Following up on yesterday’s post, Dog Eat Dog World, I’ve been pondering how that kind of “winners and losers” mentality affects me.
We all define “winners” in a different way. The common thread is the belief that losers ought to be punished for being losers, and that part of being a winner is making sure that the proper punishment is meted out to them.
When do I mete out punishment because I want to be a winner? Who do I think the winners are.
Let me explain. Whenever there is someone who knows a little bit, or even a moderate amount, who presents himself as knowing an enormous amount, I’m irritated. I would say most of us are, but I see others around me who seem to enjoy this kind of behavior. So I’ll hold off on speculation.
It could just be me.
But I cannot stand when average and slightly above average people think they are towering geniuses. And I want to take them down a peg. I want to prove them wrong. I want to embarrass and humiliate them. Just a little. But still.
They get right up my nose.
And I want to punish them for breaking my rules.
Oh. My rules. Not the rules of the universe. Not God’s rules. Not the rules everyone else under the sun has agreed on. Mine. Which means I’m really the only one obliged to follow them. Mine.
Mine is a powerful word.
In this case, mine means I can’t force anyone else to use my rule, just as I can’t force my neighbors to come over to my place and use my toilet. I can offer it, say, in case something has happened to theirs. Or maybe I just maintain mine nicely. A pleasant Glade scent in there (yes), Egyptian cotton towels (yes), sparkling fixtures (not really). Maybe mine is just very, very nice, and they would prefer to. But I can’t make them.
I can’t make pompous twits stop being pompous twits either.
I can avoid them. I can maintain my distance. Just as I can choose to use only my own toilet. But I can’t make them stop being the person they prefer to be. And I don’t have the right to punish them for it either.
A personality disorder is a mental illness that affects how one thinks, feels, and behaves. We notice behavior most often, and sometimes the out of control feelings. We don’t pay that much attention to the thinking. It’s on the inside, invisible to us, but just as important.
Borderlines are known for their black-and-white thinking and their emotional reasoning, I don’t really know how the thinking of narcissists is distorted, but I do think I know what might be some of their entrenched beliefs.
They believe they are entitled to an unreasonable degree of attention, service, consideration, admiration, and reward. That’s fairly obvious. Why else does everything seem to piss them off? They aren’t getting their due. If they have to wait in line for what feels too long to them, if another driver cuts them off on the freeway, if the food at a restaurant is cold or oversalted or just not to their liking, they have been deprived of their due.
That’s fairly obvious.
I think there may be some other beliefs common to narcissists that inform their behavior. It’s important because, if you’ve spent a lot of time around narcissists, you may share those beliefs. And they aren’t beliefs that will make you happy.
Narcissists believe in a dog-eat-dog world. A world in which there are winners and losers, successes and failures, superior and inferior people. And the goal is always to remain in the first group.
They also have a harsh punishment schema: members of the second group must be punished harshly for their failures and imperfections. That is part of the requirement for being in the winners’ circle. You must punish the losers.
If you grew up with that, you probably spend a lot of time punishing yourself. Punishment is what winners dish out. Doesn’t everyone want to be a winner?
Not that kind of “winner,” actually, but it’s not your fault. It’s just how you were brought up to think.
Let’s say you go out of your way at work over something or other. Something that gets results. Something important enough it gets your hard-driving boss to notice.
You boss might respond in one of two ways:
She might say, “You really worked hard and got some good results. I’ve done this nice thing for you (whatever it is), because you have earned it. I’m proud of your work and I hope you are too. This is a really outstanding accomplishment.”
Or he might say, “You really worked hard and I know the kind of sacrifices you made to do it. I know you would probably have rather spent the time with your kids, but you chose to be here. I’ve done this nice thing (whatever it is), I want you to know how much I appreciate it. Your dedication makes it so much easier for me to do my job well, and it’s an inspiring example for the rest of the staff.”
Does one speak more to you than the other?
The first one falls a bit flat. First of all, my boss isn’t my mom (or dad) and I don’t really give a damn if she’s proud of me. Telling me I’ve earned a reward makes me feel manipulated and controlled. And usually the reward I’m being offered for a job well done isn’t something I want so much anyway.
I have a stack of gift cards for restaurants whose food I don’t particularly like and shops that, well, I can’t stand shopping much of anywhere. I haven’t quite gotten the message out that if you want to put a smile on my face give me coffee, chocolate, or books. Those are safe. Anything else is a bit of a crap shoot. I definitely don’t need a gift card to a steak place. I don’t eat steak. But that is the kind of thing people do.
You’ve earned it. Here is something you don’t want and that means nothing to you. Here is a hollow gesture.
But the second one made me tear up a little just writing. To think that what I have done has value to someone as something other than a commodity. That has meaning to me.
