A Matter of Dignity: Building Human Relationships



Donna Hicks


“Treat people as they want to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



            A Matter of Dignity reveals a hidden force within us so powerful that it can affect the way we feel about ourselves, our relationships, and the world around us. That force is our common human yearning to be seen and treated as worthy of dignity. It underlies every human interaction, at all levels, all of the time. It is the unspoken and often unconscious message that we send to one another regardless of the nature of the relationship. No one wants to be treated badly or to feel inferior. Yet, it is not uncommon to experience a violation of our dignity on a daily basis. It happens everywhere humans come in contact with one another: with our intimate partners and families, in our communities, in the business world, and in our relationships at the international level. Dignity violations abound. And what is the cost of treating each other in undignified ways? It isthe paradoxical loss of our own dignity and the deeply satisfying experience of human connection. We can no longer afford to ignore the consequence of the alienation and separation that dignity violations create. They give rise to the worst of what humans are capable of: violence, hatred, revenge and the righteous justification of the use of aggression to solve the problems that arise between us.

On the other hand, treating each other with dignity has the power to connect us in a way that brings out the best in us, creating meaningful relationships of equals and the opportunity for both personal and mutual growth and development. A Matter of Dignity makes the case that while a desire for dignity is part of our shared humanity, knowing how to extend dignity to ourselves and others is not. This article offers an empowering strategy for finding the dignity we all yearn for. By helping individuals and communities understand the power of dignity and to learn how to make it a way of life, this article will serve as a field guide to the peace we want: peace within us, peace in our relationships, and peace in the safer and more humane world we all wish for.




My awareness of the power of dignity came during the last 20 years while I have worked as an international conflict resolution professional. I could see a yearning for dignity at the core of all the conflicts I had worked on over the years—Israel/Palestine, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Cambodia, the Balkans, US/Cuba, Northern Ireland, among others. When the political issues were stripped away, and the human experience of conflict was laid bare, what remained was a common yearning for dignity—to feel free from harm and worthy of being treated well.

Everyone desires dignity. I believe that along with our survival instincts, it is the single most powerful human force motivating our behavior. In some cases, I think it is even stronger than our desire for survival. People risk their lives to protect the honor and dignity of their people all the time. You violate people’s dignity and you get an instinctive reaction—people feel humiliated and get upset and angry. You violate people’s dignity repeatedly and you’ll get a divorce or a war or a revolution.

The desire for dignity is a powerful force and the time has come to recognize it and understand it. No amount of external power, including military force, can overcome it. I will never forget a conversation I had with a member of the Tamil Tigers, a guerilla organization that is fighting the Sri Lankan government for autonomy for the minority Tamil people in the North of Sri Lanka. I asked him how he could explain the fact that while the Tigers were outnumbered by the government forces, they still managed to keep control of a strategic area in the North.

“It is easily explained, he said. The government soldiers are not fighting for the liberation of their people. For them it’s a job. For us, our dignity is on the line.”

Understanding these longstanding conflicts such as Sri Lanka becomes a tangled mess because parties that hold the power are also motivated by the desire to be treated with dignity. You may have to look into the past to see the roots of their violations, but it does not take long to find them. Most likely, they, too, were once oppressed and violated. In the case of Sri Lanka, the majority Sinhalese population were treated as second class citizens by the British during the colonial period while the minority Tamils were privileged, giving them unequal access to education, jobs and other social advantages.

Which brings me to an important point: the experience of humiliation, resentment, and anger that these dignity violations instinctively create do not go away on their own. The injuries are as serious as a gunshot wound, but no one is rushed into an emergency room when they happen. They leave a vengeful and often crippling mark on peoples’ souls and without attention paid to these injuries, they can linger on in perpetuity, dominating one’s personal and group consciousness.

We have to take dignity seriously. How we treat one another matters. And it is as true at the international level of human interaction as it is in our daily interchanges with our loved ones and colleagues. When we violated each other’s dignity, there are consequences because human beings are hardwired to react—often violently—to them.

Even though the refinement of my thinking about dignity came through my work in international conflict, it was only one of many possible routes one could take to figure out something universal about the human experience. We do not like to be harmed or treated badly, and especially do not like being humiliated by others. We’d rather drink vinegar than face public humiliation. And our desire for revenge—an instinctive reaction to a dignity violation—only creates and perpetuates a cycle of injuries that keeps conflicts alive. The problem is how do we get the cycle to stop? What do we have to do to address the dignity violations?

