The concept of merit doesn’t enjoy the status it once did and rightfully deserves. Our culture doesn’t do much to promote, recognize, and reward meritorious conduct. Many don’t even know what the concept of merit means. And many more fail to appreciate its importance. But understanding merit is key to heeding the “third commandment” of healthy character development. We must mindfully cultivate a balanced sense of self-worth.
Merit and meritorious Conduct
The Cambridge Dictionary defines merit as: “the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.” It truly amazes me how many individuals I’ve encountered over the years who prided themselves for all the wrong things. The same folkks often failed to recognize the supreme value of their more meritorious actions. In almost every case, this led to an unhealthy, unbalanced sense of self. Taking pride in the wrong things – especially those things for which we really can’t take credit anyway (e.g., our intellect, our looks, our talents, etc.), fosters an unhealthily inflated sense of self-worth. That’s because those aforementioned things can’t rightfully be considered our doing. In truth, they’re accidents of nature or “gifts of God.” We shouldn’t heap or embrace praise for such things. And when we don’t recognize and affirm ourselves for how we use our gifts to make this world a better place it’s hard to develop healthy self-respect. We and we alone are responsible for the right exercise of our wills. So, it’s important to affirm the value of our more conscientious choices.
When I employ cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people develop sound character, I teach folks to both recognize and give themselves appropriate credit for the efforts and difficult choices they make each day to be a better person. We’ve long known that therapists do well to be both affirming and rewarding in dealing with their clients. But I’ve learned to be selective about how, when, and what I praise. And it’s equally important to advise people properly about how, when, and why they should applaud themselves. I learned this lesson early in my career and wrote about it years ago in my first book In Sheep’s Clothing. I wrote about it again in Character Disturbance and The Judas Syndrome. But now, even the research evidence is clear: it’s not what you look like, how witty you are, or any of those other unique attributes you possess that makes you “special.” If you allow yourself to think so, you’re likely to get a pretty “fat head.” What really makes you extraordinary – and merits you recognition and affirmation – is what you do with your gifts and how you conduct yourself in your relationships. This is the very essence of merit. And the extent to which you conduct yourself in a meritorious manner is also what defines your character.
Helping Folks Become Better
When guiding folks toward greater character health, I make it a point in the beginning to recognize and affirm all their meritorious actions, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. But eventually, they have to learn to do this for themselves. Appropriately recognizing and affirming meritorious conduct is the the very antidote to false pride and unhealthy self-agrandizement. It also provides essential reinforcement for a person’s willingness to undertake life’s most daunting but noblest tasks. And as we know, no behavior persists without reinforcement.
Next week’s post will provide an additional preview of my upcoming book with Dr. Kathy Armistead, tentatively titled The 10 Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life, due out at the end of the summer. I’ll discuss the “fourth commandment” of healthy character development, which has to do with revering truth. I’ll be spending some time on this “commandment” because of its crucial importance.
My sincerest thanks to all of you who have helped make How Did We End Up Here ?, my first book with Dr. Armistead, the success it is fast becoming.
Tune in to Character Matters Sunday Evening at 7 pm Eastern (6 pm Central) for a discussion of these and other matters. And if you have something to ask me, share with me, or just want to share with the listening audience, call in at (718) 717-8296.