Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Be Loyal

This is going to sound like comparing apples and oranges, but let’s ask this: if you’re suffering emotional distress, which will help you more: therapy or ethics?

Let’s posit that therapy will get you into your mind so that you can get in closer touch with your feelings. A therapist will want you to understand how you came to be in distress and how your current distress repeats past anguish.

Relentlessly individualistic, therapy will want you to self-actualize, to fulfill your potential, even to rebrand yourself. It will help you to express you feelings, to be creative and spontaneous.

For now this sounds good. If, however, I am right to say that most emotional distress derives from feelings of social dislocation, from feelings of isolation and loneliness, rejection and abandonment, then the classical therapeutic approach misses the mark.

If you are suffering because you are too isolated, too detached from community, then a therapeutic effort to help you find some consolation in your solitude might sound like a good idea.

Still, this kind of therapy is colluding with the conditions that have caused your distress, and thereby, it will be telling you that you deserve to be alone and that you should do your best to make the best of it. You might find this to be comforting, but it will end up being cold comfort, indeed.

Just in case you are tempted to join a new group or make some new friends, therapy and its culture will do everything in their power to dissuade you.

They do it by denouncing people who join groups as conformists. For someone who feels rejected, this message will be taken to mean that, when you feel left out, the problem lies in the group.

Unfortunately, the immediate relief you feel when you start blaming other people for your distress will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory when you discover that your new attitude is increasing the chasm between you and other people. Thus, it is aggravating your feelings of isolation.

The only real solution to feelings of anomie is social contact, a wide and broadening circle of social connections.

If we understand that classical ethics is a system of rules and principles designed to help us get along with other people in society, then clearly, ethics will be of more help to the person who feels abandoned and rejected than will therapy.

No matter how fully actualized you are, you are not going to get along in society unless you know the rules of the game. And unless you learn how to play by the rules.

These constitute classical ethics. I would add that, with ethics, understanding the rules is far more difficult than playing by them.

Take loyalty, for instance. I emphasize it because Shirley Wang has written a compelling article about this virtue in the Wall Street Journal today.

Let’s begin with an example that Wang does not mention, but that I hear about too often.

A couple is out with another couple. Jack and Jim get into an argument. It doesn’t matter what about. Jill, Jack’s significant other, pipes up, to the effect that she agrees with Jim. She finds Jack’s position wrong and indefensible.

You might think to yourself that Jill has every right to express her personal opinion. She has a constitutional right to free speech. She is an independent agent and her opinion reflects on no one other than herself. Why should she not state it, openly and honestly?

Most people would agree that Jill has the right to express her opinion. She is merely conforming to a value that is intrinsic to our current therapy-based ethos. That does not, however, mean that it's the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, for Jill, her empty assertions of a right to speak openly and honestly are not going to feel like much of a consolation when she sees her relationship starts moving toward oblivion.

She may think that she was self-actualizing. Jack, and many others, will see her as being disloyal to her relationship.

In my experience the surest and quickest way to damage a relationship is to demonstrate disloyalty. Of course, adultery and cheating are disloyal, but it does not really take as much. A few well-expressed opinions at the wrong time in the wrong place to the wrong people will often do the trick.

If Jill shows herself to be more loyal to her ideas and to her self-definition as an independent, autonomous individual, she will very likely be without a relationship.

You cannot be loyal to your relationship, thus to your partner, while at the same time showing primary loyalty to yourself.

Psychologist John Gottman has shown that if you want a durable relationship, your first loyalty must be to the couple. More than that, your job in a relationship is not to actualize your potential for happiness, but to do what it takes to make the other person happy.

Of course, your partner’s job is to make you happy. It beats self-actualization, don’t you think?

The virtue of loyalty is not just its own reward. As Wang points out, loyalty is also good for your health.

This applies to all of the different loyalties an individual must demonstrate. He should be loyal to his spouse, his friends, his family members, his company, his community, and, dare I add, his nation.

Loyalty, Wang states, is natural for human beings. It makes you part of different groups, and provides a level of comfort and support that is necessary for your health, your well-being, and your success.

Since therapists have spent some considerable time pondering how to make relationships last, or else, how to make love last, I will mention that loyalty is the key to the sustainability of any long term relationship.

And for those who wonder about the notion of commitment, let’s be clear: if you are not loyal to your partner you are not committed to the relationship.

Wang summarizes the research findings: “Scientists have documented the health benefits of staying in a long-term romantic relationship, including reduced illness and longer life. Employees who stick with a single company rather than job-hop tend for the most part to be better compensated financially and to be more productive and creative, other research has found. Another study shows that continuing to root for one's hometown team helps ease the anxiety of moving to a new city.”

Once you find someone you can trust, you gain advantages by remaining loyal to that person. Wang explains: “Therefore, staying loyal to someone, and preserving a mutual feeling of trust, allow people to be able to function with others without constantly suspecting their motives, they say.”

Loyalty builds a strong social network, and such a network confers important health benefits: “People with strong social support or social engagement have been found to have lower risk of diabetes, hypertension and heart attacks.”

Loyalty also works to your advantage on the job. Hopping from one job to another tends to undermine career success and to make you less effective.

Thinking of yourself as an independent contractor, seeking out what looks to be the best for you, makes you a less valuable employee.

Loyalty involves commitment to your company. If you stay around for a number of years-- let’s think in terms of 5 to 10-- you will be more familiar with your company, its operations and its people. Thereby, you will be a better judge of what is going right or wrong.

If you are in a managerial position, people are more likely to respect your decisions when you have demonstrated loyalty to the company. Then, they will be more likely to see you as doing what is best for the company, not what is best just for you.


David Foster said...

Thought you might find this interesting:


..my own experience is that more careers flame out due to someone being too nasty or too self-absorbed than by being too nice.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, it's a very interesting piece.

Of course, women do want to retain some quota of niceness because they feel that if they become too tough in the working world, they will carry some of the same habits into the dating and relationship world, where they will turn men off.

A difficult problem...

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