Using dignity as a lens for understanding conflict and the breakdown in relationships, no matter what level you wish to apply it to, requires some background knowledge. Having the insight that we all desire to be treated with dignity is not enough, but it is the starting point. Whenever I tell people that I am writing about dignity, there appears to be an instant recognition that creates a pause in the conversation. They look at me and shake their heads and say: “Yes. That is so important.”

We all have an intuitive understanding of what dignity means. That’s good because then we are all at the starting point together. But when I ask people to give me concrete examples of what dignity is, they look at me and say:

“Well, you know, it’s about wanting to feel good about yourself and wanting others to treat you with respect.”

Yes, I always say, but what exactly does it look like in our day to day interactions with people? How would you know if you were being treated with respect, or if you were treating someone else with respect?”

“Well, you know…….”

Then we usually end up laughing and I say:

“See, that is why I am writing about dignity. You know the gut feeling of what it is, but to describe what it would look like—to put dignity into practice and make it a way of life—that’s a different story.”

I have a lot of faith in human beings. That probably sounds strange coming from someone who has worked on some of the most brutal conflicts in the world, having witnessed some of the worst of what we humans are capable of. But the truth is that given a choice, given a dignified way out of these conflicts, most people want and are yearning for that option.

I remember a story that a colleague from Colombia told of a conversation he had had with an injured, young guerilla member, whose organization was fighting for political autonomy from the Colombian government. He told my friend that he was tired of fighting, that he wanted a different life. He was haunted by the number of people he had killed and did not want to do it any more. He wanted to have a family and grow to be old. He wept with my friend. He wanted a way out but did not know how to go about it.

Although the predicament this young guerilla was in is an extreme example, I think the essence of it rings true for many of us. If only we had a dignified way out of our conflicts with others. If only we knew how to save face and avoid the embarrassment of appearing “wrong” or having made a mistake.

Our self-preservation instincts, which are very strong, tell us that it is better to cover up the truth than to reveal it; we may look bad. And looking bad in the eyes of others is one of the most painful human experiences. The dreaded feeling of being publicly exposed before we are ready is as powerful a human force as any other. In this article, I’ll explore the scientific explanation for why we resist this kind of humiliation. Evolutionary biologists know a lot about these deep drives that run so much of our behaviors—survival behaviors that we inherited from our early ancestors. They also know that we are not doomed to be a slave to them. Fortunately, evolution has given us the power to find our way out of this predicament. Finding the way out requires some focused attention on our part. It does not come to us in the form of a knee-jerk response. In fact, the answer is to hold that knee-jerk response (self-preservation) in abeyance so that another part of us can take over the decision-making; so that we can make a choice about how to respond to a threatening situation.

While our self-preservation instincts are very strong—and left to their devices (rage, revenge and righteous justification of the use of violence), we also have the power within us to make different choices about how we treat ourselves and one another. We have evolved a “new brain” (neo-cortex) that enables us to transcend our instincts (the old brain) and discover the magical power of believing in our own worthiness and the worthiness of others. I have faith that if given the option to make dignity a way of life, that we will take it.

The purpose of this article is to share the Dignity Model: what I have learned through my research and personal experiences in my work with people around the world struggling to find the dignity that we all yearn for and deserve. The article is organized in the following way:

  • Section One will address why dignity matters to us: Evidence from evolutionary biology theory explains how our desire for dignity is rooted in our genes and is a part of our evolutionary legacy.
  • Section Two introduces a framework for self-understanding that helps explain why we react so strongly to a dignity violation. Making a distinction between the “I” and the “ME”, originally formulated by the philosopher, William James, this framework helps by naming two aspects of who we are, one driven by our instincts (the “ME”) and the other controlled by the part of us that is uniquely human (the “I”). The “I” is our often untapped, invaluable resource, which can be called up in the service of maintaining our dignity in the face of being treated in undignified ways by others.
  • Section Three introduces the Essential Elements of Dignity—concrete ways in which dignity can be honored or violated. These elements put a name to why we may feel bad when we walk away from an interaction with someone that did not go well. Naming and identifying ways our dignity can be honored or violated is the first step in learning how to treat oneself and others with dignity.
  • Conclusion: Leading with Dignity. These concluding remarks show why it is critical for anyone interested in leadership to learn and live by the power of dignity.




