David J. Lieberman, Ph.D.
St. Martin's Press
Why Do You Care if Someone “Gives You the Finger”?
What does it mean when we say that we are hurt? Or that someone has offended or embarrassed us? What do we mean when we say that something is unforgivable or that someone was rude or disrespectful?
What we are saying, simply, is that someone else’s behavior caused us an emotional pain. Okay, fine. But this begs the larger question of why we are pained by these situations. Why do we even care? To say that we are hurt is not enough. To fully understand what is going on we have to answer the question Why?
Why Don’t You Like Being Told to Shut Up?
Does it bother you when another driver cuts you off on the road? Or when someone rejects, ignores, or embarrasses you? Or for that matter steals, lies to you, or cheats on you? Of course you are left feeling hurt, betrayed, and angry, but the question is why? To say that you were treated contemptuously and disrespectfully is accurate, but why does that bother us?
Do you understand the larger questions here? Why does it pain us to be disrespected? Why do you care if someone gives you “the finger”? You don’t bleed. It doesn’t cost you anything. And you’re not prevented from living your life. Yet it matters, and sometimes it matters a lot. So let’s find out why we care.
Can You Tell Me Simply What Exactly Self-Esteem Is?
So often we throw around words like ego, self-esteem, fear, respect, anger, and projection. But what do they all mean, and more important, how are they all connected? Let’s see exactly how, on a practical, everyday level, these words shape the way we see ourselves and impact on how we interact with our world. In a nutshell, let’s look “behind the scenes” into the human mind.
In order to be happy, have good relationships, and be psychologically balanced, a person has to feel good about himself. This means that we need to literally love ourselves. And this self-love is called self-esteem.
Now, many folks insist that all we need to feel good about ourselves is to get a good dose of self-esteem, as if we could order it off the menu at Denny’s. That would be great if we could, but self-esteem is a by-product of how you live your life. It cannot be gained directly. It can be gained only through self-respect. Why is this so? Simply, if you do not respect yourself, then you cannot love yourself.
How Does a Person Gain Self-Respect?
We all make choices as we go through our daily lives. When we choose to do what we believe is the “right thing,” we feel good about ourselves, and when we do what we know is wrong, we often feel guilt, embarrassment, and shame. These emotions tear away at our self-respect and eat away at our self-esteem.
Good enough. But what does this have to do with ending feuds and conflicts? We’re getting warm. Because herein lies the basis for every type of interpersonal conflict.
Notice that we say choose to do what is right. In order to choose, you must be independent, meaning that you must be able to exercise your free will and not be forced to do the right thing. This is why any situation that robs us of our freedom in effect harms our self-esteem, because when our freedom is restricted our ability to choose is as well. Therefore we find that our sense of independence and self-esteem are intertwined. And that’s the key. As we will see, it is the loss of independence that sparks all the conflicts you have—and holds the secret to resolving them effortlessly.
But let’s back up for just a moment. When you make a decision in life, any decision, there is always one or a combination of three underlying motivations.You can choose what feels good. You can choose what makes you look good. You can choose to do what is good or right.
The first two motivations chip away at our self-esteem, while the third makes us feel good about ourselves and who we are. Let’s take a look at how and why this happens.
When you choose to do something merely because it feels good—even though you know that it may be wrong—it robs you of your self-control. Your actions are dictated by habits and impulses. For instance, when you overeat, you don’t feel good about yourself, and afterward you may even feel guilty and angry. Or if you sleep late when you had wanted to get an early start, you may become annoyed with yourself. When you make a decision that goes against your true inner desires—in this case to eat well or get up early—you are in effect a slave to your cravings. Hence, you are not free and not independent.
Now, when you do something merely because it makes you look good but you know it is wrong, you are not living for yourself but only for an image. When you are driven by this motivation, you are not independent, you are not free. When we are driven by ego, we do things that will project the right image and we become consumed with money, power, control, vanity—the worldly things that many people value. Your choices are not based on what is good but rather on what makes you look good. When you live to support an image, you are dependent on others to feed your ego. This is not freedom.
In Order to Feel Good, You Must Do Good: If You Set Out to Feel Good, You Often Wind Up Feeling Bad
Last, when you make a choice to do what is right, you feel good about yourself. This is because to feel good you must do good, not what feels good or looks good. Only when you are able to choose responsibly are you in charge of your life and do you gain self-respect. Then your actions are free and you feel good about who you are. Now we begin to bring to the surface the wonderful intricacies of self-esteem, ego, independence, and self-respect.
So we see that doing what is right nourishes our psyche. You gain self-respect and in return self-esteem. This is how self-respect and self-control are intertwined.
Here’s How It All Fits Together
When someone does something to you that takes away some of your control or power, you get angry. If you have low self-esteem, then that means by definition that you do not feel in control. And you will be damned if someone is going to come along and rob you of your last few remaining drops of independence and power, of feeling in control. If you just glanced at this paragraph, please reread it as it is at the foundation of all interpersonal conflicts.
Any situation that you deem as directly disrespectful, or that robs you of your self-respect by taking away your power, forces you to react negatively. If you feel in control and hence have self-esteem, then you are not going to respond with anger. We see this because the higher a person’s self-esteem, the less angry he becomes in any given negative situation.
When We Don’t Respect Ourselves, We Can’t Truly Love Ourselves, and So We Seek Love from Others to Fill the Void
This love that we need comes in the package of respect. If other people respect us, then we feel that we can respect ourselves as we “convert” their respect of us into self-love. Self-esteem and ego both pivot on self-respect. We need it from somewhere, and if we don’t get it from ourselves we demand it from others.
