How do our hardwired instincts set us up to violate our own dignity?
We’ve all heard about our instinct to fight or flee when we feel threatened. But the fact is, there are more of these self-preservation reactions, and they often not the most dignified. Think about how fast we try to cover up when we’ve made a mistake, or how difficult it is to admit to and apologize for doing something wrong. We have an instinct to want to be right and it can be very hard to restrain, even when there’s evidence that we are wrong.
Or, consider how tempting it is to think that our dignity comes from something external to us, like getting a promotion, or making a lot of money. If we depend on outside circumstances to prove to ourselves that we are worthy, we may be waiting forever.
These internal self-preservation forces are very powerful, and if we don’t develop an awareness of them, and learn how to restrain them, we run the risk of doing a lot of harm both to ourselves and others. Below is a list of what I call the “Ten Temptations”-- ways to maintain your dignity when your instincts think they know better:
The Ten Temptations to Violate Dignity
Taking the Bait. Don’t take the bait. Don’t let the bad behavior of others determine your own. Restraint is the better part of dignity. Don’t justify getting even. Do not do unto others as they do unto you if it will cause harm.
Saving Face. Don’t succumb to the temptation to save face. Don’t lie, cover up, or deceive yourself. Tell the truth about what you have done.
Shirking Responsibility. Don’t shirk responsibility when you have violated the dignity of others. Admit it when you make a mistake, and apologize if you hurt someone.
Seeking False Dignity. Beware of the desire for external recognition in the form of approval and praise. If we depend on others alone for the validation of our worth, we are seeking false dignity. Authentic dignity resides within us. Don’t be lured by false dignity.
Seeking False Security. Don’t let your need for connections compromise your dignity. If we remain in a relationship in which our dignity is routinely violated, our desire for connection has outweighed our need to maintain dignity.
Avoiding Conflict. Stand up for yourself. Don’t avoid confrontation when your dignity is violated. Take action. A violation is a signal that something in a relationship needs to change.
Being the Victim. Don’t assume that you are the innocent victim in a troubled relationship. Open yourself to the idea that you might be contributing to the problem. We need to look at ourselves as others see us.
Resisting Feedback. Don’t resist feedback from others. We often don’t know what we don’t know. We all have blindspots; we all unconsciously behave in undignified ways. We need to overcome our self-protective instincts and accept constructive criticism. Feedback gives us an opportunity to grow.
Blaming and Shaming Others to Deflect Your Own Guilt. Don’t blame and shame others to deflect your guilt. Control the urge to defend yourself by making others look bad.
Engaging in False Intimacy and Demeaning Gossip. Beware of the tendency to connect by gossiping about others in a demeaning way. Being critical and judgmental about others when they are not present is harmful and undignified. If you want to create intimacy with another, speak the truth about yourself, about what is happening in your inner world, and invite the other person to do the same.
One thing to realize is that because these hardwired instincts are part of what makes us all human, it is not our fault that these powerful forces direct much of our knee jerk reactions when we are feeling exposed or unworthy. But it is our job to understand them and to develop the skills we need so that we don’t fall prey to them. As Jerome Barkow warns us, “Biology is not destiny unless we ignore it.” Keep in mind that we are much more than our hardwired instincts. Along with self-awareness and a good deal of compassion for what we are all up against, we have what it takes to learn to manage these reactions. If we choose to do it, we can overcome these temptations, do the right thing, and, most importantly, demonstrate our worth. Dignity is something we are all born with, but it’s our responsibility to start acting like it.
Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of "Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays In Resolving Conflict" (Yale University Press).