In conclusion, probably the biggest obstacle in understanding dignity is the misguided belief that it comes from outside ourselves, from the way others treat us. And by holding fast to this belief, we give others the power to determine our worthiness. It is important to understand where that belief comes from. There are two sources. First: If, as children, we were not treated with dignity by our caretakers (parent, teachers, siblings, clergy, etc.), we learn early on—before we have the capacity to know better—that we are not worthy. Children have primitive ways of making meaning and when someone treats them badly, they believe they are bad. They have yet to develop the cognitive sophistication to understand that the problem is most likely with the caretaker, not them. No child deserves to be harmed or treated badly. The legacy of early violations of their dignity lives on until they realize, as adults, the truth about their worthiness. This is not to say that we may make mistakes or do things wrong. We all do. My point is that our dignity—the core essence of our humanity—is never up for question. On the other hand, because we are an evolving species that learns from our mistakes, our behavior, is open for discussion. We need feedback from others in order to help us see what we cannot see—to illuminate our blind spots. As long as the feedback is given in a way that promotes learning we don’t usually have trouble with it. The problem is, feedback is often used as a weapon, especially in the heat of the conflict. Learning how to give feedback in a way that still honors a person’s dignity is an essential part of resolving conflict.

Secondly, our cultures are filled with distorted beliefs about the superiority of some peoples and groups over others. It is in the air we breathe, penetrating us, consciously and unconsciously, like poison gas. Until we understand the falsity of these lethal beliefs, they will continue to undermine our social relationships. We will continue to live in a state of inner turmoil, searching for the external recognition of our dignity that we will never find exclusively outside of ourselves. The time has come to reclaim our birthright and to locate dignity where it belongs: deep within each and every one of us.


SECTION ONE: Why Dignity Matters

Why is it that when we are treated in an undignified way by others that it feels so bad? I have yet to meet anyone who has never experienced the shame of feeling unworthy. The circumstances leading up to it are always different, but the feeling is the same: we all dread it. And it is not something we talk about very often, because it’s embarrassing even to admit feeling unworthy or that we have been treated in an undignified way. The truth is, the feeling of shame and unworthiness are reactions that are hardwired within us all by virtue of our shared evolutionary history and our common identity as homo sapiens. [1]

Humans have developed all kinds of strategies to mask our inner feelings of unworthiness from medicating ourselves with drugs and alcohol to self-deception, to starting wars to reclaim lost dignity. As Desmond Tutu said to me after co-facilitating 10 days of encounters between victims and perpetrators of the Northern Ireland conflict, “Aren’t human beings funny creatures. We all do the same thing—we just hate to admit we’ve done something wrong.”

We are all part of the same human family, and like all families, we have the capacity for harming as well as loving one another. Thinking of ourselves as members of the human family helps us understand that we are related by what has been passed down to us by our evolutionary history. This “evolutionary legacy” is better known as our “human nature” or the part of us that evolved over 100,000 years ago when our early ancestors roamed the savannah looking for food and a safe haven from the unrelenting threats to their existence. Because we share their genetic material—98% of it to be more or less precise—we come into the world equipped with some fairly automatic reactions to being threatened—we either fight or flee. Evolutionary biologists know a great deal about what makes us humans tick and they have known it for a long time. It will give us some insight into why dignity matters so much to us.


Evolutionary Legacy

Evolutionary biologists know that we do not come into the world a blank slate and that we have a powerful evolutionary legacy encoded in our genes, predisposing us to a wide range of behaviors. They tell us that we have a “human nature” that was inherited from our early ancestors and their quest to survive. They tell us that this human nature propels us throughout our lives. Some call these aspects of our human nature instincts, as they seem to automatically and unconsciously guide us toward what to seek and what to avoid. On one hand, these instincts get called up like 911 when there is danger and possible threat. On the other hand, they have the power to turn us into kittens when there is an opportunity to be cared for and loved.

Biologists know that one of the things that make us uniquely human is that we have a highly evolved part of our brain (called the neo-cortex) that enables us to perform sophisticated intellectual feats. They also know that we have embedded within our brains a more primitive component, commonly called the “old brain,” which we inherited as a consequence of evolution and still remains with us today. [2] This ancient part of our brain controls our emotional life and most of our instinctive reactions. When we perceive a threat, the old brain is activated, ready to protect us from predators. All of this we have inherited from our early ancestors from the Pleistocene era, 100,000 years ago. The problem is, the environment in which we live today is very different from the “survival” mode of existence that our ancestors lived in 100,000 years ago when threats were defined in life or death terms. Our ancestors’ environment was filled with danger, from wild animals swooping up their children to the day to day threats that nature’s harsh reality presented.

