Revised, March 4, 2007
Often it's most helpful to recognize that for many activities, it's not a matter of either-or, but rather how much. For some things, too little can be as problematical as too much! This paper will note how there's an ideal "window" of effectiveness for a number of parameters, such as self-pity, dramatization, shame and guilt, self-promotion, anger, and other qualities.
Merely thinking in terms of opposites is a residue of childish modes of mind. While such thinking is useful at times in order to perceive contrasts or make more conscious distinctions, we should not overdo either-or thinking. Many aspects of life aren't so much an interplay of polarized extremes–this or that, this versus that--but rather, their proper understanding involves a recognition that many qualities, activities and experiences have an optimal range of use.
Ten Per CentThe optimal amount often ranges at about 10 %--sometimes more or less, depending on the variable. I confess that I just made these numbers up. In the mind such things cannot be accurately quantified. The numbers are to just give a sense of proportion--not 50%, not 80%--but neither only 1 or 2%. A little bit, but not too much--nor too little!
Self-PityAlthough much has been written about the danger of self-pity and the tendency to feel victimized, the problem may involve how much one indulges in this activity. A little bit is useful in cutting oneself some slack. This is a way to honor the vulnerable and struggling parts of oneself.
Life is hard, as Scott Peck observed in his best-selling The Road Less Traveled. Most folks are dealt a hand of both strengths and weaknesses, which may involve their body, their abilities, their family, the time and place and culture where they were born, and so forth. To some degree, this is their "karma," what they'll need to overcome. One way to think of the archetypal hero's journey is the process of finding ways to make use of their gifts and get past or heal their handicaps and wounds.
I find that the tendency to minimize the hardships as a way of coping often causes as many if not more problems as the tendency to maximize them by becoming too self-pitying. For example, people who have been abused may sincerely not appreciate the extent of their abuse until they've been led through a process of recognizing how bad it was. This is a common element in the treatment of post-traumatic disorders. They may deny the impact of, say, having been beaten: "Oh, my daddy spanked me some times." Only later does it emerge that the beatings were severe, prolonged, and horribly frequent.
As a result, the "inner child" complex tends to feel unprotected and this feeds into a wide range of defensive maneuvers. Healing requires a clear process of the whole self becoming conscious of the reality of vulnerability and resolving to become more vigilant in protecting oneself from future assaults, and this can't happen as long as there's denial of the reality of the trauma.
While that may be a somewhat dramatic example, the point is that a certain amount of sensitivity to stress and pain is an appropriate part of being truly whole. One way to assess the amount is to imagine that the various stresses or handicaps in your life were happening to a close friend or a loved one. Note how for them you'd feel sympathy!
For this and several other of the qualities, then, I think people should grant themselves between around 10-15% self-pity. It's okay to feel sorry for yourself a little. Indeed, if you're doing this less than, say, 10%, you may be too harsh on yourself. You need to cut yourself a little slack, forgive yourself, indulge that "inner child." Put your arm around that kid and acknowledge the pain.
On the other hand, if you're doing self-pity more than 20%, say, you well may be starting to make too many excuses for yourself, using your victimization to "cop out," avoiding taking responsibility. Instead, in the here-and-now, even having sympathized with oneself, the challenge is to begin to rebuild, to stay for today in recovery, to get on with love, faith, and responsibility.
DramatizationDrama is the activity of adding emotionality to events, rather than merely relating to them in a dry, matter-of-fact fashion. The talk of astronauts and military personnel in action have this more machine-like stick-to-the-task approach, which in some situations is most appropriate. On the other hand, there are many situations in which it's better to be noting the feelings associated with the situation. Drama in a sense is the spice of life, it adds those moments of extra enjoyment or sympathy that makes us more human.
