Can You Be Too Good? Therapy as Self-Creation

“Being good” is a much misunderstood thing. The question for today is whether goodness requires the acceptance of a place near the end of any line worth standing in … and perhaps too much reflexive obedience to authority.

Leaders often equate morality with rule following: accepting the limitations offered by those who “know better.” Such guidance comes couched in terms of superior external direction designed “for your own good.”

Beware.

The words “for your own good” have been delivered both as loving concern and an excuse to keep powerless others, especially children, in their place. Then the recipe for “goodness” creates and reinforces insecurity, hesitation, and self-doubt. Praise is cold comfort for those broken under the weight of their obligation to comply.

The counseling profession would be much smaller but for the many survivors of parental indifference, neglect, or mistreatment. The cadre of crushed lives is on high alert for signs of disapproval. Soldiers in this “battalion of the lost” ask for little. Their hopes reside in the belief their superiors will properly weigh their talents and give them what they’ve earned. They stand at attention and wait. Perhaps some think raising a hand is unnecessary in order to achieve quietly coveted recognition. Others are afraid their uplifted arm will be deemed insubordinate.

The multitudes indeed sometimes receive the desired reward. Fairness is served. But random events can disrupt their plan, as can attention paid to the more assertive. Do the meek rely too much on Jesus’s confident assertion, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”? Even though his promise was a heavenly reward, one must ask how much deference and disappointment is required in this life.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the often misunderstood 19th century German philosopher, warned that conventional morality was an inducement to timidity. He recognized it as a method of control in the hands of both church and state, a kind of spiritual tranquilizer. Nietszche believed such a morality stifled creative powers in the best of men. Instead, obedience, guilt, and servility were encouraged. Other byproducts might include loss of ambition, confidence, and pride. The “herd” humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.

Simone de Beavoir, author of The Second Sex, put the need for self-realization this way:

Every individual concerned with justifying his existence experiences his existence as an infinite need to transcend himself. This means that in focusing on the individual’s possibilities, we will define these possibilities not in terms of happiness but in terms of freedom.

We are left to ask how much docility is necessary within a competitive society? How much vulnerability to shame is too much? How much deference to your fellow-man is required to be good? Must you routinely ask permission when no one blocks you from opportunities? Must we always give reasons for what we do? Who says the world expects them? Apology is a virtuous and necessary step toward righting wrong, but what of those occasions when no one is injured and you automatically beg forgiveness anyway?

“Wanting,” and “taking” are qualities in need of some limits, lest our lives become a free-for-all. Nietzsche would admonish you, however, not to “throw out the baby” of a fully realized life “with the bath water” of a march-step set to an alien rhythm, ignoring the drummer inside you. The human race survived because it wanted many things, including mates and the ability to defend itself. And, the philosopher would argue, to manifest a “will to power” in the most talented among us.

Thus, the question is transformed from “How much acceptance, obedience, and subordination are required?” to “What will I make of myself?”

Will you grasp the world in your hands, not hope it will come to you ready made? Therapy, within such a model, is not only injury repair, but an invitation to self-creation.

Society clearly requires rules, enforcement of the law, and punishment of those who flaunt it. How then are we to reconcile our moral and civil responsibility to “be good” with our urge to fulfill ambition and desire? Surely virtue does not demand insecurity, and a damning up of that which strains for accomplishment, recognition, and joy.

Perhaps ancient ethical guidance offers us something after all. Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian Jewish religious leader of the pre-Christian era (a teacher who would have been admired by Jesus) is famous for two lines of thought. The first, according to Wikipedia, is authorship of The Golden Rule:

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.

But Hillel also said something else:

If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am I? And if not now, when?

No good person wants to cause suffering. Should he not be encouraged to avoid the unhappiness of a self-diminished, inauthentic life?

Can you walk the tightrope connecting Hillel’s ideas? To find yourself and reach your potential while fulfilling The Golden Rule?

