For the past several weeks we’ve been discussing the “10 commandments” of sound character development – the life lessons a person must master if they’re to forge a character of strength and integrity. This week’s post wraps up the series that began with Building Character: The “10 Commandments” of Socialization and focuses on two essential aspects of relating to others: treating everyone with civility and generosity and being sincere and genuine in your encounters.
Sometimes it’s really difficult to be generous and civil to someone, especially if you believe that person has behaved in a less than civil or generous manner toward you. But there’s no merit in treating someone well just because you like them or because they’ve treated you well. Rather, the real test of character , as the “golden rule” has long espoused, is to treat others in the manner you would have them treat you. Now, I’m not at all suggesting that in following this axiom you must allow yourself to endure mistreatment and/or abuse by others. Far from it. You have not only the right but also the inescapable duty to both set and enforce the limits and boundaries necessary to keep yourself safe. But when you behave in a civil way (while firmly enforcing any necessary limits and boundaries), even in your dealings with impaired characters, that person’s character defects become inescapably illuminated and glaringly self-evident.
As big a challenge as it is to be civil and generous, even when we don’t feel like it, it’s a much bigger challenge to remain sincere and genuine in our encounters with others. The socio-cultural climate in which most of us live is replete with superficiality. We’re bombarded with “reality” shows that showcase audacious personas possessing about as much substance as air. And whether the superficial personas we encounter in our daily lives are constructed unconsciously to avoid emotional pain (as in the case of “neurotic” personalities), or they’re constructed knowingly, deliberately, and for the purposes of deception, manipulation, and impression-management (as in the case of disturbed and disordered characters, the result is the same: we rarely know who the people we deal with really are. But each one of us can make a difference in this regard. We have the power to be real in our encounters. People can then know us for the genuinely good person we might be. And while this genuineness definitely puts us at risk (as I point out in In Sheep’s Clothing, certain nefarious characters are notorious for exploiting and abusing the good nature of a decent, sincere person), we get our best and most reliable warnings about the true nature of others and their potential danger to us in a relationship when they disrespect, disregard, or take unfair advantage of our genuineness.
In Character Disturbance, I advise:
Be honest with yourself about whatever you do and the reasons you’re doing it. And be straightforward with others. let your intentions be noble and transparent. Harbor no hidden agendas. Avoid hypocrisy and the tendency to cast yourself as someone or something you’re not. Although you need not broadcast your every desire, sincerity is a prerequisite for developing integrity of character. (pp. 144-145)
It’s worth reiterating a very important rule to follow whenever you take seriously and do your best to observe any of the “commandments” of sound character development: recognize the value of and reinforce yourself for the effort. Developing strength and integrity of character takes time and a whole lot of behavioral “rehearsal.” And no learning fully takes root in the absence of reinforcement. When we’re in our formative years, we’re dependent on wise parents to recognize and reinforce their children for every small effort they see them make to observe the “commandments” of character. But as we get older, the burden for self-recognition and reinforcement falls increasingly on us. And it’s particularly unhealthy (i.e. it fosters emotional “dependency”) to enter adulthood with a retained tendency to look toward external sources of recognition, approval, and reinforcement. So, if I may, let me introduce “commandment” number 11: Do your best to observe the other ” 10 commandments” and when you do, remember to recognize and reinforce yourself for the effort. You will be a better person for it.