The Woman Who Went to Work to Heal

I’m sure I’ve told the story before but it bears repeating.

Years ago, I was invited to speak at a national company conference and it was stunningly different from other conferences I’d attended. Instead of sit-down meals where attendees were served, food was available all the time — you just had to get it for yourself. There was no big binder with all the session hand-outs. If you wanted hand-outs you were advised to speak directly to the presenters who may or may not have them. Instead of a packed agenda where people were supposed to learn the gospels of the experts, there were long breaks after every major speaker so that people had a chance to discuss and critique what they’d heard. In addition to break-out sessions where teams discussed their recent innovations, there were ongoing “open space” groups forming constantly in the foyer of the conference hall, based on the interests of participants. Everywhere I turned, there was an emphasis on innovation and participants being responsible for their own experience rather than being passively “fed.” The energy was totally different: everyone was enjoying, engaging, exchanging — experiencing a positive sense of community they had created for themselves. The place was radiant with noise, laughter, animated conversation, people scribbling on flip charts, sharing ideas and tossing out possibilities.


I was so excited about the structure of the conference and the emphasis on participant autonomy, choice and exchange that I sought out the organizer, a staff professional who had been with the company for many years. I asked her, “How on earth did you think up these differences in conference design?” — for, in fact, they were all her ideas. I was stunned by what she told me about herself.

“A few years ago,” she said, “I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I was living with a sociopathic husband. I got up, silently packed and got out of the house through a window. I never went back to that house. After I left, I went to work to heal.”

And it was exactly this healing process, of which designing and leading conferences was a small part, that had changed her own life and affected the lives of those her work touched throughout the company.

These days we tend to think of workplaces as the source of work problems and stresses from which we must heal, not the other way around. In the last two posts, here and here, I’ve explored the negative impacts of shame, personal and organizational. Today it may be hard to conceive of workplaces where people do find a way to overcome personal fear or shame through the experience of trust, love, and community. Yet, the conference organizer is a memorable example of exactly that.

Perhaps it is altogether too far out even to suggest that organizations have a role in the healing of people. But a good leader (maybe a great one) would:

Follow and be proud of his or her own unique path, staying away from useless comparisons with others

Encourage and help others find their unique paths, too.

Listen selflessly and reflectively to others

Listen intuitively to him/herself

Turn to others when in need (including emotional need) rather than seeking isolation

Look for others who might be feeling isolated and bring them into community

Repair, learn from and let go of personal mistakes

Let others repair, learn from and let go of their personal mistakes

Open up to personal fears, insecurities and all the places where shame might show up

Bring people together to build together a common vision for the business and marshal their energies to create it together

Use systems, such as recruitment and selection and promotion as a way to include and affirm as many good people as possible

Make opportunities for open discussion, team development and individual growth in lieu of formal appraisals

Make sure that compensation is not a black box for people or a tool for favoritism to individuals or groups, but is understandable and equitable

Offer positive, grateful feedback to others, and also invite feedback, too

I realize it is more fashionable to focus on individual accountabilities, as if people don’t have an intrinsic desire for that, as if that’s the workplace’s biggest, oldest problem. We have to be tough, right? But look what the conference organizer did and how she did it. She honored people by giving them choices and opportunities, by actively trusting them to learn rather than requiring them to learn via some process of passive control, phoney privilege and force feeding. She gave them their own chance and choice to heal, if only in a little way.

It seems to me much of the current system, with its internal competitions and isolating silos is a factory for anxiety, pressure, shame and dependency more than for anything like innovation and human empowerment.

If you can’t see this, it’s no wonder and no one is to blame. Collectively you could say the design of our organizations and traditional leadership thinking include an unintended sociopathic impulse, and when you are in bed with a sociopath, it can take quite a lot to wake up, pack up, open the window and just get out.


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  • Arabella wrote:

    Gosh, Dan. You certainly have a way of stirring up the best from those of us who have the good fortune of being aware of your work and your writing. There is so much “meat” here. Thank you for this potent reminder that work isn’t the “necessary evil” that I, for one, often view it as.

  • Dear Arabella~

    Thank you so much for these kind words. I love your idea of converting a “necessary evil” into something better, enlivening and hopeful!

    All the best

  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Great Post Dan,

    I have always used work & study as a shelter when I was in crisis or living in the middle of crisis.

    But I love to work! Is it because of what it can offer me? I don’t know. What I know that I want to be remembered the day I die that I have done something in my life, I made a difference to someone’s life.

    Let me finish with this beautiful quote of a co-patriot:
    “Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.” K. Gibran


  • Dan, this is truly another remarkable post. So much to reflect on here….

