Some Tarnish on the Golden Rule

As I have written previously, Aldous Huxley in his wonderful introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita expounded on the notion of the Perennial Philosophy – the underlying principles common to most of the major religions. A natural outcome from these fundamental beliefs is what Christians have come to call “The Golden Rule”.

“All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; .”
Matthew 7:1

Whilst Christians might like to think this is a noble precept exclusive to Christianity, there are similar statements in the literature of Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism. It is a very ubiquitous thought in the mainstream religions. All the variants of the Golden Rule exhort that we should love others as we love ourselves. It is often more appropriately called the Law of Reciprocity.

This is a noble thought – but it is sometimes flawed. Many of us would do others a great disservice in following through on this rule, mainly because we don’t “love ourselves”. No, I am not promoting egotism and narcissism here! People exhibiting these traits don’t love themselves at all. Narcissism and egotism are mechanism to shore up a lack of self-esteem. These are self-defence mechanisms for those who find it difficult to accept themselves as they are and therefore erect edifices of self-defence which lead to dysfunctional behaviour in trying to prop up unrealistic self-concepts.

Remember the good Dr Phil’s formula for psychological maturity. First we need to know ourselves, then to accept ourselves and then, hopefully we can forget ourselves. Those that I am referring to can’t accept themselves and far from forgetting themselves, because they can’t accept themselves, become self-obsessed. (This is also a problem for those suffering from depression.)

Another manifestation of this problem of not accepting ourselves is that it also often results in people having undue expectations of themselves. Such people can forgive the frailties of others but not their own. Such people are prepared to love others more than they love themselves. They are often far more demanding of themselves than they are of others.

Indeed such perfectionists are often self-critical over trivial issues. If say, a friend was asked to give a speech at a wedding and stumbled over a few words then the perfectionist wouldn’t be unduly critical. Yet if they had made the same mistake they would have been appalled. Such people engage in unwarranted self-flagellation for trivial mistakes. If an acquaintance had sat for an examination and passed they would be pleased for them. If they sat the examination and passed they would be decimated because they didn’t at least get a distinction. If a daughter or son had competed in an athletic event and not gained a place they would be satisfied so long as the child had tried and did their best. If they personally had competed and not gained a place the perfectionist would have been distressed. Many of them would not even expose themselves to such a test, be it physical or intellectual, for fear of failure. When they don’t meet their own inflated criteria for success, they treat themselves as failures.

In his book “Destructive Emotions” Daniel Goleman relates how, when the Dalai Lama began working with leading western scientists and psychologists, it came as a surprise to him to be told that some westerners did not love themselves but were immersed in self-hatred. This was a concept that did not exist in Tibetan thought.

He said, “Compassion, as it is understood in the Tibetan tradition, is a state of mind or way of being where you extend how you relate to yourself towards others as well.”

When he was then asked to clarify whether indeed the object of compassion may be the self he responded, “Yourself first, and then in more advanced ways the aspiration will embrace others.”

So then it is quite clear that the notion of “the Golden Rule” as having great benefits to humankind is only true when we have a platform of self-acceptance to work from. Those of us who have not come to accept ourselves will not relate genuinely to others because of our self-defence mechanisms. These self defence mechanisms will generally come in two kinds:

• Narcissism and egotism
• Perfectionism

The former will play out in exaggerated strategies to have us look good to bolster our weak self-acceptance.

The latter will play out as undue expectations of ourselves striving to meet an idealized self-portrait.

In recent decades there has been a huge focus on enhancing self-esteem. We strive to find excuses to praise our children believing this will make them feel good about themselves and this we believe will make them more robust. This strategy however, often sets them up for failure. When they have to confront the real world and discover that those marvelous traits their parents praised them for are not extraordinary at all they are driven then to question our self-concept. Hopefully, whilst let down, we can come to understand we are not special at all. And with such understanding will come self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Psychologist Mark Leary and his colleagues wrote an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology with the rather off-putting title “Self-Compassion and Reactions to Unpleasant Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly”. Leary reports, “Self-compassion helps people not add another layer of self-recrimination on top of whatever bad things happen to them.”

It is clear that self-acceptance or even self-compassion is the very quality that leads us to be compassionate of others. Rather than espousing we should all have high self-esteem we should be trying to subjugate the self, put it out of our mind. And that is an unlikely outcome is we have yet to accept who we are.

The Golden Rule is a good rule for many of us and its application by well-adjusted people has brought the world many blessings. But if we can’t love and accept ourselves the exhortation to treat others as ourselves is fraught with problems.

One Reply to “Some Tarnish on the Golden Rule”

  1. Why is it that the wealthier and more secure we are the harder it is for us to forget our self? In places where people are struggling to find their next meal they seem to have much less problem with this. I believe they are too busy with their physical needs to worry about what others think about them and that this is the key. It is not so much that we set high standards for ourselves it is that we care too much about what others think of us. If we lived alone on an island would we really be such high achievers or would a pass be good enough?

    In the first world we have so much time to ponder what has been and what might be, where as in the third world they do not have this luxury. The struggle for existence is all in the present and it leaves little time for such contemplation. So what is the solution? Stay busy and physically active. Another Christian quote “Idle hands do the devils work”. I think this is as much about negative self talk as evil deeds. Stay busy and you find that you have forgotten yourself, even if just for a time.

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