Because it takes so long for genes to evolve and change, the instinctive self-protective behaviors we inherited, the ones ideally suited to promote survival in a hunter-gatherer environment, are still with us today. This is true even though they are not at all suited for the complex, interdependent world we currently live in. What this means is that in the present, when we feel something is a threat to our well being, our “default” reaction—reactions that are unconsciously triggered and usually feel out of our control—are often “overkill” reactions.

Daniel Goleman, in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence, describes this experience of being captured by our default reactions as being “emotionally hijacked.”[3] The old brain is so “at the ready” to protect us during threatening situations that it feels like we have been taken over by it. This happens to us all. How many times have we told ourselves that we would not let someone get the best of us, then, when we meet up with that person, in spite of our best intentions, we get into a heated argument. This is what Goleman means when he says the old brain has the power to “hijack” our best selves—the part of us that wants to work things out rationally.

In fact, after considering the above-cited research, I have concluded that today most perceived threats to our well-being are not physical and life-endangering at all. Rather, what triggers our self-protective instincts today is more psychological in nature. They are, by and large, threats to our dignity. We have the power, with our negative judgments and demeaning criticisms to propel each others’ old brains into action.

Dignity threats call up our old brain as if our lives were on the line, even when they are not. When our old brain is activated, it does not know the difference between a physical threat (such as a tiger on our heels) and a psychological threat to our dignity. All it knows is that we have experienced an assault and it is ready for action—reactive, self- protective, defensive, maybe even violent action. One example of this today is road rage. When someone cuts in front of us on the highway, many of us find ourselves screaming obscenities at the person—a reaction that is much bigger than the situation calls for. All we are thinking (if we are thinking at all) is that the guy violated us and deserved our abusive reaction; that is the old brain in its full glory.

Key to understanding both the role dignity violations play in our lives and the premise of this article is understanding this point: While external conditions and their resulting threats have changed dramatically for us in the 21st century, our innate old brain’s reactions have not. A majority of our threats today do not come in the form of wild animals ready to attack us in search of a meal. Today’s threats come from humans inflicting psychologically hurtful dignity violations upon one another.


The effect of this legacy on our “family” relationships

What does this mean for us, all members of the same human family? It means that when push comes to shove, when we perceive that we are being offended or hurt by others—when someone violates our dignity—our instinctive, self-protective hardwiring tells us that what matters most is our individual well-being and survival, not the relationship’s survival. Our instinct for self-preservation is stronger than our instinct to preserve the relationship. In other words, when we feel somebody is hurting us by violating our dignity today, our instincts tell us to react just as intensely as we would have 100,000 years ago—either fight or flee. When our old brain instructs us to flee, we pull out of the relationship in order to protect ourselves. Most of us will recognize this feeling: Have you ever felt like just ending a relationship, or at the very least walking out the door, when you were in the middle of a heated argument with your partner? That is the “flee” survival pattern taking hold.

When our protective old brain instructs us to fight, we are pulled to denigrate the other person and seek revenge. Our instincts want us to eliminate the threat by either fighting back or withdrawing from the relationship and we have the inborn capacity to do that. We seem to intuitively know how to belittle and criticize others. Of course, intellectually we all know that in the end this only sets up a cycle of hurtful dignity violations. But try convincing the old brain of that. It does not want us to pause and reflect on what happened. It is not designed for problem-solving. When our old brain leads the charge, all it wants is to protect us from more harm. It does not care about the consequences of its actions. It only cares about eliminating the source of the injury—either by fighting or withdrawing from the relationship.

To protect ourselves, we are hardwired to either fight or flee when we perceive a threat is looming. At the same time, evolutionary biologists tell us that another part of our ancestral inheritance is the desire to be in relationship with others because being in relationship gave our ancestors survival advantages.[4] As social beings, our ancestors were dependent on one another for almost all aspects of daily existence. They hunted together, gathered together and shared in all of the overwhelming tasks of survival. They were so dependent on one another that if a member of the community was cast out for any reason, his or her life was in peril. The individual’s connection to the group was necessary for survival. And here is the link to our present-day desire to be treated with dignity: In order to stay connected to others, in order to not be kicked out of the group and into the cold, harsh environment, our early ancestors had to be seen in a favorable light by the community. The desire to be held in esteem and to be respected by others meant you’d be able to stay with the clan, and this, in turn, meant survival to our early ancestors. In our old brains, formed 100,000 years ago but still residing in us today, it continues to feel like being treated with respect and being able to survive is intricately linked.