    I’m only going to pick one item from your list today:

    ‘Turn to others when in need (including emotional need) rather than seeking isolation’

    This is a big one for not only myself but many people. This is what is also linked to shame and what I touched on in the early part of my codependency post.

    I wrote:

    Much of this is due to living in a chronic, shame-based culture where many families don’t have the tools and skills necessary to genuinely connect and acknowledge legitimate needs. Validate them. Let alone meet them for one another in healthy ways. As a result, we become disconnected from our true selves and legitimate needs. This turns into a vicious shame-based identity and destructive cycle where people experience feelings of shame for having needs and learn how to shame others for having needs in return.

    If/when we have been chronically shamed for having legitimate needs…any legitimate needs at all, this is what tends to shut us down from reaching out to others when we are in true need.

    Earlier in the year I also did a series of tweets that mentioned friends who had shared that someone they knew had committed suicide in the past year. In both cases, they were perceived to be ‘happy’ people (a facade), were active members of their community and church. Yet one day, decided they couldn’t take the pressure and ended their lives.

    And this is yet ANOTHER reason I am not a fan of positive pop psychology or ANY type of teaching that suggests that people have to HIDE the truth of what they are feeling inside in order to prevent other people from having to experience ‘discomfort’.

    Obviously, when people have been shamed for having ANY legitimate needs and are conditioned and taught to hide those needs and put on the fake happy face, the TRUTH of those needs don’t magically disappear. The burden takes its toll on people. And then when someone ends their lives, we wonder why we never saw it coming. We never knew.

    We don’t give people permission to be real in this society and culture. And when people aren’t allowed to be real and be honest about their legitimate needs/feelings, it builds up and leads to destruction. Either towards self and/or against others.

    We need to lift the burden of shame from having legitimate needs. We need to quit shaming people for feeling anything less then ‘happy’.

    Mandates to ‘just be happy’ are for WHO? The BENEFIT of the one being told to just be happy and change your attitude? Or is for the benefit of the one telling/dictating that other people need to just be happy? So they don’t have to feel any discomfort over someone elses needs and hardships?

    Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. Denying legitimate needs doesn’t make any of those needs disappear.

    Thanks for writing another great post that inspires me to give voice to at least one point from your list. : )


  • Dear Hoda~

    Yes, that’s a very beautiful quotation from Gibran. Work itself can be a healing force, especially when other parts of a person’s life are in crisis — as you well know. What I so value about the story of the woman in this post is that she used her healing process to give others and herself what she and they needed — a voice, engagement, autonomy, a chance to build real community. How wonderful it is when the very things we need to heal are also the things the organization needs to create its own best future.

    As always, thanks very much Hoda, for your lovely comment and the quotation!

    All the best

  • Dear Samantha~

    The dynamic of people having to put on a happy face (or a strong face, or a submissive face, or any face at all other than their own) is one that reaches deep inside contemporary culture. Feeling forced to look a certain way is a form of robbery — one we can all too easily participate and collude in.

    Samantha, you have seen through that dynamic so thoroughly that you are now a teacher. How easy it is to slip away from our own needs in favor of something else…to look good and pretend success, to not bother others, to maintain a self-image. These turn out to be hollow reasons for every form of self-denial. A person can feel so murdered in this way that he or she literally turns to self-murder as the only way out. That’s the extreme — but in so many little ways the dynamic also occurs with us hardly noticing until the frog is boiled. There’s literal death, but for most it probably is more like a a series of little soul-deaths, and an unconscious alienation from oneself.

    I honor the fabulous work you have done to free yourself and to heal, and with the lessons well in hand, how you now share your liberating wisdom with such a strong voice and open heart.

    Many best wishes


  • Yes! Dan, you said:

    ‘…but in so many little ways the dynamic also occurs with us hardly noticing until the frog is boiled.’

    This reminds me of a post Jesse Lyn Stoner wrote a year or so ago. I commented on it when I touched on situations where I had either entered into organizations where people were already being boiled and situations where I wound up being the frog who was slowly heated to the point of boiling. (and had to get out or completely lose myself)

    Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of that post! : )

    Your use of the terms ‘self-murder’ and the series of little soul-deaths are in no way an exaggeration. That’s exactly what is happening in our culture.

    And for anyone reading this who might be ‘worried’ that I”m advocating dwelling in a mental state of misery. That is not what is being said at all.

    It is the chronic denial of legitimate needs and lack of honesty and the safety to be honest about our needs/feelings that LEADS to the misery.

    Yes, our ‘attitude’ can help us when dealing with great pain and hardship if we can cling to REAL hope that we can turn things around in some way. Yet masking genuine need with a fake happy face where there is no hope or action of ever getting a legitimate need met is the path of destruction.