In graduate school, we talked quite a lot about motivation and how to motivate employees. Recognizing people in ways that have meaning for them came up. When I went on to become a teacher, we debated the limitations of rewards and incentives–because they can make children feel manipulated and controlled, just as they do me.
But we didn’t talk about appreciation as a natural motivator.
Having had my labor exploited for most of my childhood, the idea of earning rewards doesn’t mean something. I was handed money in exchange for my labor and then handed it on to my father/pimp. At a deep level, I don’t understand earning anything. What I earned was never mine in the first place, but it also symbolized enslavement to me.
And so, sometimes, when one part of me would like to do something and another part would rather not, motivating myself gets tricky. I’ve tried rewarding myself. Sometimes it works. But the parts who would rather not are often young parts. They are distrustful of authority–including the authority of more mature parts–and resent the sense of being manipulated and controlled that comes with rewards. Which means I feel manipulated, controlled, and resentful as well.
I wonder about appreciation. Appreciation is the opposite of exploitation. Sincerely felt, it implies you had other choices. You had a right to make those choices. And you didn’t. And for that someone is grateful. It implicitly states that the one offering appreciation is not in control. You are.
I am. I have a lot of boring, unpleasant things I’d like to do today. There are other parts who’d rather watch TV and play with the cat. Maybe I’ll try appreciating that they’re willing to give that up so that I can get some papers organized, I can have a sense of safety and order that things are where they should be, and a sense of accomplishment that I have done something that I can see the results of later.
I remember reading the expression, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” I remember it because I liked it so much. Not that I’m in favor of skinning cats. I’m really not in favor of skinning anything if you can help it. In fact, the whole idea of skinning anything is pretty disgusting. I suggest you try not to think about it at all.
Which of course means you now have an image of skinning a cat you will never be able to out of your head. Ever. Sorry about that.
Try not thinking about a white bear instead.
Still, I love idea of there being more than one way of doing things. It is the reason I enjoy math, and the redeeming factor in history. Mathematics shows us that we can all arrive at the same answer but get there in different ways. History teaches us that there is no such thing as “the way it’s always been done.”
I’ve been rereading some work on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, one of which is Uncertainty Avoidance. We all find uncertainty anxiety-provoking, but typically people from some cultures have learned to tolerate higher levels of uncertainty than others. We also use a variety of different strategies to cope with uncertainty, from managing our internal emotional states to creating rules and procedures for minimizing the unexpected.
The United States, UK, India, Ireland and, Australia–the countries from which most of my readers hale–are all low in uncertainty avoidance. But I suspect my own background as the child of a cult means I grew up in a micro-culture radically different from the mainstream.
Countries exhibiting high uncertainty avoidance maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. In these cultures there is an emotional need for rules (even if the rules never seem to work) time is money, people have an inner urge to be busy and work hard, precision and punctuality are the norm, innovation may be resisted, security is an important element in individual motivation.
Having a lot of rules is a way of avoiding uncertainty and ambiguity. You feel you know what to expect in most situations, even if things actually go differently as planned most of the time. That isn’t important. What is important is the way that thinking you know reduces anxiety.
In fact, creating and maintaining structure, routine, and order are strategies for making the world seem safer again following a traumatic experience.
Here are some more.
1) Information-seeking: reading up on the subject, asking a lot of questions, observing similar situations ahead of time, seeking advice from perceived experts.
2) Being proactive: Attempting to solve problems before they get occur or escalate can make the future seem more within your control.
3) Planning: Trying to arrange the future according to what you would prefer can make you feel you control it. Sometimes it even works.
4) Express emotions: Social support offsets anxieties.
5) Take direct steps to reduce anxiety: meditate, practice yoga, engage in calming hobbies.
6) Exposure: We are often untroubled by what seems “normal.” When uncertainty is an expected part of life, it troubles us less and we feel less anxious.
7) All of the above. Some of us need every technique we can think up to get a handle on the anxiety uncertainty is causing us. Eiither our lives are so uncertain or we are so anxious that it feels like all we can do to keep from screaming and rolling around on the floor. The more upsetting the trauma work I anticipate needing to do, the more strategies I try to use. Because trauma work is uncertain. I don’t know what feelings will come up, what I will remember, or who I will see myself as being after I’ve worked through some of it. I don’t know how long the difficult feelings will last or how intense they will be. And, above all, trauma work forces me to focus on the most uncertain moments I have ever had in my life: moments I didn’t know whether I would even live or die.
I like films. I like television. I like commercials. I like ads. I even like very stupid ones.
I like them only sometimes as entertainment. Mostly I like them because of what they say about both their makers and their viewers. They speak not of who we are, but of who we would prefer to be. They are our fantasies, our free association and our dreams.
I loved Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, for example. I love that ridiculous scene where the little Hindu girl wanders into some back room, gets out a prayer mat and the Koran and begins to pray. Because, you know, God is God. Faith is faith. And we are really all one.