This is why being treated with dignity is so important to us. In modern terms, this is why negative judgment feels so bad. This is why it is so difficult to receive critical feedback about our behavior without it triggering our old brain’s fight or flight response. Threats to our dignity put the old brain in charge of our reactions. We have an “instinct” to react to comments that feel damaging to who we are. So, as discussed above, this instinct often makes us want to fight or flee, both reactions that damage relationships—but at what cost?


The Dramatic Tension

Historically these old brain reactions helped to ensure our individual survival and the survival of our genetic material into the next generation. Today these same reactions have the potential to wreak havoc on our relationships. In fact, their very existence creates a profound human dilemma for us. What we need for survival (a connection to others), can also feel like the greatest source of threat to our survival (when the connection becomes hurtful). These two survival needs can live comfortably side by side when all is well in the world—when we’re getting along just fine. The problem would obviously come when we begin to threaten each other’s dignity—when the relationship threatens our sense of worthiness. Then the trouble begins.This dramatic tension between the need to be connected to others and the need to protect ourselves from the other’s possible hurtful attacks explains why relationships are so hard. Our sensitivity and vulnerability to being injured by others, and our ability to injure them—both part of our evolutionary legacy—sets us up for struggles in our relationships. Relationships break down when the need for individual self-protection overrides our need for connection. We’ll walk away from a relationship—be it political or personal—if it begins to feel threatening or does not serve our individual desire to be held in esteem and respect. From the individual perspective, individuals breakdown when their need for connection overrides their need for self-protection. How many times have we compromised our own dignity—not reacting to being violated—for the sake of maintaining a relationship?


Better to be safe than sorry

You can see how our evolutionary legacy has wreaked havoc on our relationships. The very mechanism that evolved to protect us from individual harm—our fight and flight instincts—has created so much human suffering by enabling us to justify our undignified behaviors toward others. Our self-preservation instincts predispose us to hurt one another and favors disconnection over connection. Better to be safe than sorry. Is it any wonder why intimacy feels so threatening and vulnerable—it’s a setup for being injured or re-injured.

And it is safe to say that we have all been injured in some way, given the reality that I have described above. We are at a point in our human history where the awareness of what is acceptable treatment of one another is at a fairly primitive level because our instincts justify our hurtful behaviors. Many of our parents, teachers, siblings and even religious leaders were blind to the negative impact they had on us when we were the most vulnerable—when we needed their love and attention the most. Without the awareness of how easily little children can be hurt and how fragile their sense of worthiness is, so many of us grew up with a shattered sense of dignity. The early emotional imprint of unworthiness resides deep in the recesses of our old brain, which is why the feeling of unworthiness is so hard to shake. It is like being branded. Kids don’t evolve the part of the brain that enables them to analyze and reflect on what happened to them until much later in their development. All their emotional memories get stored in the primitive brain centers.

And families are not the only source of early dignity violations. Our cultures are excellent breading grounds for toxic beliefs that some people are superior to others. Whether it is racism, classism, sexism, or any number of other harmful “isms”, their effects are the source of so much self-doubt and human suffering. It appears that we are better equipped to harm others than to love them.

So even if you grew up in the perfect family (and I am still looking for such a person), you have most likely been traumatized by dignity violations in one way or the other and have questioned your worthiness. Our common human family has suffered great injuries because we have yet to become aware of our capacity for harm that grows out of our woundedness. A dignity violation creates a wound that produces a self-protective reaction that is in turn wounding of others. That’s how the instinct works and in the strict sense, by no fault of our own. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy. The important point is, it may not be our fault, but what are we going to do about it?

We might have entered the world with strong self-protective and potentially harmful instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the process of our own defense. In fact, we often feel justified to “get even” or lash back. Awareness is not an instinct.   It requires reflection and self-knowledge. In the end, it may not be our fault that we are hardwired to hurt one another in the service of self-protection, but it is our responsibility to control it. Is it not our capacity to become aware of the consequences of our actions part of what make us uniquely human? Knowing this gives us dignity.