When I was in training and psychoanalysis was still a prevalent theme in psychiatry, many women were labeled "hysterical"–and it didn't have a positive connotation. At first I couldn't figure out exactly what that term meant, but finally I understood it to refer to a use of the qualities of dramatization and sexualization–the latter term referring not necessarily to overt genital sex, but the preoccupation with a subconscious flirting, an implicit– "But what is really important is whether or not you find me attractive, cute, interesting."
I still didn't get it–such qualities seemed very life-affirming. Finally it dawned on me that the problem wasn't with the qualities themselves, but with their over-use. What was being suggested was that some patients use these maneuvers not merely to spice up life a bit, but rather to avoid taking on the matter-of-fact work on the challenges of living. So I made up the numbers about 15-18% as a window or range of health. If a woman (and sometimes it was a man who would use this combination of defenses) would be spending so much time dramatizing, exaggerating, making a big emotional deal about things as they happen, or they'd spend more than 30% of the time playing a host of interactive games that really served only to reassure her that she was indeed interesting, valued, maybe even attractive, cute, and sexy–well, it interferes with the fact that a fair amount of life needs to be addressed dispassionately, and without all that fluff.
On the other hand, I became aware of the phenomenon of the "mousy" woman, and it became clear that some women and many men have too severely relinquished or even fled from drama and sexualization. They might even slightly exaggerate (using "reaction formation") their matter-of-factness. They can be brusque, flat, and talk like astronauts. Such folks tend to develop symptoms in the long run because their souls get too little nourishment from the artistic, poetic, and relational-feeling side of life. Men as well as women would be more charming and lively with an optimal amount of "hysterical" (i.e., dramatic and sexualized) traits.
Guilt, Shame & FearThis theme of an optimal window came up again as I contemplated the nature of shame, guilt and fear in child development. The popular sentiment in the later 20th Century was that such qualities were unequivocally bad. But I had been seeing too many semi-delinquent kids who "had no shame," who "weren't afraid of no-one!" and who showed no remorse for the hurt they caused to others. It occurred to me that kids needed a bit of shame, fear and guilt–oh, about, say, 8 %, or from 5-10%. Not 30% Not 50-60%. Kids with those higher numbers were deeply post-traumatic, or deeply neurotic and disturbed.
But less than 5% in kids who were interpersonally sensitive, or less than even 8% in those who were a bit more dense, and you had a spoiled kid, a kid who felt entitled to not having to take "no" for granted. They hadn't internalized the strong sense of shame and guilt and fear that kids need to build a healthy superego. (An un-healthy super-ego takes those negative feelings well into the double-digits.)
Some of these kids just had too little discipline, too inconsistent discipline, to weak of a discipline. Others had plenty strong discipline, but there was no positive relationship to back it up, so it became too easy for the child to move into the more not-caring-about relationship-type of sociopathy. For them, their negative behavior was an exaggerated reaction to their experience of too-harsh discipline.
AngerHere, too, there may be a middle range, but that's more flexible depending on the kind of social roles and environment in the situation. Let's say that people need about 10-25% anger. The higher numbers are for sub-cultures where mutual intimidation is a form of territoriality. In such worlds, "ya gotta be tough." But even in gentler worlds, less than 10% anger leads to a person becoming too wishy-washy, a patsy, a door-mat.
It's important to become aware of one's anger and one's power to protest and to feel the emotion. Ideally, it may be done with a minimum of over-reacting. On the other hand, there are those, sometimes in a "human development" group, who slip all to readily into hostility. For them it's a defense, a habit, and often it's inappropriate. Having such people enact scenes and be encouraged to express the anger isn't cathartic or healing, it's reinforcing of their bad habits of mind and body. (See my paper on anger on this website.)
Some self-promotion, showing-off, self-expression, and indulgence in vanity is needed, also! Admittedly, in many situations, such endeavors are inappropriate, but we must avoid over-generalization. Like self-pity, a bit of selfishness is healthy, and egocentricity, vanity, and showing off. This is related to dramatization, and operates as one of the components of self-ing (a paper on how the mind sustains a vibrant sense of self is also on this website--self-ing).
