How Perspective Takes Shape
PERSPECTIVE = MENTAL HEALTH
As our behavior becomes increasingly reckless and irresponsible, the ego swells to compensate for feelings of guilt, insecurity, and shame. Our perspective narrows, and we see more of the self and less of the world—which makes us ever more sensitive and unstable. To the degree that we refuse to accept the truth about ourselves and our lives—and overcome our laziness and fear of pain—the ego engages to “protect” us, and it shifts the blame elsewhere. In other words, If there is nothing wrong with me, then there must be something wrong with you; or the world is unfair; or people are out to get me. Seedlings of neuroses and paranoia then take root. For us to remain unblemished in our own minds, we are forced to distort the world around us, and if our grasp on reality is flawed, then our adjustment to life will suffer.
When a person loses his sanity—the ability to see, accept, and respond to his world—it means he has lost all perspective. Emotional instability—the seat of anger—is fundamentally a lack of clarity, the degree to which the ego infects us.
Angry with Ourselves, Angry at the World
We are hardwired to love ourselves, but when we can’t nourish ourselves through good choices and thus gain self-respect, we turn to the rest of the world to feed us. We make a desperate but futile attempt to convert their love and respect into feelings of self-worth. Our ever-shifting self-image becomes a direct reflection of the world around us. Our mood is raw and vulnerable to every fleeting glance and passing comment.
We erroneously and frantically believe, If they care about me, then maybe I’m worth something, and then maybe I can love me. Yet it doesn’t work, and herein lies the basis for many failed relationships. When we lack self-esteem, we push away the very people we so desperately want in our lives because we can’t fathom why anyone would love someone as unlovable as ourselves. And whatever affection or kindness forces its way through to us, we hardly embrace it. Such overtures don’t serve to comfort but, rather, to confuse us; and the ego’s mandate is clear: reject others before they have a chance to reject us.
To compound matters, the less self-control we have, the more desperately we manipulate events and people around us, especially those closest to us—either overtly or passive-aggressively. We intuit that self-control fosters self-respect, so when we cannot control ourselves, we need to feel as if we are in control of someone, something, anything, to feel a sense of power.
Isolated from Ourselves, Disconnected from Others
We should note that people often mistake confidence for self-esteem, but the two are quite different. Confidence is how effective we feel within a specific area or situation, while self-esteem is defined as how much we recognize our inherent worth and feel deserving of happiness and good fortune. Self-esteem is shaped by the quality of our choices rather than by the assets at our disposal. A person who attempts to fortify his self-image by taking pride in a specific trait may exhibit signs of high self-esteem to the untrained eye, but, in fact, such an individual often suffers from low self-esteem, because all he has is an inflated ego.
When a person suffers from very low self-esteem, it doesn’t matter how accomplished he appears, he depends on everyone and everything to boost his faltering self-image. The research is clear: A person’s inflated sense of self does not derive from self-esteem, but from self-loathing
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that a person with an inflated ego likes himself; ego and self-esteem are inversely related. No matter how much a person appears to be happy with himself, if he is egocentric, that person suffers with feelings of inferiority. This statement is not conjecture, but a law of human nature; it is psychological math.
Step Right Up and Choose Your Reality
The intricacies of anger are often simplified to the point of being incomplete. To say that we become angry because we are scared or in pain is like saying that a lamp works because the light switch is flipped on—true enough, but the underlying connection, electricity, is left out of the equation.
Pain in and of itself does not lead to anger. Neither does fear. Mountain climbing and crossword puzzles can be grueling and excruciating. A roller coaster or horror movie can be terrifying. And yet, these can also be exhilarating and enjoyable. However, an eighteen-wheeler veering into your lane, your small child running into the street, a careless person banging into you at work, or your boss yelling at you may very well provoke anger. What is the difference in these scenarios?: control.
What activates anger is an emotional or physical pain that we cannot control. Fear comes into play because fear itself is emotionally painful, with fear of the unknown—which carries a complete lack of control—having the potential to bring the greatest pain. Opposite sides of the same coin: unpredictable or uncontrollable pain brings fear, and fear that we cannot predict or control is painful. Since it is the ego that seeks control, even emotional pain in proper context (widened, ego-free perspective) is diluted. A close friend receives tragic news and makes a scene in a public place, but feelings of embarrassment take a backseat to empathy over their sorrow. A loved one lashes out at us in anger because we caused him hurt, but rather than feel rejected, we feel for him and seek to allay his fears.
Why Smart People Do Dumb Things
Research finds self-regulation failure is central to nearly all the personal and social problems that currently plague the modern, developed world. These problems include drug addiction and abuse, alcoholism, smoking, crime and violence, underachievement in schools, gambling, personal debt and credit card abuse, lack of financial savings, anger, and hostility
Anger releases a stress hormone called cortisol. Long-term elevated cortisol levels have a detrimental effect on us, both physically and mentally. Specifically, cortisol damages cells in the hippocampus and results in impaired learning. In the short term, cortisol interferes with our ability to think and process information. Or, to put it another way, getting angry actually makes us dumb. Biochemically, anger, as we know, initiates the fight-or-flight response and the production of adrenaline, which reroutes blood flow away from the brain, and with it oxygen, which further muddles our thinking.