One thing I do not want to do in this article is to contribute to the shame that we all know so well by pointing how instinctively hurtful we can be to one another. On the contrary, I believe we have to take the shame out of that acceptance. We have all been hurt in our lives, we all know the crippling feeling of unworthiness. By virtue of being human, we have most likely inflicted pain and suffering on others. In fact, there’s liberation in the acceptance that part of being human means we have instincts that when activated, can be harmful to others. We have to keep in mind that those instincts evolved to annihilate the source of threat. When these ancient urges are triggered in us, it does not mean that we are bad. It means we are experiencing one aspect of our humanity that wants us to survive over anything else. These instincts do not invite us to examine the consequences of our actions. All they want is to eliminate the source of the threat.

There is nothing inherently shameful about protecting oneself. The problem is that the instincts are not serving us as well today as they did for our ancestors. They create overkill reactions that are not appropriate to our present threats and they trigger us to violate the dignity of others. The good news is that we can employ another part of ourselves and know that we have other resources for handling threats to our well-being. Taking responsibility for our instincts is part of the process of breaking free from the destructive aspects of our evolutionary legacy, enabling us to make conscious choices about how we want to be in the world.

The next section I will explain another critical piece of information that is helpful in understanding dignity. It provides a useful way of thinking about who we are and what motivates us to either violate or honor both our own and others’ dignity.


SECTION TWO: The Struggle for Dignity: The I and the Me [5]

Before we can really understand dignity, we need to understand something more about ourselves as human beings. Most of us spend a good part of our time looking for dignity outside of ourselves putting it into the hands of others. If we’re in public and someone embarrasses us in front of other people, we feel ashamed and bad about ourselves. If we’re at work and our boss excludes us from an important meeting, we feel bad. If we’re at home and someone in our family criticizes us, then we suffer. If someone treats us unfairly, we have an immediate reaction: our heart starts pounding and our temperatures rise. This is true for all of us, because there is a part of us that I call the “Me” that gets hurt when other people treat us badly. We feel it. We are vulnerable to the way people treat us.

            I find it useful to think of the “Me” as the part of us that makes up the part of us driven by forces of our evolutionary legacy that are often unconscious. It is the part that is enslaved by its need for external validation of our worthiness. The “Me” cannot feel good about itself or worthy of esteem unless it hears it is worthy from sources outside of itself. It is vulnerable to judgments and criticisms and reacts to these threats to one’s worthiness and self-esteem by defending and protecting itself. There is a general feeling that one is not “complete,” that there is always something more one has to do to feel good about who one is.

The “Me” is generally distrustful of others, and never lets go of the fact that they have the potential to hurt us. When situated in the “Me,” our inner world is dominated by concerns about the self—am I good enough? How do I compare to others? Am I acceptable to others? Do others see me as a good person? The development of the “Me” is dependent on our relationships and the kind of validation we get (or do not get) from them.

At the same time, when someone gives us a compliment, or acknowledges that we have done a good job at something; then we feel good. Either way, if we’re praised or if we’re criticized, we feel both. And that’s the “Me, “the part of us that looks for validation and approval from people outside of us. The “Me” is also the part of us that gets into trouble with others. It’s the part that wants to “get even” when someone hurts us—the part that wants revenge. This need for revenge gets us into trouble because by getting back at the other, we end up violating the person’s dignity, not to mention that we also violate our own. This is how the unconscious cycle of indignity works—you violate my dignity, my defenses get activated, and I end up violating yours.

But there is another part of us that is as true as the “Me”. This other part, what I call the “I”, is worthy of dignity, no matter what. It is our personal anchor that no one can take away from us.

I call this other part the “I.” It is the enduring aspect of ourselves that knows itself to be unconditionally worthy of esteem and respect. When situated in the “I” there is no such thing as a good self and a bad self—the “I” by virtue of being part of the human family—is unconditionally worthy. It does not depend on external validation of who it is and does not need acknowledgement of its right to hold oneself in esteem. The “I” just is. Some say this is the spiritual aspect of the self that is connected to everything else in the universe—it is part of the miracle of nature and human existence.

When we are firmly situated in the “I,” the world is a wonder to us. We are curious about everything—from ourselves and others to the multitude of mysteries of the world around us. We are joyful, creative, we feel complete. We thrive on loving connections and in so doing, are full of excitement about our mutual human potential. Being connected to others is our natural state. We are seekers of love, truth, wisdom and our ultimate purpose. All this makes for a rich and penetrating life that is not content skimming along the surface of existence. It is a life fueled by purpose, grace and loving connections, not only to others but to the natural world and beyond. The development of the “I” is more a question of becoming aware that it exists and accepting the truth about who we are (unconditionally worthy). And knowing this about ourselves makes it possible to see the same unconditional worthiness of others. Being fully situated in the “I” means we understand that we are all worthy of dignity as part of our birthright.          The “I” keeps us steady when someone threatens or hurts our “Me.” It’s the part of us that we can always come back to when our dignity has been violated. It’s the part of us that stops our “Me” from wanting to get even with the person who hurt us. It is stronger than the “Me”. It has the power to resist the temptation to seek revenge. It has the power to maintain our dignity no matter how badly someone treats us. It knows that we do not want to let the bad behavior of others determine how we act. It knows that we have the inner strength to not become violent.   A big part of dignity is restraint.