Again, the percentage may be low, but one should avoid habitually under-doing it, becoming characterologically self-effacing, "too" modest, shy, low-key, cool, understated. While avoiding being a show-off is appropriate perhaps for most social settings, note that there are a few in which "letting your little light shine" adds to the community feeling, delights others, and helps you feel more fully known, seen, and heard. Make sure you find some contexts in which you can express yourself!
Playful, Outrageous, and Wacky
Related to dramatization and self-expression is playfulness and imaginativeness, mixed with a capacity for being silly and even a bit outrageous. Perhaps it's healthy also to include a measure of naughtiness---not really hurtful, but more provocative of stodgy established social norms. Wacky, weird, a touch of magical and the wink of the "trickster" archetype, all these add a measure of spice to life. I suspect that one doesn't want this to contaminate certain tasks that require more "serious" attention, most jobs, most of the time, and so forth. But used wisely and in small doses, and with friends who are likely to appreciate rather than be disoriented by slipping into this more child-like role, this dimension of activity and experience significantly enhances one's vitality and capacity to be "young at heart." It also helps one relate to and play with children, and to some degree, with the playful parts of other adults. It can help in romance and sexuality, and in many other settings.
I find that many of my colleagues in the fields of psychotherapy and other mental health professionals tended to lack an adequate capacity for this kind of behavior and thinking. We need to have a theory that recognizes its validity when used moderately. Of course, too much is, well, too much. Excessive anything can range from mere inappropriateness to real dangerousness. But too little can also cause problems.
A general mark of relative maturity is the capacity for approaching some situations as if one knows what's going on, or with an attitude of "can do" analysis and a strategy for problem solving. On the other hand, this might be balanced by a capacity for wonder, astonishment, an openness to the mysterious, and a capacity to stand "rapt in awe." I suspect that optimal mental health, "flourishing," requires a modicum of this activity, a cultivation of this sensibility. Not too much, but not too little, either! I think this is one of the avenues into creative thinking, healthy innocence, childl-like-ness, and the benefits of intellectual humility. It opens to curiosity and research, and a kind of religious sensibility (without having to quickly attach traditional legends or dogma as explanation).
Yes, people who are too opinionated are annoying, and it undoubtedly interferes with their capacity to collaborate in building a more inclusive and effective world. Yet I am aware that there might be such a thing as being not opinionated enough, of being "whatever," or rationalizing with moral relativism a lack of convictions or working models of philosophy, however rudimentary. I suspect there's an optimal range that holds some ideas, convictions, values, yet can also subject these to an ongoing process of discrimination, deeper understanding, and flexible application. Indeed, some ideas need to be radically revised and even dropped or reversed. Yet this works best when there's something to work with. The capacity to withhold judgment can express a general numbing of thinking, a form of subtle and pervasive repression.
I've heard many seeming sages advocate a wholehearted devotion to a cause or belief system, but, again, I think they miss the value of some diversification of involvements. Perhaps an optimal level of focus, of establishing and to some degree staying with priorities, while yet not eliminating other balancing activities, relationships, recreation, and so forth. Too little focus and too little is achieved. Too much focus and other vital aspects of life may be unwisely sacrificed, leading to ruthless ambition, or the recognition that mere wealth, fame, and other aspirations may not satisfy as one nears the end of life.
Finding the Balance
There's a motto in the medical field of dermatology, speaking of the treatment of skin rashes: "If it's dry, wet it. If it's wet, dry it. So, too, when working with people, part of the assessment as to what the client needs may be usefully framed in terms of where is the balance. The idea that there might be a balance offsets the tendency to take sides, to judge one group of qualities as "all bad" and the opposite set as "all good." The challenge is to find out what is good in both sets and what is problematic.
If this is a useful approach, please let me know some other variables where "a little bit" may be "just what the doctor ordered."
For responses, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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