    A baby cries when it is hungry or has a soiled diaper or needs to feel the warmth and affection of it’s mother/father. When the need is met, the baby stops crying.

    As adults, we are no longer helpless babies, however, we still have legitimate needs. Some of these needs we learn to meet for ourselves as healthy adults. MANY of our needs are met NOT in isolation but in communion with others via interdependent relationships. (vs codependent)

    In marriage, if one or both partners aren’t allowed or have been chronically conditioned to deny one’s own legitimate needs/feelings (more then likely carried IN to the relationship from childhood), the mask to ‘feign’ happiness is worn at the expense of honesty and addressing the meeting of legitimate needs. Words become more and more distant from actions. The rift widens. What remains is only a semblance of a ‘union’ where more often then not, the only ties that bind are debt, children, and fearing what other people might think if the truth ever gets out one or both are miserable.

    It happens in a similar manner in the workplace. Where there is a lack of honesty between leadership and lay people, the only ties that bind revolve around debts. That winds up the only reason people would STAY in environments where they are miserable.

    It is actually to EVERYONE’s benefit (both leaders and lay people alike) to validate and honor legitimate human needs/feelings. In both our personal lives AND our professional lives.

    Note on the latter: I’m not suggesting that providing excellent customer service means the provider is unprofessional in their manner/conduct with a customer. Yet, perhaps the idea of a means to ‘debrief’ when having to deal with a difficult customer might be the answer with their team/leader, etc.

    Anyway, MUCH can be covered on this topic. Thanks again for another opportunity to help us peel another layer that might help lead us to a deeper truth and understanding of these things.


  • Samantha~

    Thanks for this. It’s so true that it is to everyone’s benefit to “validate and honor legitimate human needs/feelings.” For too many, what those “legitimate” needs and feelings are have become obscured by the economic pressures of the times and other cultural rewards for self-betrayal. I love the emphasis in your comment on finding the true bonds rather than the ones created from debt.

    We all have a lot of work to do…


  • You present two intriguing ideas here Dan.

    #1 People go to work to heal and #2can workplaces enhance that in some way.

    I have met many people over the years who did this and it reminded me of an old saying: When you’re hurting, get busy for yourself and others. The mind is an awesome thing and when it shifts into service mode, it seems to actually replace the hurt w/ possibilities previously unknown.

    I wonder how many leaders think of tapping this potential and guiding it by choosing many of the behaviors you noted?

    Very very interesting post. I will share it with others.

    Best to you,

  • Dear Kate~

    Thank you — I think you’ve clarified perfectly. And I think there is also a third point that is intended but more implied than explicit. In this case, I think the very process of healing for an individual also deeply contributed to the quality of the organization in which she was working. Her healing was its “healing,” too.

    Of course, some of this had to do with her role. But I’d argue that the innovative redesign of the conference — for higher levels of individual responsibility for learning and a more open, collaborative, out-of-the-box, “think for yourself” environment — was both what she needed to heal personally and what the corporation needed to foster its own success. Could it be that this magical synergy holds a clue to rethinking leadership and management in our organizations today?

    Clearly, the woman in my story connected these dots — else why tell me the story? While she never disclosed this to me explicitly, what I believe she had freed herself from was very controlling and dominating domestic situation where she might have been highly co-dependent. Is there a parallel in her conference redesign with how to end the co-dependent relationships spawned by traditional organizations and leadership patterns?

    I think it is provocative to consider that by creating an organization where it is easier for people to heal from their past co-dependencies and emotional violence, we also create a much more innovative and empowering organization overall, for everyone — an organization with a culture that’s like the conference design: grown up and more emotionally mature.

    Lots to think about here!

    Thank you again for stopping by, Kate. It’s always a pleasure to find your comments here.

    All the best

  • Dear Dan

    Another stunning post of some beautiful souls.

    So much to take to heart.

    To work, is to fulfill our mission.
    To heal, is to actualize our soul.


  • Dear Lolly~

    There might be many posts on work and healing. I love the idea of exploring the myriad connections and stories — each story unique in a way but maybe also leaving clues to the kind of workplace that strengthens our own hearts as we work together to strengthen the heart of our organizations.

    Your words go to the core!

    Thank you, Lolly, Much, much gratitude to you.

    All the best

  • Thank you, Dan, and all who have responded, for the deep wisdom and insight you have shared here.
    This discussion of healing and the workplace brings to mind the words of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership.
    According to Greenleaf the ultimate test of a servant leader is this question,

    “Do others become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous more likely themselves to become servants?”

    One of the key servant leader characteristics he described is the leader’s ability to empathize with people in their brokenness.