The “I” knows what the “Me” cannot because it has the ability to watch the “Me” in action. When the “Me” takes over our behavior, it has little capacity to reflect on itself. It is the “I” who can “know thyself.” And most of all, it knows that by extending dignity to others, it strengthens its own.

The goal is to achieve a working relationship between the “I” and the “Me.” Because we are human, we cannot expect to eliminate our need for praise and approval from others. It feels good and we all enjoy it. Nor can we expect to not feel it when someone hurts us. We need to develop a pathway between the I and Me so that when the “Me” gets injured, the” I,” with it’s loving and nurturing nature, is instantly put on alert to help sooth the wounded “Me.”

What part do you identify most with? The sad reality is that every time I present this material to participants in my dignity workshops, the vast majority of people say that they are situated in the “Me” most of the time. They realize how much of their internal world is focused on gaining acceptance of their worthiness and esteem from others. We are trapped in a set of circumstances where we are looking for validation from each other and feeling incomplete without it. We all want the kind of dignity that the “I” can give us, but instead we are looking for it from others. Why do we do this? Why does it feel so automatic to look for the validation of our worthiness outside of ourselves?

It appears to be another default reaction—something we do without thinking. And in fact, it is. Remember how I explained earlier that the need to be seen in a favorable light had survival value for our early ancestors, and how that got passed down to us like a dominant gene? It comes so naturally for us to look to the outside for approval because it is part of our evolutionary legacy. But like all the rest of our default reactions, this one’s usefulness in the present needs to be examined.

Today, in the 21st century, do we really need the approval of others in order to survive? Obviously the answer is no. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the approval of others. The problem comes when we depend on it exclusively to fulfill our dignity. But because the need for it is hardwired in our genes, it feels like a question of survival when someone treats us badly. This is when we need to be in touch with the “I” part of ourselves. We need to remind ourselves that no one can take away our worthiness and inherent value. And we can also look to others to help us with this. Rather than look to others to make us feel worthy, their role is to remind us of our worthiness; help us remember what we already know.

This knowledge about ourselves—that we possess within us both the “I” and the “Me”—helps understand why it is so easy to get into conflict with one another. Our “Me’s” collide and we are ready to protect our selves at all costs, even at the cost of our own dignity. It is a very high price to pay. If we can learn to recognize and accept the more combative, aggressive and competitive aspects of ourselves, and know that we have the power within us to control them, then we are more than half-way to living a life of dignity. Such important learning cannot be left to chance. Sadly, up to this point, we have had little to no education in how to achieve dignity and to extend it to others.

No One Taught Us How

One of the reasons why we do not know how to be in relationship with one another in a dignified way, apart from the obstacles set up by our evolutionary legacy, is that we have never been exposed to any formal education in how to be in a healthy relationship. There is no course we can take to help us with one of the most important aspects of our lives—how to get along with and treat ourselves and others with dignity. We have never learned how to handle our knee-jerk default reactions to feeling threatened by others—let alone why we have them to begin with. Given that many of us have endured significant early childhood violations to our dignity, I wonder; without assistance, mentoring, a teacher, instruction and good reading material—in short, education—how could we possibly experience relationships as potential sources of love, understanding and mutual growth?

The main point is: we need education in building dignified relationships just as we need to learn to read and write. Our own lives and the lives around us show us that. Knowing the skills that make dignified relationships work do not come naturally. What comes naturally is self-preservation. This awareness gives us permission to be a little gentler with ourselves and others, recognizing the daunting challenges we all face in our struggles to feel worthy and to live with one another in a dignified way.


What We Are Up Against

Relationships have the potential to make us feel our best and to make us feel our worst. They make us feel our best when our dignity (our sense of being worthy and seen in a favorable light) is assured. And they make us feel our worst when our dignity has been violated. Attacks on our dignity are often the reason relationships break down. There’s a simple reality at work here: when people feel their dignity has been honored, when they have been treated well, they feel good about themselves in that relationship. When people feel good about themselves in a relationship, the relationship is more likely to endure. However the shift from feeling good to feeling bad, from civility to hostility is only a dignity violation away.