To be an advocate for yourself, secure in your right to do so, and at the same honor and defend the rights of others — your responsibility to the community of man?

To avoid choosing self-martyrdom and passivity, passed over and passed by in the hurly-burly of each day?

To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world?

Life challenges us to do no less.

The Angel Emoji was created as part of the Noto Project and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Good and Evil Angels is the work of William Blake, sourced from Wikiarts.org

12 thoughts on “Can You Be Too Good? Therapy as Self-Creation

  1. Thank you for another awesome, mind-stimulating post, Dr. S! I had no idea that people would hold power over others when they asked them to do good or be good. I’ve often been accused of being self-centered when attempting to achieve goals, especially in past relationships with men who didn’t want me to pursue higher education or fulfill my dreams; the focus was always on them, and I had to be “good” to respect their needs. I also had to be “good” to my parents, who abused me, but I wasn’t allowed to question their authority or parenting style. This statement stood out to me: “The ‘herd’ humans (Nietzsche’s term) would thus hesitate to assert themselves, be vulnerable to judgement from outside and inside, and abandon their dreams and desires as too self-centered; if they even recognized they had any.” Indeed, I’ve always felt like I’ve held back who I am, including my potentials and dreams, all for the sake of avoiding any accusations of being self-centered, narcissistic, inconsiderate of others’ needs, grandiose, or naivete. I’ve been conditioned, but I’m not all that innocent or good, either. Sometimes I do try too hard and wind up competing – thought that was never my intent. I compete with myself, but I believe in cooperation and encouraging deep conversations. I love to learn, and when not in school, I independently learn. I’d apologize for things that weren’t my fault, or I’d take the blame because I thought it was good to do so as a leader. I’d also apologize for things that were truly my responsibility, but I’d realize that I’ve taken full responsibility when I wasn’t fully responsible. It’s hard for me to stand up to others when, in the past, that caused me more pain, punishment, abuse, reprimand, and exile. Indeed, I have a tendency toward being socially awkward, asking too many questions, analyzing too much, being too detail-oriented, being overly excited (like a child) about new projects or problem-solving tasks, and challenging when approaching a topic or a statement with alternative views (even if I’m wrong about them). I take risks of failure or being wrong so that I can learn, and I take risks just by the off chance that whatever I say can be used creatively to spark new ideas and innovation. I don’t think of myself as better than others; rather, I’m constantly trying to prove that I not only belong somewhere in the world, but that I can reach my potential – within limits, of course. For me, a socially inept person most of the time because I’m sensitive to noise and lots of people’s movements and real or imagined judgments about me, it’s hard to find that balance between what I can do to enjoy life as I see it versus whether or not my actions or presence threatens someone else (e.g., others’ perceived competition with me, which is not my intent ever; others’ jealousy of me, even though I see everyone else as better than I am; others’ distrust in who I am as a person, even though I intend no harm or embarrassment for them, etc.). Overall, I tend to apologize for me, and yet I still try to be the “good girl.” I’m not perfect, nor will I ever be. I don’t expect anyone else to be perfect either. I do like safety; I don’t want to get physically harmed, nor do I want to be ostracized. But I’d take the isolation, loneliness, and ostracizing over physical harm any day. What being “good” means to me, a survivor, is choosing between social isolation and physical harm; it’s hard for me to speak up for myself without fear that I’d be physically attacked. It’s more than social anxiety for me; it’s a deeply seeded fear of being physically beaten. To me, losing myself meant being good, and being good meant avoidance of physical punishment. Although I know this isn’t true, and although I’ve had the assertiveness treatment in the past, there are situations where I still have those flashbulb triggers that I still can’t shake – no matter who the person is or how trusting I am of them. Desensitization works somewhat, but there are always new situations that get the best of me. When I am assertive, it comes out aggressive, and then I wind up recanting what I said, apologizing, and feeling as though I can never get the balance just right. It takes practice, but that practice is painful and frustrating – especially if it is real and not just role playing. Still, I’m optimistic, so eventually I’ll get there, or at least I hope I will.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Life is complicated. Those who threaten the status quo are a danger to those in power: family, religious institution, corporation, country.

