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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: mental health

We'd rather play the victim than pursue the truth

Stephen H. Provost

Welcome to the Victim States of America.

Somewhere along the way, we stopped judging disputes based on reason and a search for the truth, and instead started basing our decisions on who can whine the loudest – and longest.

I suppose it’s easier that way. We don’t have to think; all we have to do is grease that squeaky wheel. Except, in this case, it just makes the wheel squeak louder.  

In yet another byproduct of our increasingly polarized culture, we prize loyalty to our “tribe” over a dedication to truth, and never has it been more apparent than in the current impeachment proceedings.

Democrats announced they would be pursuing impeachment before they’d read the whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump. Then, when it did come out, Republicans dismissed it without even appearing to consider how damning its contents were.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, hit the nail on the head. “Democrats ought not to be using the word impeach before they have the whistleblower complaint or before they read any of the transcript. Republicans ought not to be rushing to circle the wagons to say there’s no there there when there’s obviously lots that’s very troubling there. The administration ought not to be attacking the whistleblower as some talking points suggest they plan to do.”

Sasse counseled “lots of deliberation” but also acknowledge that “this place is terrible at deliberation.”

How we got here

“This place” might have meant Congress, Washington or the nation at large, and it would have been equally accurate.

There are, of course, reasons why we’ve exchanged deliberation and reason for loyalty oaths and litmus tests.

First, as mentioned above, it’s easier. You don’t have to think. You just let your tribal leaders do the thinking for you. Of course, you shouldn’t be surprised if you find they’re picking your pocket and shackling your wrists in the meantime.

Second, those tribal leaders have succeeded in making “deliberation” look like gridlock. They’ve done this in part by stonewalling the release of information, so that the process becomes so drawn out and tedious that no one has the time or patience for it. (This is especially true in an era when people often work two or three jobs to make ends meet, and those who don’t have been indoctrinated in a culture of instant gratification.)

Third, they’ve raised the bar for independent judgment so high that it’s almost impossible to reach. Anything short of absolute proof can be debunked as “doctored” or “fake news.” The upshot of this is we stop trusting ourselves to make informed decisions, so we abdicate that power to (surprise!) those same tribal leaders who thirst for it the most.

Fourth, they deflect. Instead of defending themselves, they point the finger elsewhere and say, “See, he’s doing it, too, and it’s even worse!” (One has to wonder whether the folks who do this have ever heard the saying “two wrongs don’t make a right,” or whether they did hear it and simply don’t care.) We don’t have time to weigh charges and counter-charges, so we ignore the whole thing and retreat to our own camps and, yes, those tribal leaders.

Fifth, we rushed to judgment and cried wolf so many times that no one’s listening anymore. The media, chained to their instant-update news cycle, contributes to this. So do political spin doctors eager to take the first shot. When they’re wrong, they lose credibility. And they create a vicious circle: The lack of deliberation has made us even less inclined to engage in it.

Skepticism gives way to cynicism, to the extent that everything coming out of the “other” camp can be dismissed as propaganda, no matter how much evidence there might be to back it up. We don’t have time to sift through all that, weed out the facts from the spin, and make an informed decision when we don’t even know if we have all the information we need to do so.

Is it any wonder we’ve disengaged from politics? Who wants to spend all day listening to people whine – and deciding who’s the bully and who’s the victim?

When Supreme Court nominee Bret Kavanaugh was accused of sexual harassment, his most effective argument was a self-righteous tirade about how he was the one being harassed. Clarence Thomas had done the same thing under similar circumstances a couple of decades, when he characterized allegations against him as “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.”

The irony is that Thomas’ argument itself didn’t involve “thinking,” but was fallacious. He was attacking the messenger by questioning motive, rather than seeking to refute the allegation itself. He made it a question of identity – prejudice against “uppity blacks” – rather than reasoned argument. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone comment on the irony of that supposed defense, but maybe it’s because we’ve become so used to people playing the victim that we barely notice it anymore.

Thomas and Kavanaugh now sit on the Supreme Court, which is supposed to be the most deliberative body in the land. Its members are supposed to think, not engage in ad hominem defenses. What does it say about our society as a whole when even members of our highest court seem to rely on such flawed excuses for reasoning?

Loyalty over truth

Some people are shocked that Republicans are defending Trump in the light of what appears to be very compelling evidence against him. But they shouldn’t be, because we long ago stopped judging people based on rational argument and substituted Trump’s own standard for “truth”: blind loyalty. Trump has used this standard for his entire career, and comparisons to mob culture are entirely accurate.

But Trump recognized something he has used to his advantage: That culture was spreading. The nation was catching up – or more accurately, falling back – to the kind of tribal culture he’d exploited on a smaller scale all his life as a real estate developer. Whatever his other shortcomings, he knew how to make it work for him. And as it came to dominate American culture as a whole, newcomers accustomed to operating by more conventional political rules found themselves out of their league.

