resentment

Shame and Contempt, Part 4: Countering Self-Righteousness & Other Righteousness

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

In my earlier blogs in this series, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, and the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from, and the flipside of Shame and Contempt. Now that we’ve named Guilt and Contempt as potential major players in our inner worlds, as well as looked at the places from where these fickle foes plant seeds and grow, I would like to discuss how to counter the powerful pulls of self-righteousness and other righteousness.

The truth is that we are all good at some things, and we are all bad at some things.  Neither one can ever speak to our value as a human.  Performance, skill, ability, and aptitude are all completely irrelevant to our dignity and worth.

When we stand either over or under another human, we are out of place, and it wears on our souls.

The beginning of change is in observing what has always been automatic, accepted, or unquestioned.  Pay attention to the thoughts and voices with which you speak to yourself, and with which you speak of others.  Notice the elements of self- or other-righteousness.  The more you notice them, the more they will bother you (hopefully).  That dissatisfaction is necessary to finding the change you need.

If you feel stuck, seek an external observer: a mentor, pastor, friend, or counselor who is not overly impressed with you, who will be honest with you, and with whom you can be honest in return.  Work together to identify the places you need to work on.

Stepping out of self- and/or other-righteousness is a challenge, but when you find the room, you will discover a great relief in your being, and a larger amount of freedom and acceptance with and for your fellow humans.

Fiction, Hollywood, and Real Relationship

by Jonathan Hart, LPC

SPOILER ALERT:  for those who haven’t read the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there may be plot spoilers in the following paragraphs, though I will try hard not to reveal too much.

My wife and I were discussing some of our thoughts about how the books The Deathly Hallows and Mockingjay ended, and how they served to wrap up their respective series.  We were thoroughly disappointed in each and for similar reasons.  The core of our disappointment was the principle of “putting a bow on ugly”.

The Harry Potter series ended with an epilogue titled “19 years later”, that (we felt) too neatly and agreeably attempted to wrap up all the threads from the series.  The fact that Harry named a child after the person who most utterly despised him and treated him viciously even behind closed doors was just too much.  I can see coming to respect him, but one simply does not name a child after an abuser of this magnitude.  All the ugliness seemed to have inexplicably vanished.

The Hunger Games series tried to do the same thing, though the attempt at closure was somewhat better.  The author at least attempted to acknowledge that ugly existed in the post-story world, but it was still resolved too simplistically and without the flesh to make it believable for me.

Hollywood and fiction train us to expect that all the loose ends can be resolved, that resolution equals “happily ever after” or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.  They train us to need things to work out that way.  This is most plainly true in the (despicable and utterly useless) genre known as “Romantic Comedy”.  I cannot say more without using profanity.

Think of the sense of disappointment or unease when you watch a movie in which resolution is not clean or neat. We recently watched the movie Moneyball, which does not conclude with a “Hollywood Ending”.  I can only say that the events depicted happened within the recent lifetimes of many, and as such could not be modified to fit the pattern described above.  I feel that if they were more ancient history they would likely have been changed into something completely victorious.

This is fine, and even necessary (to a degree) for celluloid.  The unfortunate side effect is that because reality is very much different, many people are left with a sense of disappointment and even despair when real life does not work that way.  The truth is that human beings are generally a broken, selfish lot that is capable of both great goodness and great evil, often within a single breath.

The fact is that intimacy, real relationship, and engaging responsibly with another human being is often like a wrestling match.  The very best relationship in the world experiences conflict and disagreement, hurt and offense, misunderstanding and tension on an ongoing basis.  The couple who tells you that “never a harsh word is spoken” is either whitewashing, outright lying, or they are not experiencing real, deep intimacy.

If you are going to really do deep, intimate relationship with another person, you’d better know how to fight.  I don’t mean knowing how to eviscerate your opponent in the shortest period of time.  I mean knowing how to hold in tension the following two truths: 1. This other person and I are on the same side,  and 2. There is pain and friction between us.

