Finding the Good in Lousy People

harry-grout-783336-unsplashPhoto by Harry Grout on Unsplash

It’s 9am on a Monday morning, and the meeting room is filled with the yawning, bleary-eyed faces of a dozen employees, lazily blinking into the iridescent glow of their laptops. As the meeting commences, the usual topics are discussed, lofty goals proposed, and innovative methods outlined. Things are going smoothly, until suddenly, the guy in accounts who seems to thrive on conflict opens his mouth to speak, and his audience inhale the quietest of gasps, taut with the potential of yet another heated discussion.

Though he raises great points, he does it in such a way that grates on people. His choice of tone and level of volume suggest marginal aggression, conveying a desire to control the situation and steer it in his preferred direction. He seems to treat disagreement as a personal affront; an attack on his intelligence, rather than an attempt to achieve a good outcome. His depressing cynicism and compulsive nit-picking has a tendency to stifle the creativity of the group, though he’ll view these aspects as positive—a realist in a world of blinkered idiots. There’s repeated moments of pointless rudeness, which are either failed attempts at humour, or just outright hostility.

If he were to take a personality test, he’d probably score highly on the dark triad of personality traits, particularly narcissism and Machiavellianism—a combination of highly heritable, unfortunate genetics, a flawed upbringing, and plenty of shitty circumstances. His personality might also be labelled as high-conflictan adversarial disposition that carries a tendency for extreme behaviour, and lack of culpability. Though he shares our unwavering freedom and responsibility to be a good person—to treat his fellow humans with agreeable kindness and compassion—the circumstances of his life make it extremely challenging. For this reason, regrettably, and unsurprisingly, most people don’t like him.

Our evolution, and the evolution of every single living thing, was made possible through our attuned sense of danger, increasing our chances of survival and procreation. This has instilled us with a negativity bias, in which events of a negative nature have a stronger effect on us—great for survival, but less desirable when trying to get along with someone cursed with insufferable narcissism. When we’re evaluating someone, negative traits make a stronger impact than positive ones. We might be faced with a character who is consistently kind, fair in judgment, and highly scrupulous, but those favourable attributes can be outshone by a rare, lackadaisical moment of rudeness, which wedges itself into our memories and hooks our attention during future encounters. When a consistently cantankerous, arrogant character comes along, positive traits can be dulled to the point of becoming imperceptible, making it easy to righteously dismiss them as awful people, and while this may be great for our survival (disagreeable characters can cause us damage), it’s a depressingly narrow, biased view.

There’s good in everybody, but sometimes, it’s extremely well-camouflaged. The unbearable character from your workplace could be a shining example of kindness in another environment—a charitable soup-kitchen volunteer on weekends, or an exceptional, unerring role model to his children. The impossible hag at the post office whose grimace could curdle fresh milk might be exhausted after months of nursing her cancer-ridden husband. Your father’s exasperating irascibility—developed from years of inability to be vulnerable, including a warped sense of men don’t cry—is occasionally cut through with moments of quiet tenderness. There’s good in everybody, no matter how small.

ea02af48d9b289e289354f59370f3ba1.jpgPeanuts cartoon — Charles M Schultz

Evolutionary game theory reminds us that the indiscretions of selfish, negative people should be remembered, so that we can display caution towards them in future. Caution is the appropriate, compassionate response because it includes the benefit of the doubt—a person has wronged you in some way, but you’re willing to look past that because they’re a flawed human, just like you. Though they may carry more objectionable traits than you’d like, you’re able to overcome your negativity bias and identify their inherent goodness, however small—a beautifully kind, humanising act, with the power to alter their personality. Kindness begets kindness.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” — Plato

Focusing on the good parts of a person’s character transforms them before your very eyes, from a potentially dark, malignant character to be kept at a distance, to a regular, impaired human who deserves to be treated with decency, just like everybody else. Blatant, repeated bad treatment is obviously something that shouldn’t be tolerated—sometimes you need to communicate your distaste, and walk away. Argument or punishment rarely has the power to change people for the good, but compassionate kindness does.