Wisdom is one of the most powerful by-products of emotional health, and it gives us the capacity and fortitude to see the situation objectively and then respond calmly and logically, rather than allowing anger to corrupt our observation, assessment, judgment, and conduct.
A Fight to the Death
Even after the facts become obvious, an intelligent but ego-oriented person might stay the course of a bad decision and persist in outright self-destructive behavior. Unable to emerge victorious, the ego shrewdly switches tactics and declares us to be a casualty of fate, circumstance, or others’ cruel conniving, to avoid taking responsibility for our actions and our lives. We become locked into these patterns and too often manipulate events to unfold in accordance with our expectations. It’s how we need the world to be. Being right becomes more of an emotional priority than doing what is right. We act against our own best interests because, unconsciously, we need to prove to ourselves and to others that we are victims. In this way, we perpetuate our own misery. We align the entirety of our lives to accommodate our story.
Renowned psychologist Dr. Nathaniel Branden wrote about a woman he once treated who grew up thinking she was “bad” and undeserving of kindness, respect, or happiness. Predictably, she married a man who “knew” he was unlovable and felt consumed by self-hatred. He protected himself by acting cruelly toward others before they could be cruel to him. She didn’t complain about his abuse because she “knew” that abuse was her destiny. He wasn’t surprised by her increasing withdrawal and remoteness from him, because he “knew” no one could ever love him. They endured twenty years of torture together, proving how right they were about themselves and about life.3
When we suffer from low self-esteem, we’re often afraid that something bad will happen to us after something good occurs in our lives. When fortune unexpectedly smiles on us, we feel anxious because of our sense of unworthiness. To alleviate our emotional tension, we might even sabotage our success so that we can fulfill our personal prophecy: The world is as we predicted. We feel secure because our beliefs—no matter how damaging and distorted—have been reaffirmed. We will be right, even if it kills us.
My Apologies, Please
Forgiving and apologizing both give us a taste of emotional freedom. This is why we typically feel good afterward. We give an apology, and we give forgiveness. Only when we are free can we give, and this single act promotes our independence and builds our emotional immunity. Yet before we attempt to gain forgiveness for ourselves, we must move forward with the utmost delicacy. When we’ve clearly violated the respect, trust, and rights of another, the path to forgiveness lies in restoring balance to the relationship—be it personal or professional. In balance, we find justice, and in justice, we find forgiveness. Follow this six-phase protocol as best you can to do your part in bringing peace to your relationships and yourself.
Phase 1: Humility and Respect
If we enter the situation with anything other than complete humility, we likely won’t receive forgiveness. We must negate our ego. It’s not about us, it’s about the other person. This means we should not argue and scream our point or show up at someone’s office demanding that he listen to our side of the story. Rather, we should ask permission before we speak to him and perhaps even prior to initiating personal contact—via a note or intermediary—if the relationship is severely strained. Approaching the person with extreme deference and even reverence is a requisite for the process.
Phase 2: Be Accountable
It’s important for us to take full and complete responsibility for our actions. We must not shift the blame or make excuses—this will only exacerbate the situation. We shouldn’t say, “I got so upset because we did…,” or, “I didn’t think it was a big deal to…” We must not blame the person for anything—his actions or ours—and we mustn’t minimize our role.
Phase 3: Sincerely Apologize
Sometimes we forget to actually say the words I’m sorry. Though these words are rarely enough, they are necessary to gaining forgiveness. Moreover, we must acknowledge that our actions hurt the other person: I’m sorry, I know I hurt you and caused you pain. We need to ensure that our sincerity comes across. An insincere apology won’t be believed; and if we’re not believed, we won’t be forgiven.
Phase 4: Be Willing to Accept—and Even Offer—Consequences
It’s one thing to talk the talk, but things can fall apart if he thinks that we’re trying to escape unscathed. Let the other person know that you’re willing to face and accept all consequences of your actions. Putting ourselves in the hands of someone we have harmed and being answerable for our conduct and the aftermath will help to mitigate that person’s feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.
Phase 5: Make Things Right
If we profited in some way, then we must give back what doesn’t rightfully belong to us, in order to set things straight—whether it be money or other items. If we don’t have what we wrongfully took but we can replace it, we must make every effort to do so as soon as possible—and when feasible, we have to let the person know our plan and our progress. And remember: It’s essential to continue on this path even if he still isn’t talking to us.
Phase 6: A Painless Game Plan
Let the person know that he has full power over how things proceed, that he is in control every step of the way. You suggest a game plan that moves slowly but surely toward reestablishing the relationship while ensuring that at any time, he can opt to continue, stop, or change course.