Dear exhausted drama participants,
Earlier this week, a couple in my office was having conflict over the way they handle conflict. “I hate arguing with you,” groused the husband, “because you always have to be right.”
“It’s not that I HAVE to be right,” the wife shot back. “It’s just that I always am.”
This could’ve been a nitro-glycerin moment—her being nitro and him being glycerin. But it didn’t explode because she said it tongue-in-cheek. He knew that, I knew that, we caught the joke, the tension went down, and we all laughed. I belly laughed, actually. You know how a line’s delivery can sometimes enhance the funniness of the line delivered? It was like that.
She then looked at me and said, “I know, I know, you’ll probably want to use this in one of your lectures or books at some point, so feel free.
Well, I can’t tell you how glad I was to hear that because here I am, referring to their humorous exchange in my very next “weekly” letter. You should be careful what you say around me.
But what if she hadn’t meant it to be funny and said it, not as a facetious remark, but as an actual proclamation of her perpetual rightness. I suspect, at that point, the blender containing the nitro and the glycerin would’ve been switched on and great would have been the explosion there of.
An I’m-always-right stance suggests lack of humility (I can’t be wrong) and lack of awareness (I can’t see where I’m wrong). These are two of the five reason “muscles” we’ve been discussing in previous Drama Reviews that enable a person to be reason-able. Drama people lack these muscles and resort to their only relational alternative—drama. In the drama, you’re required to accommodate yourself to the drama person’s weaknesses.
For example, if she was serious about always being right, then the only way her husband could’ve “gotten along” with her would be to acquiesce to her rightness. On the surface, he might say things like, “Whatever you say, dear.” But underneath, he’d likely be tamping down fantasies of twisting off her head and spitting in her neck. Or something like that.
And that’s the problem with dramas. They obligate you to play a role. But role-playing is different from real-relating and doesn’t feel satisfying.
All dramas “work” for the moment but ultimately disappoint.
To recap what we’ve been discussing, our flaws become evident to us in close, personal relationships. Reason muscles enable us to do the right things with personal wrongness. Humility is ability to acknowledge potential wrongness. Awareness is the ability to acknowledge actual wrongness. This week, we’ll look at responsibility which is the ability to feel bothered by personal wrongness. Here’s the contrast thus far:
Normal: I could be wrong, you could be right, let’s talk
Drama: I’m right, you’re wrong, end of discussion
Normal: I see where I’m wrong
Drama: I only see where I’m right
Normal: It bothers me when I’m wrong
Drama: If I’m wrong, so what?
Do you know what’s supposed to happen when you observe a personal flaw? That observation is supposed to elicit a cringe reaction. You see the flaw and say, “Blech, I need to do something about that.” And it’s that cringe reaction that provides you with the intrinsic motivation change, to grow.
But when a drama person sees a personal flaw, he doesn’t cringe, he shrugs. He blows it off and says things like, “Oh, well, that’s just me,” and goes on his merry way with the flaw being unaddressed. He’s not bothered by it so why would he work to change it?
The responsibility muscle is what enables you to have a conscience. It restrains you—though imperfectly—from acting out your negative impulses.
In his landmark book, The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck spoke of the differences between what he referred to as neurotics and character disorders. (Note: character disorders and drama people are being used here synonymously.)
“Most people who come to see a psychiatrist are suffering from what is called either a neurosis or a character disorder. Put most simply, these two conditions are disorders of responsibility, and as such they are opposite styles of relating to the world and its problems. The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict, they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict, they automatically assume that the world is at fault.”
Did you catch that? The drama person is under-responsible. The negative feelings a neurotic experiences from personal-flaw-observation might very well keep him awake at night. But the drama person sleeps like a baby.
If The Road Less Traveled description seems too lofty for your tastes, let’s try Leave it to Beaver. I know what you’re thinking. “Why can’t this guy use more current illustrations?” I feel your pain.
In one episode, drama person, Eddie Haskell, had done something that made Wally want to clobber him. But before committing assault and battery, he discussed it with his dad, Ward.
Wally, do you really think beating Eddie up will change him?
No. But gee, Dad. What is going to change him?
You take a guy like Eddie and the kind of attitude he has and it seems like nothing’s ever going to change him. And then, just when you’re about to give up on him, he wakes up one morning and just can’t stand himself any longer. That’s when he starts to change.
Does that always happen?
No, it doesn’t always happen, Wally. And that’s the tragedy of it. But, for Eddie’s sake, we need to hope that it happens.
The responsibility muscle is what makes you unable to stand yourself any longer when personal flaws become evident. That’s what motivates you to change, to grow, to become a better version of yourself.
Some drama people are capable of having wake up moments—a subject we’ll discuss more fully in a future letter. But some, as Ward pointed out, never do and stay tragically the same.
In keeping with the downward trend of my illustrations, let me throw this one at you. There’s a phenomenon observed by some in the addition community called, “Seeing your reflection in the toilet.” Here’s what that means.
Binge-drinking is often followed by the barfing up one’s guts into the toilet. Sometimes, the person kneeling before the porcelain throne will catch a reflection of himself in the putrid liquid and say, in effect, “What am I doing? I’m sacrificing important things in my life for what, this? I need to stop.” And he does. That ugly image gets so burned into his brain that it serves as a permanent incentive to straighten up and fly right. He sees the ugliness, feels bad about it, and changes. That’s how the responsibility muscle works.
But drama people catch no reflections of themselves in the toilets of life. And without those reflective moments, they don’t grow. Hence, the following typical characteristics:
- He refuses to accept blame or to acknowledge fault for anything.
- He is adept at shifting blame onto you or others.
- He seems unbothered when his maturity gaps are revealed.
- His apologies, if given, seem superficial and/or insincere.
- He displays very little personal guilt but often lays guilt trips on you.
- He responds to criticism by saying things like, “Oh, well, that’s just the way I am” or “That’s just me” or “Hey, I’m not perfect, OK?”
- He frequently accuses you of the very things that characterize him. (The pot calling the kettle black)
- He skillfully excuses his bad behavior.
- He denies that his bad behavior is bad.
- He projects blame so well that you frequently find yourself wondering, “Is it me or is it him? I don’t know, maybe it’s me.”
If we keep this up, the illustrations are likely to get even grosser so this is probably a good place to stop.
By the way, I was given the privilege of discussing drama people on a local TV show called Psychology Matters. You can watch the first of two segments here.
Until next week.