Seeing the good in other people has the potential to evoke the warm and expansive feeling of elevation, which creates an increased sense of appreciation and affection for the person in question, bolsters the original intention, and creates a happier encounter for both parties. It also generates an optimism towards humanity—a necessary antidote to the incessant doom and gloom that appears in the daily news. The good and admirable aspects of a person’s behaviour are examples of moral beauty, and focusing on them can help to break down overly-protective, negative barriers that we previously wedged between us. Aspiring to see the good in other people can cause ourselves to improve, with an increased motivation for compassion, kindness, altruism, and other forms of prosocial behaviour.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”—Leo Buscaglia

There’s also our Reticular Activating System (RAS) to consider, a function of the brain whose many operations include the ability to tune in to a desired goal. By consistently remembering to look for the good in others, we’re more likely to identify little nuggets of goodness that we might have previously missed. Our Reticular Activating System is the powerful engine behind the law of attraction, which rather than being a wishy washy, pseudoscientific concept of positive and negative energies, is actually just the improved ability to identify and attract something when we make an effort to look for it. Search for goodness, and you’ll probably find it.

“When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.”—Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

Everyone is just trying their best to make it through the day. Some unfortunate souls may have been born with hostile personality traits, had neglectful or abusive childhoods, or just made a ton of terrible choices. Our natural reaction to such people is dislike and separation—vigilant self-protection, but an inhumane lack of compassion. Most people deserve the benefit of the doubt, and though the task can be exceptionally difficult, overcoming our negativity bias by forcing ourselves to focus on the good aspects of a person’s character makes the world a more gracious, kindhearted and tolerant place to live.

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”—John Holmes

I don’t like you – want to come to my party?

daniel-pascoa-253357-unsplashPhoto by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

There’s certain people in this world who I just don’t like very much. My antipathy could be a consequence of their incessant, dronesome tales of work and how badly it affects their victim-like lives. It might be a result of a boastful tale of stealing somebody else’s boyfriend, in which they found no wrong. They could be overly aggressive and confrontational, which scrapes the meeker aspects of my personality. It might be all of these things and more.

Whatever the gripes, being in such a person’s company is hard work – conversation is shallow and awkward, emotions are forced, and I suspect that both of us want to be as far away from each other as possible.

So if you’re planning a social gathering, and that person happens to float within the social circles of people who you do want to attend, should you grit your teeth and invite them?

I’m hardly a high-flying socialite, but this question has still plagued me on multiple occasions. My distaste of the person and my selfishness makes it hard to extend an invite, while the kinder aspects of my nature yearns to do the right and gracious thing. 

Being fake is rarely good, and spending time with someone we dislike requires it unless we want to end up sneering at each other from across the table. Becoming an object of hate doesn’t do much for the self-esteem, so the alternative is shitty small talk, in which our phones develop an unprecedented allure. As much as we desperately want to make some kind of connection, if only to expel the wrenching tension, neither of us can say anything that interests the other. Our hobbies, TV habits, music preferences, senses of humour and morals are completely misaligned. It’s like a teenager trying to have a conversation with an old person – they may as well be from different planets. The person in question probably doesn’t even want an invite.

“I don’t hate you.. I just don’t like that you exist” — Gena Showalter, Seduce the Darkness

It also feels like a waste of time, which I could be spending in the company of people who I enjoy. The gravity of those folk is strongest for us – we’re gladly drawn into their comfortable, socially-pleasing orbit, as opposed to being propelled away by unpleasant and jarring conversation. We only get one chance at this life – why the hell should we fritter it away with people who irritate us? Friendship circles are born from similarities – the objected person is unlikely to fit in, so it seems a waste of their time too. Your friends might also be wondering why you invited such an abrasive person, with your hard-won reputation taking a hit in the process.

