by Steven Stosny, Ph. D.
Anger In The Entitlement Age
After 30 years of work on problems of anger, resentment, anxiety, and stress, and half a dozen books on the subject, I still get sarcastic emails:
“I want to manage anger, anxiety, and stress, but I’m not interested in becoming a ‘better person’.”
Let me be very clear. Your chances of consistently managing anger, anxiety, resentment, and stress, without becoming a better person, are practically zero.
By the time we’re adults, most anger, resentment, anxiety, and reactions to stress are conditioned responses, usually caused by precipitous drops in self-value. That is, we feel devalued. To change conditioned responses, we must develop new conditioned responses, for example, conditioning behaviors that raise self-value to occur automatically when self-value declines. CompassionPower has techniques that, with practice, will build more beneficial conditioned responses. However, those won’t be enough. The only significant and lasting improvement in life and relationships results from becoming “a better person.” We become better persons by staying in touch with basic humanity, the survival-based capacity for interest in the well-being of others.
Basic Humanity and Survival of the Species
Early humans could not have survived competition from more plentiful and powerful predators without banding together in emotionally-bonded social units to defend and hunt collectively. Small, emotionally-bonded, cooperative communities became the natural order of human social organization. We’re so dependent on the consideration and cooperation of others that we condemn even minor deviations from them by other people, while ignoring or rationalizing our own lapse of compassion and cooperation. The “out-group” phenomenon, instrumental in racism, rises from the fear that “they” won’t be compassionate or cooperative.
Basic Humanity as Motivation
More important as a motivation than a feeling, basic humanity motivates respectful, helpful, valuing, nurturing, protective, and altruistic behaviors. In adversity it motivates sacrifice. In emergency it motivates rescue.
A Condition for Personal Growth
Basic humanity allows us to grow beyond the limitations of personal experience and prejudice. If out of touch with basic humanity for too long, we become locked in a prison of the self. The sense of self grows fragile, in constant need of validation by others, intolerant of differences, resentful, anxious, or angry. Other people matter only to the extent that they validate our (inherently biased) experience. We feel less humane.
In touch with basic humanity, we become smarter about the world around us and our relationship to it. There’s an intrinsic reward for this increase in vision; the more in touch with basic humanity, the more humane we feel.
The Prominent Emotions of Basic Humanity
Compassion – motivation to help relieve pain, suffering, discomfort, or hardship.
Kindness – motivation to help others be well.
Guilt – motivation to be true to personal values and community standards.
Shame – motivation to succeed or compensate.
Anxiety – motivation to avoid exposure to guilt or shame.
Violations of basic humanity automatically stimulate guilt, shame, or anxiety, to motivate humane behavior. But that natural motivation is subverted by the toddler coping mechanisms:
Blame, denial, avoidance.
Yes, these ways of coping begin in toddlerhood. Ask a two-year-old how the toy came to be broken, you’ll likely hear:
“He/she did it.” Or, “I don’t know.” Or the kid is preoccupied, ignoring you, or hiding.
Toddler coping mechanisms invoke the anger-resentment formula:
Anger = vulnerable feeling (guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness) + blame
Resentment = vulnerable feeling + blame, denial, or avoidance.
Blame, denial, and avoidance cut us off from basic humanity, which is why, to consistently manage anger, resentment, anxiety, and stress, we must become better persons.
The Modern Paradox of Basic Humanity
In general, cultures are more humane now than ever before in human history. (For example, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.) So why is it so hard for individuals to stay in touch with basic humanity?
The answer is simple: there are so many of us, and we’re all different. Basic humanity is easier for individuals to maintain in smaller communities of people who seem to be alike. The mammalian brain, a better safe-than-sorry organism, distrusts differences. The human bias is to distrust people who look different, believe different things, have different values. Yet our lives are clearly enriched by differences; sameness is boring, while appreciation of differences yields intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth.
How to Maintain Basic Humanity in Diverse Cultures
• Accept the complexity of human beings. When you’re sure you understand someone, you’re most likely oversimplifying, based on superficial observations through inherently biased lenses.
• Appreciate as many differences as you can; tolerate the ones you can’t appreciate.
• Focus on categories of values rather than specific values.
We tend to make invidious, largely error-prone judgments about people whose values are different. To obviate this unfortunate tendency, we must appreciate what we share with most others, value categories. The major value categories, which anthropological evidence suggests have been important to humans since our earliest time on the planet, are:
• The ability to form and maintain emotional bonds
• A sense of spirituality (desire for connection with something larger than the self)
• A sense of community (identification with or connection to a group of people)
• Appreciation of natural and creative beauty.
What makes me like myself better?
In general, feelings are not a good guide for becoming a better person, as they are always derived from past experience and acting on them runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes over and over. An exception lies in which behaviors or attitudes produce more positive feelings about the self.
Will I like myself better focused on:
How my values differ from someone else’s?
How the categories of our values are similar?
Do I like myself better:
When I’m devaluing other people?
When I’m in touch with basic humanity?
About the Author
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., treats people for anger and relationship problems. His recent books include How to Improve your Marriage without Talking about It and Love Without Hurt.
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