(The scene begins at 5:25.)
That is not who Indians really are, as their periodic bouts of communal rioting and massacres attest, but it is who they would like to be. Or at least who they wanted to be in 1998.
It’s a lovely sentiment, really. It’s too bad about that gap between fantasy and reality.
Sometimes our media reveals our less flattering ideas as well.
This ad, for Fair and Handsome, has been making the rounds of my Facebook friends.
Evidently, men as well as women need to be “fair and lovely” these days.
There’s been a great deal of outcry against the ad and the pressure it communicates to have light skin. I don’t blame Emani for this though. I don’t think we need to be signing petitions to get the ad pulled.
I think we need to be talking to the people we know that are the reason this kind of ad makes sense to us in the first place: ordinary people who subtly communicate that it is better to be white, and if you can’t be white, you can at least be light-skinned. Media does have the power to convince us to hold beliefs we really don’t have. But mostly it doesn’t. Mostly it appeals to beliefs we already hold. And so it is us, and not the media, that is usually the source of the problem. The message is easier to create and communicates more powerfully if it starts with something that is already there and already motivating for us.
We should know that, but it’s easier to blame the media for these things.
And I know the examples I used are from outside my own cultural background. They might be outside of yours. I don’t tend to watch a lot of American media, because I am an American. I think I have it mostly worked out what that means. So it’s not very interesting to me anymore.
Sometimes it calls me back. This did.
I think it says two things about the makers and intended viewers of this particular piece of media. The first of these comes out of the suspicion that Reza Aslan has attempted to conceal his faith. (The second will need to wait for another post.)
Now, I don’t know an enormous about his work or his biography. but I do know his name–as does the interviewer and the writers at Fox News. Reza is a male given name of either Spanish or Arabic origins meaning either contentment or “he prays.” And Aslan is a Jewish, Turkish, or Iranian surname meaning “lion.” So, given that, if had to make a guess about what his ancestral faith was likely to be, I’d go with Muslim. I might be wrong, but that would be my guess. (In fact, Dr. Aslan was, at one point, an evangelical Christian.)
It just seems to me if your very name provides significant clues about your origins, you aren’t really concealing anything. You just figure people are either not interested or smart enough to make it out on their own.
Instead, the assumption that he’s concealing something suggests to me a bias familiar from portrayals of a whole variety of conquered peoples by Western colonial powers. They are sneaky. They hide things. They try not to work. They steal and they lie. This is not a stereotype about any one particular group of the conquered, but about nearly all of them: Mission Indians in California, kidnapped Africans forced into slavery in the New World, the “inscrutable” Chinese, and those sneaky Hindus.
There are so many examples of this that I’m not even sure where to suggest you look to see what I mean. They are in all manner of sources, from A Passage to India to contemporary paranoia about Barack Obama’s ring.
I think our biases against others say as much about us as anything else, just as our fantasies do. Bias and prejudice are, of course, wrong and reprehensible, but that isn’t my point today. I’m not in a ranting mood. I’m in an analytic mood.
What the assumption that others are sneaky says about the people who believe it–who are, in fact, as likely to be sneaky as anyone else–is that they value honesty, transparency, and straightforwardness. They may not be honest, transparent, or straightforward anymore than contemporary Indian society is accepting of their own diversity, but they wish they were.
Because you don’t criticize someone else for something you don’t see as a fault. You don’t criticize someone’s dark skin if you don’t value light skin. You don’t criticize someone for being sneaky if you don’t value being aboveboard.
I wish we could spend a little less time living in the realm of who we would like to be and deal a little more realistically with who we are, because maybe then we’d get somewhere. Maybe we would begin to see our own faults instead of the faults we can only see in someone else. And maybe we’d be able to get around to fixing them.
The third lie that has suddenly reared its ugly head at me and hissed like an Egyptian cobra is the idea that we all care too much about what everyone else thinks.
Now, a lot of people might care a little too much about the judgment about others. But I don’t.
I have been through a lot. A lot of tremendously horrific things have been done to me and the end result of all of that is that, unless you are someone I really care about or respect (or I actually need something from), I don’t give a damn what you think of me. Quite frankly, my dear, I’ve been through worse than your withering looks. Life is too short, I have too much to do, and keeping my own life in order and my head on straight is too hard to worry about someone else’s opinion of me. I just can’t see it being worth the time.
If you don’t really know me too well and you have taken the time to form an opinion in that regard–I mean, something more substantial than a first impression–then my opinion of you begins to sink rather lower based on that fact alone.
You clearly need a bit more to do in life. Birdwatching is a nice hobby. You might want to try that. That’ll keep you busy. Or you could try listening to the police scanners. Maybe volunteer in a soup kitchen, read to children or elderly people, help a nonprofit drill wells in Africa. There is no shortage of useful things to do in this world. You ought to start.