On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, as I know how awful it feels. I’ve spent some hours on a dark and lonely lunch-time bench, head down, wondering why I was such a despicable loser who not even a mother could love. Being left out can seem an insult to your personality – the very thing that defines you. Inflicting this kind of hurt onto somebody is painful in itself.

Kindness is a wonderful thing, and putting the person’s needs before your own is a genuinely nice thing to do, even though every aspect of your soul revolts against it. The simple decency of inviting the person might help them to make new friends – finer gifts are difficult to find. The favour might even be returned, giving you the chance to meet new people and form beneficial, lasting relationships. Stone-cold exclusivity, while infinitely more comfortable, doesn’t yield such benefits.

As people, we can be awfully judgmental. The aversion that we feel towards certain humans is a direct result of our judgments about them, and though they may be shared by others, and based on solid reality, they still darken our lives. Once a dislike judgment has been made about someone, the good becomes imperceptible, even when on display. Unless (and even if) the person is a psychopathic mass-murderer, they still have some undeniably good aspects to their character. We have to force ourselves to see them, and by doing so, we’re demonstrating admirable compassion, with an increased appreciation for the person as a result. Judging sabotages friendships; it’s the arch-enemy of much-needed human connection. While advocating complete non-judgment would be foolish (we need it to prevent ourselves from being harmed), a lessened approach is infinitely  more humane and loveable.

“When we dislike someone, or feel threatened by someone, the natural tendency is to focus on something we dislike about the person, something that irritates us. Unfortunately, when we do this–instead of seeing the deeper beauty of the person and giving them energy–we take energy away and actually do them harm. All they know is that they suddenly feel less beautiful and less confident, and it is because we sapped their energy.” — James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy

Sticking with the same old people can also become dreadfully boring. That objectible person who you’re so averse to include might be refreshingly stimulating, if you abandoned your judgments and gave them a chance. Difficult to do, but an undeniably worthy pursuit.

The next time that you’re drawing up a guest list and you find yourself in this sticky situation, tap into your compassion and try to see the good in people. Ruthless and relentless judging is valuable for nobody. By keeping an open mind, and practising non-judgment, you’re opening yourself up to greater emotional connection with the world, even those who you’ve already lumped into the dislike group. With luck and a little effort, you might form a lasting friendship.

Looking down on others

Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 1.24.31 pmStereosonic festival – Australia

Most of us are familiar with the feeling of being better than someone else; of tilting our heads and arrogantly looking down our noses at them. For me, this behaviour was exhibited when attending a now-cancelled music festival in Australia called Stereosonic, a dance music extravaganza for which 75% of the audience were either steroid-fuelled male beefcakes, or scantily-clad, tits-out barbie dolls, both with the same levels of self-esteem as a fired McDonalds worker. My judgments of such people are based on my beliefs that you won’t find much genuine, long-lasting fulfilment by inflating and flaunting your bodies, like peacocks with gym memberships and extra chromosomes. I’m extremely confident in this belief, and the result is condescension.

You may choose to look down on someone because of their dietary choices, perhaps going so far as to ruthlessly rebuke them. This is a trait for which some vegans have become notorious, and the reaction is often rebounded condescension, and not-so-playful piss-taking. Maybe your judgment reaches harsh levels when you observe a casually-smoking mother, whose plumes of vapour appear to be forming a circle around her innocent child.

Whatever it is that evokes condescension in you, it’s rarely a constructive thing. Though we may be confident in our judgment of the situation, we’re usually acting out of insecurity; our criticisms are often formed because we feel that we are lacking in some way, and so we judge in order to feel better about ourselves. Attacking from an elevated position is satisfying; it’s a temporary state of power and confidence. We’re right, and they’re wrong. We’re smart, and they’re dumb. We’re quite clearly better than them, and travelling on a superior path.