When I talk about knowing how to fight, I mean knowing how to understand and express my own feelings and thoughts in a way that does not accuse or attack the other, even when it is plainly and wholly their fault.  I mean learning how to uphold their honor and dignity while feeling the painfully powerful desire to rip their eyes out.  I mean knowing how to view conflict as a necessary part of doing relationship, and not as a threat to relationship.

It is often one of the hardest lessons to learn in relationship that resolution is not about coming to agreement, but rather it is about coming to a deeper understanding of the other person, and thereby learning how to craft a unique relationship between the two of you.  No part of that process is clean, neat, or simple.  It is ugly, and to expect or demand otherwise only leads to disappointment.  You can put a bow on it if you like, but that doesn’t make it easier to look at.  It takes patience, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love.  When you’ve come to the other side of it, it will still be ugly, but there is a beauty in what has been created by moving through it that will last a lifetime.

Start at the Bottom… And Stay There.

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

I work with a lot of couples, and one thing I notice a lot of is Expectations.  I think this is a simple fact of being human.  We place a lot of expectations in the people around us.  The closer they are, the more we expect of them.  Most of the arguments I hear (and honestly, most of the arguments I start myself) begin the same way:  “You always…” or “You never…”.  Loosely translated, what this usually works out to is something like this: “You don’t do what I want/hope/expect you to do.   I have the right to expect that you will do this. My expectations are disappointed.”

Naturally when someone hears a statement like this, the human response is a defensive counterattack.  “Oh Yeah?  Well, YOU always…” and it only goes down hill from there.   A good rule of thumb is to listen for the words “Always” and “Never”.  Often, those words are code for the expectations that we have, and that we feel our partner is not meeting.

It is a natural pattern to look at everything our partner is supposed to be doing and highlight where they are dropping the ball. But what if we turned this pattern on its head?  What if we were able to shift our focus away from the places our partner is disappointing us and look instead at how we can help them be everything they were made to be?  To organize our efforts at encouraging and building them up instead of encouraging them to build us up?

I am not suggesting that we should simply try to do everything our partner tells us to do.  That would be about as much fun as boot camp.  That only feeds the conflict monster.  I am suggesting that we work toward helping them be more emphatically themselves, rather than trying to shape them into who we want them to be.  

This requires listening to and learning about who they are, who they want to be, their hopes and dreams, desires and fears.  It requires starting at the bottom, working to understand what makes them tick and why they do things the way they do rather than trying to convince them that the way they are doing it is wrong. It requires placing yourself in the position of learner rather than expert.  We are asking the question, “How can I help you reach your dreams and goals?” rather than “What have you done for me lately?”

This is not mindless subservience.  Sometimes helping someone be better at being themselves can include challenge. It can include confronting hurtful and destructive patterns. It can include stretching and pushing someone we care about outside their customary limits.  And again, these things must be done in a spirit, not of reshaping them into our own image of what they should be, but of helping them sharpen and explore their own potential.  I am talking about placing yourself at the service of your partner.

There is a lot more to this idea than there is space to explore it here.  Consider this a teaser, food for thought. I am asking you to simply consider what it might be like to “through love, serve one another”.

It’s OK to be Angry

by Jonathan Hart, LPC
Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Psalm 4:4

The first two words here may be startling to many, especially among those who have spent their lives in church or religious circles.  The message many of us have received is “do not be angry”, or “to be angry is to be selfish”. We take the good message of peace and forgiveness to mean that confrontation and boundaries are excluded.

But the command here is to “be angry”. Anger is not of itself an evil, nor is it universally inappropriate. If it were, God himself would never become angry. But there are things that make God angry: injustice, ruthlessness, arrogance, taking advantage of the weak and powerless.  These are things that rightly inspire our own anger.

Anger is a powerful emotion, and humans are prone to abusing power. The expression and communication of anger is regulated in this verse and in other places as well.  Talking about those limitations is another post altogether.  For many, it will be enough for now to consider that to feel and express anger is sometimes a perfectly appropriate response.