Not only does Trump know how to create blind loyalty, he also recognizes it and is able to call it out in others. He then exposes it and discredits them for the very things he himself is doing – often more flagrantly. And because that loyalty has bound so many people to him, they refuse to call him out for his hypocrisy, no matter how blatant it might be. He really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.

Nobody whines louder about being the victim than Trump, who laments “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT” in all caps and blames the media, the Democrats, and anyone else who dares to criticize him for all his woes. The only thing he seems to be more emphatic about is how great he (says he) is.

Who we’ve become

But this isn’t just – or even primarily – about Trump. He’s a symptom, not the condition. He could never have thrived if we hadn’t created a culture based on litmus tests and loyalty oaths long before he came along. Trump is Nixon redux, but in a time and culture far more vulnerable to Machiavellian bullshit. For this, we have only ourselves to blame. We began rushing to judgment long before Trump and others like him began using their cattle prods on us. We exchanged reason for outrage and humility for hubris. We ditched patriotism in favor of partisanship.

We’ve become so comfortable playing the victim and blaming others that it’s almost become second nature to us. We do it in government, in our personal lives, in our professional interactions. It’s become second nature.

But in exalting our own victimhood, we’ve abandoned what got us here: a spirit of determination that didn’t care what obstacles others put in our way. We didn’t waste time blaming the people who put them there; we tackled those obstacles head-on. We overcame them or died trying. It was what we used to call the American spirit. Flawed, yes. Cruel at times, to be certain. But we were not victims. Never victims.

Until now. Now we all want to do is play the victim – and in a sense, that’s what we are: victims of our own ignorance and stubborn refusal to face the truth.

And we’ll keep being victims until we’ve decided we’ve had enough.

Positivity: the antidote to perfectionism

Stephen H. Provost

For all the talk about positivity, bad news has a bigger impact – and sticks with you longer – than good news.

That’s why it’s important to be even more positive: because the alternative isn’t a whole lot of fun. Trust me, I know. That alternative, or at least one of them, is becoming a perfectionist, living your life in a minefield of hesitance and fear. That minefield has been my life for far too long, and I’m just now realizing why.

It’s no mystery why politicians use negative ads or the news media highlight negative news stories. They work. They attract attention. For all the hand-wringing about attack ads in politics and bloody car crashes on the 6 o’clock news, people still watch them more than the positive ads and feel-good stories they say they want.

It makes sense why they work, too. It’s evolution. Think of yourself as a gazelle at the watering hole. Are you going to be thinking to yourself, “What a nice day it is outside! The tall grass is so wonderfully green and silky! The birds are singing such a lovely song!” Or are you going to be thinking. “There’s a pride of lions around here. Somewhere. And if I don’t pay attention, I’m going to end up as someone’s lunch meat.”

Right. This is why political ads aren’t just negative, they’re scary. The scarier the better, to appeal to your internal gazelle. Hordes of immigrants are massing at the border, planning a full-scale invasion! If Goldwater’s elected, he’ll get us into a nuclear war with the Soviets (cue video of H-bomb exploding)! Dukakis let a convicted murderer out on furlough! They’ll take away your guns! Your health care! Your religious freedom!

On and on it goes. Whether there’s truth to any of this is beside the point. The point is what’s being emphasized – the negative – and why.

The fairness factor

All this fear and negativity will drive you crazy. So, as a would-be antidote, we came up with the concept of fairness. This concept, we tell our children, will insulate us to some extent from the mean ol’ world out there. The police will protect us. The courts will protect us. Our institutions will protect us. And if all else fails, we’ll get justice at the pearly gates or karma will kick in.  

Excuse me for being blunt about this but ... what a crock of bull.

Life ain’t fair. Police corruption is real. So is judicial corruption, gridlock and bias. Our institutions? They’d work a lot better if the people in charge would support them rather than trying to find loopholes and undermine them to further their own agendas. The hereafter may or may not exist, and it’s a bit long to wait for justice even if it does. As to karma, whether you believe in it or not, it has zero to do with protecting people, doling out vengeance or righting wrongs.

Fairness is, in short, a placebo we take to convince ourselves that life isn’t as dangerous as it really is.

(Hey, Provost, you talked about positivity. Hold your horses, I’ll get there. Eventually.)

The ‘perfect’ solution

If we’re paying attention, we realize soon enough that all these external controls meant to guarantee fairness are no guarantee at all. So, we take matters into our own hands by doubling down on something else our parents told us. Call it the Protestant work ethic, the American Dream or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Whatever you call it, it promises that, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead. If you graduate from college, you’ll get a good job. If you excel, you’ll get rewarded.

It’s automatic.

Pardon me if I repeat myself, but ... what a crock of bull!

