Conflict makes us chose a response. Our choices begin at a very young age, and behaviors take on many forms in interpersonal relationships: patterns emerge and develop over time; with a lifelong curriculum involving experience and discipline (or lack of discipline) that results in our core character. The earliest lessons often begin at the most tender ages of early childhood as we perceive low or high levels of personal power. As a result, people seem to trade (gain or lose what they feel they need from others) in either pity or respect. The orientation towards pity or respect can slide along a continuum of extremes; but we generally recognize ourselves to be either strong enough to meet life’s challenges, or weak and reliant upon others to meet our needs.
There are those who place a premium on respect accept responsibility for their actions; they inspire confidence through asserting themselves as honest, persistent, capable, strong and being fully present for life’s challenges. They act from a core of strength, stability, and congruence. They practice accurate thinking and rigorously avoid errors in their own logical processing. They value honest advisors who care enough to guide them and offer correction and advice. In short, they “own their stuff.”
Conversely, there are those who manipulate others, either subtly or overtly, utilizing pity as a lever on the fulcrum of another’s sympathies. They decline their responsibility, possibly blaming and utilizing a myriad of reasons why they can rise to a particular challenge. In extreme cases, relationships are saturated with excuses, expectations of unwarranted rescue, and rote tapes of sad stories. Manipulation often utilizes the tools of partial truths or overt lies fed to others and to themselves about choices and circumstances. These lies lead to confusion, both internally and interpersonally. Habitual lying trains the mind to practice habitual confusion, leading to an inability to think correctly, effectively, and logically. Effective problem solving may then become impossible to the pathological liar. Common sense is minimized or lost; nonsensical thinking reigns.
It may not even occur that this orientation exists within ourselves; we simply manage as best we can until a crisis hits or an event triggers some introspection . It is time well spent to consider our own orientation and what we prize - sympathy and pity, or respect and strength, or something in between. Human beings are never perfectly consistent.
In the classic tale of The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas perfectly illustrates a character trading on pity. The man is a convicted criminal. Through the course of his life, he has been shown mercy by others in several critical points of despair and poverty; even being released from his criminal sentence as a galley slave though the kindness and intervention of a benefactor. However, he chooses to burglarize a home, and is mortally wounded. While dying, he states:
“No; I will not repent. There is no God, there is no Providence – all comes by chance.”
“This is what the God in whom, on your death-bed, your refuse to believe, has done for you: he gave you health, strength, regular employment, even friends – a life, in fact, which a man might enjoy with a calm conscience. Instead of improving these gifts, rarely granted so abundantly, this has been your course: you have given yourself up to sloth and drunkenness, and in a fit of intoxication have ruined your best friend.”
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey defines responsibility as ‘the ability to respond.’ How does one practice the ability to respond appropriately or effectively? Practice truth. Seek to build skill in logical thinking. Surround yourself with friends who offer wise counsel. Commit to truthful interpersonal transactions. Avoid manipulation. Be fully present. Be grateful.