    “Many otherwise able people are disqualified to lead because they cannot work with and through the half-people who are all there are. The secret of institution building is to be able to weld a team of such people by lifting them up to grow taller than they would otherwise be. People grow taller when those who lead them empathize and when they are accepted for what they are.”

    In this then leaders can be healers.

    “Servant-leaders are healers in the sense of making whole by helping others to a larger and nobler vision and purpose than they would be likely to attain for themselves.”

    The greatest impediment to wholeness and healing that I see in the workplace is the false notion that leadership and management are synonymous. For both managers and non-managers this greatly weakens their ability to live out who they are. People want to matter, they want to care, they want to make a difference, but all the tangled misconceptions around leadership constrict their capacity to be the people of significance that they are meant to be.
    The woman in your beautiful story found healing in her work because she was free to lead. She was able to find acceptance for all of who she is and live out the best of it in service to others, giving them the freedom to themselves become leaders and find healing.

  • Dear Daniel~

    It is so wonderful to find your words here!

    The quotations you bring from Greenleaf’s work are totally on target, articulating a revolutionary consciousness.

    I say “revolutionary,” and yet Greenleaf’s work has been with us well over two decades. What makes these lessons so difficult?

    In part I believe it is our failure, not just to implement the required leadership mindset, but also define the intended nature, structure, and culture of our organizations. This isn’t a set of philosophies or principles so much as a series of raw examples and risky experiments; above all, action — as real as the conference described in this post. We must do this, I believe, so that our vision has a meaningful track record, so that we know, really know that it supports the truth that people come to work, at least in part, to recover from the damage done to them. If we understand that measure and accept it the whole nature of the workplace can change, as in the story I told in this post.

    Our job is to overcome the fear — the fear that creating truly human organizations will somehow threaten the current status quo — they won’t. They will, instead, truly overturn the status quo — in very positive ways. And if that is so, then it is also a revolution in our concept of business itself and the role business plays in the world.

    My point is that if you fully roll out the implications of Greenleaf’s work, you get something very, very different from what people are experiencing today and it will take an august form of leadership — in which we all participate — to help get us there. I hear in your comment that emphasis on freedom and I would say it must be an informed and deeply sensitive freedom, an emotional freedom, if we are going to arrive at the intended destination.

    We, all of us interested in leadership, play a role, I believe. We use our own healing to promote healing and to articulate what our future organizations and communities could be. We create a vision and feel it in our hearts and share it openly and gracefully. We embody what kind of “corporation” we could be.

    You are such a super-star of this awareness, Daniel. It’s an honor to be a tablet for your thoughts and heart-felt perspective.

    All the best

  • Fantastic post, Dan. This woman was able to reach out to heal by honoring individuals and empowering them to make the right choices for them… instead of controlling and dictating the experience.

    Also strikes me that when we dictate and control the experience, if people don’t walk away with what we intended them to get, we’re disappointed. When we create the space for people to step up, engage and be accountable for their own learning and connection… they own the experience and are responsible for their own feelings and results.

    Loved it! Hope I get to be a part of a conference like this one in the future!

  • Dear Alli~

    Yes, you are absolutely right, and I love your point about “if people don’t walk away with what we intended them to get, we’re disappointed.” It’s a fantasy, an illusion and it’s our loss, nobody else’s. It’s time to stop trying to own others’ experiences, and learn how to encourage and support others’ autonomy and maturity instead.

    I hope we ALL get that same conference together!

    All the best, Alli, and thank you so much for commenting!


  • A wonderful post Dan. Hope in this world is maintained because of good souls like this lady.

    Many people heal through work and the enthusiasm that many people show and involve themselves is sadly not recognized by many people who manage teams within organizations.

    God bless this lady. Thank you for sharing your experience and introducing her through your writing.


  • Dear Lalita~

    Thank you so much for writing. Part of what I am learning from responses to this post is how invisible healing through work may be and the opportunity and hope lost as a result.

    I totally agree — “Hope in this world is maintained because of good souls” like the conference organizer.

    So often, we just don’t know what might be going on behind the scenes with people and we make all kinds of assumptions. The story she shared was not what I expected at all — it blew me away and even after many years I’m still processing!

    All the best, Lalita, and thank you again for stopping by.


  • A very moving story, Dan, and one that I’ve happily shared with my networks. When human beings are willing to take radical action — as this woman was/is — real change and healing can take place.

    Thanks for being part of the change and the humanness.

  • Dear Stan~

    Likewise, much appreciation to you, Stan. Always great to find another kindred spirit.

    All the best!

  • […] The Woman Who Went To Work To Heal by Dan Oestreich […]

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