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Adam Blatner, M.D.

December 6, 2005

The stresses of the Christmas Holidays are mixed and manifold, and the temptation occurs to get edgy, irritable, bossy, unkind, or grumpy. Such temptations must be resisted. The following is a depth psychology analysis of the problem:

Unless attention is brought to the moment, it is easy to slide into a partially unconscious reactive mode in which childish types of thinking dominate. This dynamic is quite pervasive, and might even be considered the default mode–i.e., it will supervene unless consciously noticed and countered.

The key is that faced with frustration or friction, the mind inclines to a complex that promises to be effective by virtue of its seeming strong, assertive, in control. Since in reality one is out of control, the next layer that comes up is the compromise of settling for actions that give the symbolic equivalent of mastery, and these are drawn from the childish repertoire that is part of this whole complex: One grabs, pushes, blames, reproaches, takes, coerces, threatens, scolds, calls names, or does equivalent behaviors somewhat thinly veiled by a mask of being more mature: sarcasm, an edgy tone of voice, glaring looks, sulky behavior, and so forth.

To appreciate this complex, consider the alternative: A more generous-spirited surrender, being deferential, withholding blame, actively forgiving even before saying anything, practicing meticulous tact and courtesy, owning how one might be at fault oneself, allowing the other person to feel okay, and in short, being nice. Why doesn’t this behavior emerge more naturally? Because to the childish ego it feels weak. It involves surrender, humility, and gentleness, and it evokes associations of other kids making fun of one for being a patsy, a sucker, a chump.

In reality, in most social contexts, being nice is actually more effective, more politically realistic, though not directly controlling the outcome. Being grumpy, blaming, and otherwise more manipulative, allowing the inner-bratty-child complex to dominate, while giving the illusion (to oneself) of strength, in fact is generally not only ineffective, but actively counter-productive. It generates increased resistance, resentment, and interpersonal friction.

I must acknowledge that there are certain defined circumstances when a graded progress of self-assertion is appropriate, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and in some situations, where carefully-targeted escalation is also more likely to be effective. Such situations do reflect occasions where being too passive may lead to being exploited. (See a related paper on this website on the dynamics of anger, that speaks about offering a graded and gradually escalated regimen of self-assertion.) Recognizing when and how more self-assertive or even graded aggressiveness is indicated is also part of maturity; but alas, for many, the illusory need for control and the avoidance of what is perceived as shameful gentleness is too often applied indiscriminately.

Being nice requires an exercise of wisdom, an active process of responsible discernment as to what the situation best needs. Part of this discernment is the recognition that under even mild stress, people tend to regress, to think along more childish modes of reacting, and yet they don’t know they’re doing it. The key word here is “tend,” because people need not give into their tendencies! They can resist them by (1) knowing these tendencies exist and recognizing their signs; (2) recognizing the perceptions that feed these tendencies are often illusory and childish rather than real; and (3) learning better ways to cope with difficulties, ways that are informed by a mixture of one’s highest values and most astute sets of understandings and skills. For example, two skill sets for dealing with stressful social problems include imagining how one’s higher self might advise one and/or empathizing with the predicament of the other people in the problem.

In summary, wisdom leads to a recognition that often what might seem weak to the childish ego or the unprepared mind is, in fact, often politically wise and more likely to be effective, while what is intuited by the immature mind as strong is actually–in its effectiveness–weak. What is needed to be nice is to re-mind oneself, to bring to the fore the forebrain, the frontal lobes, the parts that anticipate and think out what might happen next, and that weaves these memories with what has happened in other contexts and one’s growing capacity to operate from a level of more reflective consciousness.

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