled you to make the choices you did. You might discover that you acted more in line with your deeply held beliefs than you think.
For example, the fictional Jean Valjean would probably still steal that loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child, even if doing so landed him with a lengthy jail sentence.
Surround yourself with support
A moral injury is a blow to your self-esteem. Your confidence in your ability to do the right thing can take a hit. When your mind is full of negative messages, surround yourself with people who can counteract them. Now’s the time to listen to your best friend rave about how wonderful you are. Spend time with those who pat you on the back and remind you of your great qualities.
Moral injury occurs when you feel compelled to act contrary to your deeply held beliefs. It can make you question everything in your world and how to tell right from wrong. Follow the steps above to identify when you’ve experienced a moral injury. Then, use the six suggested tips to deal with the internal conflict.
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