The next section describes the Essential Elements of Dignity—concrete ways to honor the dignity of others.




SECTION THREE: The Essential Elements of Dignity

This section describes the Essential Elements of Dignity—concrete ways to honor the dignity of others. If we honor these essential elements when we interact with others, they are triggers to connection. If we violate these essential elements when we interact with others, they are triggers to disconnection.


Understanding the Essential Elements enables us to:

  1. Name and identify concrete ways to either honor or violate someone’s dignity.
  2. Name and identify the dignity violations we experience. This helps us to make sense of why we might feel bad after an interaction with someone. It helps us understand that the source of the bad feeling could be a dignity violation—and it helps us label the type of dignity violation we experienced.
  3. Name and identifydignity violations for which we are responsible. This helps us understand why others may feel bad after an interaction with us. It helps us see our mistreatment of others as dignity violations—and it helps us label the type of dignity violation we committed. It helps us become more aware of the consequences of our actions on others.
  4. Recognize when we are honoring the dignity of others









  • Acceptance of Identity—Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you; give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged; interact without prejudice or bias, accepting how race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. are at the core of their identities. Assume they have integrity.


  • Inclusion—Make others feel that they belong at all levels of relationship (family, community, organization, nation)


  • SafetyPut people at ease at two levels: physically, where they feel free of bodily harm; and psychologically, where they feel free of concern about being shamed or humiliated, that they feel free to speak without fear of retribution


  • Acknowledgment—Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns and what they have been through


  • Recognition—Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help; be generous with praise; show thanks and gratitude toward others for their contributions, ideas and experience


  • Fairness—Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way, according to agreed upon laws and rules


  • Benefit of the Doubt—Treat people as trustworthy; start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity


  • Understanding—Believe that what others think matters; give them the chance to explain their perspectives, express their points of view; actively listen in order to understand them


  • Independence—Encourage people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility. Use your power to empower rather than to disempower others.


  • Accountability—Take responsibility for your actions; if you have violated the dignity of another, apologize; make a commitment to change hurtful behaviors



    Learning the Essential Elements is the first step toward extending dignity to others as well as maintaining our own. Developing a conscious awareness of when we are either violating or honoring dignity in interactions with others takes time and practice. It also takes time and practice to become aware when we experience a violation of our dignity.


CONCLUSION: Leading with Dignity

Our desire for dignity resides deep within us, defining our common humanity. If our capacity for indignity is our lowest common denominator, then our yearning for dignity is our highest. And if indignity tears relationships apart, then dignity can put them back together again.

Our ignorance of all things related to dignity—how to claim our own and how to honor it in others, has contributed to many of the conflicts we see in the world today. This is as true in the boardroom and in the bedroom, as it is in politics and international relations. It is true for all human interaction. If we are to evolve as a species, there is no greater need than to learn how to treat each other and ourselves with dignity. It is the glue that could hold us all together. And it doesn’t stop there. Not only does dignity make for good human relationships, it does something perhaps far more important—it creates the conditions for our mutual growth and development. It is a distraction to have to defend oneself from indignity. It takes up our time and uses up our precious energy. The power of dignity, on the other hand, only expands with use. The more we give, the more we get.

There is no greater leadership challenge than to lead with dignity, helping us all to understand what it feels like to be honored and valued and to feel the incalculable benefits that come from experiencing it. The leadership challenge is at all levels—for those in the world of politics, business, education, religion, to everyday leadership in our personal lives. Peace will not flourish anywhere without dignity. There is no such thing as democracy without dignity, or can there be authentic peace if people are suffering indignities. Last but not least, feeling dignity’s power—both by honoring it and locating our own inner source of it—sets us up for one of humanities greatest gifts—the experience of being in relationship with others in a way that brings out the best in one another, allowing us to become more of what we are capable of being.




For more information about Dignity Workshops: dhicks@wcfia.harvard.edu











[1] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate : The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking Press, 2002.

[2] Richard Restak. The New Brain. Rodale Press, 2003.

[3] Daniel Goleman. Emotional Intelligence. Bantam Books, 1995.

[4] Gregg D. Jacobs. The Ancestral Mind. Viking Press, 2003.

[5] First articulated by philosopher William James in The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 1890.

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