      Liked by 2 people

    • drgeraldstein

      No one gets “the balance just right,” PP. Indeed, I’d argue that we must, throughout life, continue to change the balance and rebalance in response to both our physical and mental changes, what we’ve learned, how our goals have changed, and the new challenges facing us. You wrote this: “I take risks of failure or being wrong so that I can learn, and I take risks just by the off chance that whatever I say can be used creatively to spark new ideas and innovation. I don’t think of myself as better than others; rather, I’m constantly trying to prove that I not only belong somewhere in the world, but that I can reach my potential.” What you’ve already accomplished is remarkable enough for one life. You will never get the respect and approval of everyone. Remember, even if you were running for President and won in a landslide, 40 million people would vote against you. Thanks, as always, PP.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well Dr. Stein, for me, as an advocate of self empowerment through humility and compassion, this piece of yours will require some serious re-reading. “I’ll be back!”

    Like

    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks, Sha’Tara. If you are able to thoughtfully consider what I write here, as you seem to, I’m quite happy to provide you fodder for that process. Don’t assume I have all the answers. I don’t have them even for myself at every moment! Also, what I write often reflects what I’ve read, observations I’ve had of what is happening on the world stage, and sometimes simply trying to see if I can play with an idea or approach a question many struggle with from an atypical perspective. I learn far more from the people who challenge my vision than those who have nothing new to say by either their words or the way in which they engage life. I’m always looking for someone who opens me to something new about myself or the world. I hope I can serve in that capacity for you and others who read my words.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Joseph Patrick Lori

    Let’s see how accurately I remember the following quote:

    “A reasonable man will try to adapt to the world around him.
    An unreasonable man will try to change the world.
    Therefore, all progress is made by unreasonable men.”

    – George Bernard Shaw

    Liked by 1 person

  4. drgeraldstein

    Great quote. Thanks, Joseph.

    Like

  5. Much food for thought, Dr. Stein. As I see it, we-humans need rules of conduct, such as Rabbi Hillel’s ethical guidance known as The Golden Rule, to avoid chaos and self-destructive behavior. With population growth and the rise and fall of empires, governed by a small ruling class, “obedience, guilt, and servility” were essential for them to maintain dominance over the masses. The individual’s quest for self-determination depended upon state approval.

    We-humans are born into a world that is governed by all kinds of laws and regulations with punishment meted out to those who cross the line. Our parents and their parents before them are products of such a world. We demand too much of them and of ourselves.

    “To seek joy as a decent, responsive, concerned citizen of the world” becomes more difficult when hate and xenophobia are the latest norms, perpetrated by the state.

    It seems that our only way to survive or achieve success in this world is to focus on ourselves: our personal needs, our loved ones, our goals, our ambitions.

    “If I am not for myself who is for me,” asks Rabbi Hillel.
    “Mother Nature,” I respond. “Without her, I would cease to exist.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dr. Stein, seems to me that herein you are using the term “good” in relation to obedience; to a “good” person who does not make waves; does not challenge the status quo; does not want to cause upset to anyone. The typical faith follower. The goody-two-shoes.

    There is the opposite good person. The one that lives by self empowerment and knows nothing of obedience to authority. This is the good person who chooses to self sacrifice in order to be of help or support to others. This requires detachment and is achieved through the practice of compassion.

    This good person would likely horrify your example of a good person.

    Like

    • I am using the word “good” in the way you suggest, Sha’Tara. I’d say that I personally value the opposite good person you describe for the reasons you indicate, but I think “being good” more often is used in a way consistent with my use of it than the second version. Person #2 is characterized as assertive, brave, strong, courageous, altruistic, etc.; at least in my experience. The distinction you make is important. Many thanks for making it.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s