Hard work can facilitate success, but guarantee it? Not in this world. You’re far more likely to lose your job because of the boss wants to pad his bottom line than you are for subpar performance. It’s far easier to lay people off because you want to make more (or lose less) money than it is for “cause,” which can precipitate lawsuits and cost the company even more! Perish the thought! Is it any wonder that some mediocre employees survive cost-cutting while some who excel are led to the unemployment line?

Oh, and if you embarrass the company publicly, it’s even worse. You say it was unintentional? That you’re an otherwise exemplary employee? It doesn’t matter. The minute some segment of the public starts calling for your head, you become the sacrificial lamb du jour. (If you’re lucky enough to have your faux pas featured on Twitter, you’ll probably get death threats, too.) Forgiveness? That’s for patsies. Zero tolerance is the name of the game.

The illusion of control

Still, as soon as you realize that the external “guardians of fairness” – ordinances, karma, the legal system, etc. – don’t work on any consistent basis, your only real option is to buy into the “hard work” approach. At least it offers you the illusion of control. And if you can just avoid making that one catastrophic mistake, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive.

If you can just be good enough, maybe you can rise above it all. Sounds a bit egotistical when you put it like that, doesn’t it? And really, even if you were to succeed (hint: you can’t), is that any way to live? Now, you’re not just a gazelle at the watering hole, you’re a deer in the headlights. Welcome to the continual stress and panic of perfectionism.

Truth be told, we don’t live at watering holes anymore. Life is still dangerous, but the dangers are different. Simple fight-or-flight responses don’t work as well in the modern world, where lions are no longer a threat, but stress-related illnesses such as strokes or heart attacks certainly are.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t control everything. You will make mistakes. And even if you lived a “perfect” life (whatever that means) the entire rest of your days, some external factor could bring you down. Even if you made zero mistakes, someone would always be there to accuse you of something you didn’t do, or blame you for their own mistakes and insecurities, because it’s easier than looking at themselves.

You don’t just stop being a perfectionist in one day, though. It’s a learned defense mechanism that you’ve reinforced over several years in your quest to survive. Ironically, if you were to demand this of yourself, you’d be setting the same kind of expectation that made you a perfectionist in the first place!

So, what’s a recovering perfectionist to do? If negative news takes a big bite out of our attention, the best possible course, it seems to me, is to overwhelm it with positivity. With appreciation. With wonder. With creativity. With beauty. This works, really, whether you’re a perfectionist or not. So do the following ideas for perfectionists and those who are around them.

Perfectionism is the placebo. Positivity is the antidote.

Tips for perfectionists

  • Let go of the expectation that hard work guarantees success. But don’t stop working hard. Pursue your dreams. Enjoy the process. Savor each moment as a success in and of itself.

  • Don’t dwell on past failures or past injustices. Process them, learn from them, then move on.

  • Focus on the positive. You don’t live at the watering hole anymore. You can afford to look around at the soft green grass and listen to the birds singing. That’s a great gift.

  • Remember that you are not your mistakes. They are not your identity. Don’t personalize them.

  • Acknowledge your inherent worth as a unique and gifted individual. Value yourself for who you are, not what you can do!

  • Instead of working to avoid mistakes, work to create beauty.

  • Embrace your sensitivity. Don’t apologize for it. Instead, make it work for you by creating empathy toward others and an awareness of the world at large.

  • Be thankful. Learn to appreciate the good things in life and focus on those. Since bad news makes more of an impact on us, overwhelm it with an avalanche of positivity.

  • Don’t expect others to be perfect. Some perfectionists direct their demands outward, but if they’re unrealistic for you, they’re just as unrealistic for others.

  • Stop worrying. Start living. Let the chips fall where they may.

Tips for dealing with a perfectionist

  • Focus on his or her positive attributes. Perfectionists become so committed to avoiding mistakes, they often define their self-worth based on what they do rather than who they are. Support them in turning that around.

  • Avoid nitpicking and micromanaging. Don’t look over their shoulder while they’re working. This only magnifies their fear of failure. Unless something’s important, don’t make a big deal about it.

  • Remember that it takes a lot of good words to overcome a few bad ones, so be effusive with your praise and selective with your criticism.

  • Keep criticism constructive; present it as an opportunity to improve rather than a condemnation for past behavior.

  • Don’t bring up past failures repeatedly. As a perfectionist, the person’s first instinct is to try to “fix” the problem, but since the past can’t be fixed, the person is likely to feel hopeless.

  • Don’t criticize the person for being too sensitive or call them names. And avoid making fun of them. Sensitivity isn’t a crime. Encourage them to use it as an asset.

  • Don’t project your own frustrations with yourself or unrelated issues onto them. They’re already their own worst critic; making them responsible for more things they can’t control can feel debilitating.

  • If they do something nice for you, thank them. Don’t immediately tell them how you think it could have been done better.

  • If you disagree on something, don’t be dismissive: Instead of saying the person is wrong, ask how they came to think the way they do. Show an interest and listen to the answer. Even if you still disagree, affirm the other person’s right to self-expression.