One of the biggest mistakes that we make when being condescending is our arrogant confidence in being 100% accurate. Our world is obscenely complex – every choice that we make and every circumstance that we find ourselves in is comprised of a huge number of intricacies. It’s usually arrogant to assume that we can recognise, analyse and conclude that somebody is making a bad choice, based on our limited understanding of the situation. Even experienced professionals are only working from the knowledge available in their field, and are just as fallible as everyone else. While I may believe that inflating your muscles in order to impress others isn’t a good tactic for achieving contentment, I don’t really know whether that’s true. I can certainly make assumptions based on my arm-chair psychology knowledge, but these are flimsy foundations on which to elevate yourself. Even the scopes of geniuses have limited clarity.

Some choices are, of course, clearly bad. Someone subject to a severe cocaine addiction shouldn’t continue to ingest cocaine, unless they want to end up killing themselves. Such clear-cut examples appear to be a rarity though – the situation is often too complex for us to make an accurate judgment on the positive value of a life choice.

One possible cause of our tendency towards condescension is the idea of cognitive dissonanceThis is the uneasy feeling that appears when a belief is contradicted by another belief, and you suddenly feel unsure of yourself. Much of our confidence is hinged on the certainty of our beliefs, and when people act in ways that go against them, we react with condescension, because we’re desperate to cling onto our own confidence. We don’t like being wrong, and so we idealise our own choices and beliefs in order to protect our delicate ego. The fact that the world is extremely complicated doesn’t even factor into our thinking; we just climb onto that high horse of ours – a more comfortably superior position.

People invested in a given perspective shall—when confronted with disconfirming evidence—expend great effort to justify retaining the challenged perspective. — Wikipedia on cognitive dissonance

There’s a few reasons why you should change your condescending ways, the biggest of which is sociability. You’re not going to form good relationships with people if you look down your nose at them – it’s an awful way to be treated. A nasty habit is also being formed, which might end up with you being a resident of, or perhaps even the president of, Cuntsville. Habitants of this place constantly focus on the bad, and can become deeply depressed in the process.

If you’ve decided that you want your condescending habit to be over, then compassion is the thing that it should be replaced with. Compassion is the nemesis of condescension; it’s about displaying tender understanding, rather than arrogant judgment. As humans, we all suffer a great deal, and we’d do well to remember this fact when we’re casting judgment on another person’s choices. Everyone is just trying to do the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. Even if you’re supremely confident in their failure to make good choices, treating them with condescension helps neither one of you. The few bad choices that are apparent may be concealed by a treasure-trove of good ones, and unless you can display the exquisite compassion required to love your fellow humans, you’ll never find out about them. We must assume that everyone we meet is better than us in some way.

“In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s helpful to remember that we often have little control over the choices that we make. Vowing to lose 10 kilos usually doesn’t result in us losing 10 kilos. Our willpower has a tendency to be pitifully inept. Casting aspersions on people’s choices is especially callous when considering this fact, not to mention hypocritical.

Another reason to be compassionate about the apparent failings of others is the amount of terrible and easily-accessible information in the world. Some bad choices are made from a totally warped view of what will make you happy; of what is valuable. Some poor souls may live their entire lives acting out poisonous beliefs, with zero capacity or understanding on how to improve their situation. You simply can’t find good information if you don’t know how to.

There’s also our culture to consider, a powerful motivating force that can shape negative behaviours. Noxious celebrity magazines are plastered with images of stick-thin, perfectly-chiseled stars who become role models for impressionable everyday people. Is it really surprising that they will do whatever necessary to emulate the richest, most successful people on the planet? A culture doesn’t have the best interests of its people at heart, despite its potential to influence our choices. Looking down on a girl who injects her face with botox might seem justified, until you consider her a sufferer of society. And even then, what makes you so arrogant to decide that she’s making a bad choice?

We must learn to replace our condescension with a more caring, compassionate understanding. Don’t be so cocky to assume that your beliefs always reflect reality – that probably isn’t the case. Consistently challenging your beliefs and updating them will imbue you with guru-like wisdom, and the accompanying compassion that you exhibit will create long-lasting bonds with those around you.

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