Self-Esteem and Ego Are Inversely Related—When One Goes Up, the Other Goes Down
The part of us that seeks self-respect from others is called the ego. The ego is a projection of how we want and need the world to see us. With low self-esteem (meaning the ego is in charge), when we get “good” or positive feedback, we feel good about ourselves. When we don’t, we feel less good about who we are.
When someone is rude or embarrasses us—does anything that is disrespectful—if we have low self-esteem, it causes us to question our own self-worth and lash out with anger. This is why a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive—because his opinion of himself fluctuates with his ability to impress others.
Understand, it is only our ego—our false self—that gets offended. The greater our self-esteem, the less hurt we feel when someone is disrespectful.
When a person gets angry, it is because he is, to some extent, fearful. And this fear comes from the fact that he has lost control of some aspect of his life—of his circumstance, his understanding of his world, or his self-image. Anger is the impulsive response to this fear, which then sparks the conflict, feud, or disagreement because we direct our anger toward the source that we feel is responsible for robbing us of our power, our control.
Why Is Anger the Emotional Response?
When we do not get respect from others, we get angry because it hurts how we need to see ourselves. It cuts off our “food” supply—our nourishment for the psyche. And this disrupts our ability to feel in control. The emotional response to this loss of control is fear. And the response to fear—the ego’s attempt to compensate for the loss—is anger. At the root of all negative emotions—envy, lust, jealousy, and especially anger—is fear. At the root of fear is low self-esteem. This is why angry people have low self-esteem. This is why they argue, are stubborn, and don’t forgive. Anger makes us feel powerful. It gives us the illusion that we are in control, free, and independent. But in reality it makes us lose control.
The Paradox of Respect
In order to try to gain respect, people with low self-esteem do the very things that make other people lose respect for them. They brag about themselves and are arrogant. They are quick to judge, gossip, criticize, and embarrass others. But no one respects someone who puts people down and who’s constantly seeking the approval of those around him. Not only do others think less of him, but he also winds up feeling worse about himself. Remember, this is because we gain self-respect by doing what we know to be right, and since deep down inside we know this gossiping and being judgmental is wrong, it moves us farther away from liking our self.
Anger Is the Illusion of Control
You know that when you become angry, you feel a sense of empowerment, but it is only a counterfeit of true confidence. We hold on to the anger because then we feel that we have control over the relationship. The person is now dependent on us to forgive. When we are hurt, we go into defense mode, and anger boosts the ego and gives us the sense of identity, control, and permanence that was taken away. It is an illusion that grounds us. It is our defense mechanism to feeling vulnerable. Yet in the end, it is still just an illusion and offers no real satisfaction or lasting psychological comfort.
Human Beings Have a Fundamental Need for Independence: When We Lose Control, We Lose Our Sense of Independence
Has there ever been a time in your life when you were dependent on others for most of your needs? This can usually make a person feel a little uncomfortable. It’s hard to feel empowered and good about yourself when you’re constantly on the receiving end.
Freedom is at the crux of self-respect. You can’t feel good about yourself when you are constantly dependent on someone or something—from drugs to financial support. Think about how you feel when you have to go to someone for help—you can feel uneasy and anxious. Human beings need a sense of independence to feel good, and losing control robs us of our sense of empowerment. It pulls the rug out from under our psyche.
Therefore, to restore peace to any situation, you must first restore that person’s sense of independence. (Don’t worry, this is done in a matter of minutes.)
I was Naked in School Again
Two of the most common dreams people have are those of loose or missing teeth and being naked in a public place. What do these two themes share? Fear of losing control—being vulnerable and exposed. Consider, too, some common phobias: fear of flying, falling, snakes, and so on. Again, the common theme is feeling out of control.
This is why it is so hard for someone with low self-esteem to forgive. When a person is wronged, she goes into protection mode, where she is afraid to give of herself. And giving someone your trust, respect, and forgiveness is giving of your emotional self. Because some sense of her self-respect has been taken away, she feels less good about herself and more scared to give. Giving is a risk, and she is fearful of losing more of her self and her remaining self-respect. So she holds back. Hence another foundation of the psychological strategies we will use is to build up a person’s psychological reserves so she can give again, freely and easily.
I’m Telling You the Dictionary is Wrong!
Have you ever wondered why it is so important for someone to believe as he does despite obvious evidence to the contrary? He insists that the dictionary is wrong because it doesn’t have the word he wants to put down in Scrabble. And playing Trivial Pursuit is a real treat when he has you half-convinced that there is a misprint on every other card. This person “needs” to be right for the same reason someone gets angry. He is unable to feel “less,” to be wrong and to lose power. If you know this, it’s much easier for you to detach from the situation, because you recognize that it’s not about you or the game but that his ego needs to do this. This is about him, it’s not about you. Have sympathy and compassion, and try not to get defensive, because then your ego is getting involved. See the situation for what it is.
MAKE PEACE WITH ANYONE Copyright © 2002 by David J. Lieberman, Ph.D.David J. Lieberman, Ph.D., whose books have been translated into fifteen languages, is an internationally renowned leader in the field of human behavior. He has appeared on more than two hundred programs and is a frequent guest expert on national television and radio shows such as The Today Show, National Public Radio, The View, PBS, The Montel Williams Show, and A&E. Dr. Lieberman holds a Ph.D, in psychology and is the creator of Neural-Dynamics Analysis, a revolutionary short-term therapy. He is a sought-after speaker, lecturer, and consultant across a spectrum of topics. Techniques based on his work have led to groundbreaking advancements in numerous fields and are used by governments, corporations, and professionals in more than twenty-five countries. He lives in South Florida.