Because if you have the time to pass judgment on me or my life, then clearly you have too much on your hands and too little meaningful activity with which to fill it.
This isn’t just a lot of tough talk. I really feel this. It doesn’t mean I’m not scared of a great number of things, including some really irrational ones. But the judgment of other people is not one of them.
It also doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate some general positive regard from acquaintances and near-strangers and readers. Although if you’re a regular reader, you probably know me rather well.
But it has been drilled into my head: We all care too much about what other people think of us.
First, the cult I was raised in drilled it into my head. They liked to remind us, “Not to be concerned with our appearance before men,” or some such nonsense, while obsessing about the hemlines and hairlines of women. We clearly were intended to worry about our appearance and what others thought of it. Just the right others.
But I am not always a very good student. I don’t always learned the lessons I was intended to learn. I didn’t learn that one well at all.
Psychotherapy kept up the same tradition. Sitting in someone’s office, trying to deal with all of the horror that has been my life and the damage it left me to struggle against, I was repeatedly reminded that rejection and judgment and disapproval were paralyzing, inhibiting phobias.
Well, they can be. That’s true. However, I find myself far more concerned with hypothermia, suffocation, and strangulation. Oh, and death. Those aren’t more rational fears, but they are equally problematic.
So I have lived my whole life seeing myself through the lens of a lie: as someone terribly distressed by the opinions of others, limited by them, inhibited and needing to break free of that enslavement. There might be worse lies to believe than this one, but it has kept me from seeing the truth.
I am a lot more concerned with my own opinion of myself.
Which is not better, in fact, better. It’s worse. I am not always as forgiving of myself as other people are of me. And it is limiting and inhibiting and really is something I need to break free of at times.
There are just certain flaws I really don’t want to have. There is are certain personality traits that simply, simply won’t do for me. It isn’t that I then conceal those flaws myself. It’s just that I sometimes run too far in the other direction. It sometimes interferes, well, with functioning. With making the best decisions I can. With life really.
I don’t want to be my mother in many regards–as many women can relate to. I don’t want to catastrophize or wind myself up in knots worrying over nothing. I don’t want to be hysterical.
And sometimes that means I minimize problems that actually do require my attention. Sometimes, it means I procrastinate in taking action to solve a problem because I don’t want to be attacking a problem that really isn’t there. Occasionally, it means I don’t adequately communicate serious problems to others because I don’t want to seem hysterical about silly things–not in the eyes of other people, but in my eyes. And it certainly means that when I feel anxious, I often don’t know why. Because I refuse to let myself worry about things. Mentally, I keep changing the subject. So my body knows something isn’t right, but my mind doesn’t. Not really. It certainly doesn’t know what.
That is just not who I want to be. And I’m not. But I’ve overdone it.
I said there was more to the last post, and there is. I also said I would go into it if the creek didn’t rise, and it hasn’t. At least not so you’d notice, It is, after all, the middle of summer in a place that doesn’t experience monsoons.
Psychotherapy doesn’t help with that particular lie. You know, the one where everyone is the really the same. Can be treated the same, has the same expectations of those around them, lives according to the same standards. That one.
I don’t know that psychotherapy makes it worse, but it tends to perpetuate another version of the same lie. At least if you’re inclined to believe that lie in the first place. Which I was.
Because you sit in the office and talk about what’s bothering you, and look at how this connects to your past, and then try to see how the present is different.
But sometimes you’re upset because the person upsetting you now is exactly the same kind of jackass your father was, for example. And you don’t know how to deal with this jackass because you never learned how to deal with your father. You keep pretending that that variety of jackass doesn’t or shouldn’t exist. And your inability to cope is just you making big deal out of nothing. Precisely as you were told as a kid.
But that kind of jackass does exist and you do need to learn to deal with them.
Sometimes therapy doesn’t help you spot all the lies you believe. Sometimes it only helps you with some of them. And sometimes it mostly gives you new ones.
I know the one I heard the most. Everyone was bad then, but everyone is good now. I just have a problem with trust.
Not so. I mean, I do have a problem with trust–or at least I did at one time–but that’s not why it’s so difficult to get people sorted out. People were and are complicated and diverse little creatures. The world was a mix of good and evil then and it is a mix of good and evil now. Very little has changed. I’m mostly just taller. And I remember to flush the toilet more reliably.
Like I said, perhaps I oversimplified things because that’s what I believed anyway, but I think there’s also something to that. I think I’m not the only one ever taught that lie, and not the only one who has had trouble getting out from under it. And it’s perfectly possible to find psychotherapists who believe the same lies you were taught growing up and then hire them.
Because psychotherapists are all different as well. And like dogs and their people, sometimes therapists are a lot like their clients. So we can usually find one a lot like ourselves.