To even begin answering this question, we must first ask, “What is dignity, anyway?”
Dignity is one of those words that is thrown around quite a bit but very few actually know what it means. To be honest, I didn’t know before I started to explore it more. Furthermore, as I launch my newest project — DignityU — and engaged in this conversation, I am sensing that many others have the same confusion about dignity.
So, let me try and clear this up a bit…
Very simply stated, dignity is our birthright to always feel valued and worthy. We are born with the right to always have the experience that we matter, are appreciated, and have something to contribute to others and to the world. A violation of dignity is when we don’t feel this about ourselves based on what someone else has done or said. Any time someone makes us feel less than, not valued, not appreciated, not enough, or that we don’t matter, this is a violation of our own dignity.
Starting to make sense more? Let’s dig a little deeper with the help of Dr. Donna Hicks of Harvard University and expert consultant to DignityU…
“Dignity is an internal state of peace that comes with the recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of all living things…Dignity is a human phenomenon. Our desire for it is our highest common denominator. We all want it, seek it, and respond in the same way when others violate it. No one wants to be harmed, and we have powerful self-preservation reactions to violations. These reactions come at a great cost, however: our need for self-preservation comes at the expense of human connection. We end up alienated from one another, going about our business as if relationships did not matter. But they do matter. Our desire for connection is deep in our genes. We are living in a false state of alienation. The quality of our lives and our relationships could be vastly improved if we learned how to master the art and science of maintaining and honoring dignity.”
I came across this statement while immersing myself in the book, “Dignity” by Dr. Hicks While I started reading this book as part of my research, I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would impact my life the way it has. This only solidifies my resolve that this is the right project at the right time.
Twelve years ago, I launched RESPONSE ABILITY — a powerful exploration into the concept of bystander empowerment. While bystander intervention looks at our willingness, or unwillingness, to act in the face of a problem situation that others are perpetrating, we now turn the spotlight on those times when we, ourselves, may do or say something that violates the dignity of others.
Whereas certain behaviors like bullying, hazing, shaming, and sexual abuse intentionally violate the dignity of others, Dr. Hicks goes on to say, “We do not deliberately hurt each other just for the fun of it. We are often unaware of the ways we routinely and subtly violate each other’s dignity. At the same time, we are not fully aware of the power we have to make people feel good by recognizing their worth. This lack of awareness comes from not being educated about dignity. Once we become aware, we can learn how to manage our emotional reactions, which often end up hurting others, and how to communicate that we value others. Although dignity is part of our human inheritance, knowing how to nurture it is not. The actions and reactions of dignity need to be learned!”
To be clear, this is not an allegation that you are not honoring dignity. You may or may not be. Most likely, there are times you do and there are times you don’t. This is an opportunity for us all to take stock in our own actions and our own words to determine if we are leaving people with the experience that they are valued and worthy. It is time that we all take responsibility — not blame or fault — for the role we play in bringing dignity to our relationships, whether it be with family members, friends, co-workers, peers, or total strangers.
This takes us back to our original question, “Why dignity?” Why explore this phenomenon as a means to higher confidence and self-esteem, as well as stronger and more meaningful relationships? Why study this subject as a means to eradicate some of our biggest problems like violence, abuse, and harassment? According to Dr. Hicks, “What seems to be of the utmost importance to humans is how we feel about who we are. We long to look good in the eyes of others, to feel good about ourselves, to be worthy of others’ care and attention. We share a longing for dignity — the feeling of inherent value and worth. When we feel worthy, our value is recognized, we are content. When a mutual sense of worth is recognized and honored in our relationships, we are connected. A mutual sense of worth also provides the safety necessary for both parties to extend themselves, making continued growth and development possible.”
- If I were to say I conducted myself with dignity, what would my behavior look like?
- If I wanted to treat someone with dignity, what would I do?
- What does it look like when I violate someone’s dignity or compromise my own?