For Goodness Sake

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:22

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For Goodness Sake

Saturday 8, September 2001

How many of the people you call friends do you not really like? How many of them do you see as something of a burden, as relationships to be endured rather than enjoyed? You see them because you feel obliged, you resent the demands they make on you, and you don't feel good after seeing them. So why do you keep them in your life?

Whatever we do always has, in part, the aim of making us feel good about ourselves. To achieve this, we have to think that what we are doing fits our image of ourselves. Suppose you like to think of yourself as a kind, tolerant, generous, helpful person. You don't want to think of yourself as hard and cruel. When you've got a friend who is hurtful, even destructive, you can't say, "I don't want to see you again", because that would be hard and cruel, and you're not a hard, cruel person.

We want the people we know to see in us the qualities we most admire and which we hope we possess. So if you don't want to think of yourself as hard and cruel, you won't end a relationship that causes you nothing but pain.

Maybe you think of yourself as a person who isn't afraid of competition, who is not weak and emotional. You might suspect that you're not as tough as you'd like your friends to think you are, but you don't want them to find that out. So you have to act tough, and you can't reject any friend who challenges your toughness because that rejection will show how weak you are.

Being kind and helpful, or tough and unemotional, can mean to you that you are a good person, which is fine, provided you don't do what many people do - prefer to be good than happy. If you are going on and on, trying to be friends with someone who harms you, you are doing just that.

Trying to be good is something we do without thinking. It goes right back to when we were children and the adults around us showed us that if we weren't good in the way they wanted us to be, they would not accept us.

We each have our own way of defining "good". It might mean being kind and caring, or it might mean being strong and confident, and we feel comfortable only when we believe we are living up to our standard of being good. We maintain our sense of being by believing that the way we see ourselves and our world is the way things actually are. When we discover that we have made an error of judgment, that the world is not the way we thought it was and that we are not the person we thought we were, our sense of being threatens to crumble, shatter and even disappear, and this is terrifying.

To prevent this, we try hard to be the good person we want to think we are, but often we have set ourselves impossible standards of being good, such as never rejecting anyone, or wanting everybody in the world to like us, or never showing any vulnerability.

Whenever we go on doing something that hurts us, there is a reward in doing it. Often the reward is to know that we are good. If we set ourselves impossible standards of goodness, we suffer. Equating being a good person with being one who never rejects other people, no matter how damaging the relationship, is an impossible standard.

If you have reasonable standards instead, you will realise that you simply can't be nice to everyone and that it is not a healthy frame of mind. You have to say no sometimes, to chide people if their behaviour towards you is unacceptable - it is basic self-defence. Having reasonable standards of behaviour means not punishing yourself too harshly if you don't get along with someone. It's about looking after your own emotional state and being your own best friend, instead of acting like a punitive parent. It's about learning to accept that you are not going to get along with everyone.

Modifying your standards means that those closest to you are all that matter - accept that the rest of the world isn't even interested in your behaviour. If you do this, you will no longer face such a stark choice between being good or being happy. By having reasonable standards of goodness, we can be happy and good, and thus be able to protect ourselves from the people who hurt us.

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