Being an example to others

Note: I realised I missed my old conversational style of writing, so I decided to resume it on occasion, including for this post. I will not be using it for heavier posts but I thought it would be nice to be able to code switch.

You know that thing you do where you hold yourself to standards which you would never dream of holding other people to?

(If you don’t know that thing, this post may be less useful for you, but it is a trait that is very common among people I know, so I’m confident that this post has an audience)

Anyway, that works much less well than you think it does, and you should probably consider walking it back a bit.

The basic problem with this is that people model their behaviour on those around them. If you are seen holding yourself to a standard, people around you will observe this and follow suit, even if you tell them not to, so by holding yourself to that standard you are implicitly holding other people to it, even if you don’t want to. This is especially true if you are prominent in a community, but it’s true for everyone.

So I suggest the following standard for good behaviour: Behaviour is good if not only if it is good in and of itself, but if it contributes to a culture of good behaviour1.

Behaviour that is good in and of itself but which creates a bad culture should be looked on with extreme caution.

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “I hold myself to standards that I wouldn’t hold anyone else to”? Does it sound like the speaker is being kind to themself, or does it sound like they are probably beating themself up over something that really they should just chill out a bit over?

In my experience it is very much the latter scenario, and if you find yourself doing that I would like to encourage you to try to stop holding yourself to that standard.

A particularly pernicious example of this is people not prioritising their own needs. Prioritising others’ needs over your own feels good and virtuous – you are sacrificing yourself for others, which many people think of as practically the definition of virtue.

The problem is that in doing so you are contributing to an environment in which nobody is prioritising their own needs. When you work yourself to exhaustion, you are not just working yourself to exhaustion you are teaching other people to do the same.

Conversely, behaviour that is neutral and/or mildly selfish on its own merits may in fact be very good if it creates a culture in which everyone feels like they have permission to do the same.

To continue the example of needs: by asserting and respecting your own needs you are giving everyone around you permission to do so. What would you want a friend who is looking exhausted and run down to do? You’d like them to take a break, right?

The problem is that if they take a break without feeling that it is OK to take a break, they will mostly just feel guilty about that. That might still be better than not taking a break, but it’s not a pleasant experience.

What this means is that if you want your friends to take a break, you need to create a culture in which taking a break is seen as OK. In order to do this, you need to take a break yourself!

I find this notion of permission very powerful as a route out of guilt over “selfish” behaviours: you want the best for others, so you want to give them permission to seek it out for themselves, but this requires a culture where that is acceptable, and that requires you to exemplify the behaviour you want to see in others, so by granting it to others you in turn must grant yourself permission to seek the best for yourself.

For many of us, empathy for others is easier than empathy for ourselves, but by looking at the problem through this lens of cultures of behaviour, extending empathy to others requires us to extend it to ourselves. You can think of this as a kind of reversal of the golden rule: Do for yourself as you wish others would do for themself.

Some examples where I regularly use this in practice:

  • I ask “stupid” questions – on the one hand I don’t want to be the person who is wasting everyone else’s time, on the other hand I do want everyone who is confused to be able to ask questions to resolve that confusion. By asking questions myself, everyone else also feels more able to do so.
  • When I am at a social event and everyone is having a good time but also I am very tired and want to go to bed, I say “Thank you for a lovely time, but I am very tired and want to go to bed. Good night, everyone”. At this point half a dozen other people go “Actually, me too” and also go to bed, because they’ve been waiting for permission to prioritise their own tiredness.
  • When something is making me uncomfortable, I say that I am made uncomfortable by it. I could try to tough it out, but I wouldn’t want others to tough it out, so by stating that I am uncomfortable everyone else who is also uncomfortable is more able to say the same, both now and in future.
  • When there is something I would like to happen, I tell people that, so that other people also feel able to ask for the things they like. (In truth, this is the one I find the hardest, but it’s important).

This is also a good place for positive use of privilege: Some of these (especially the asking stupid questions one) are much lower cost for me to do because I’m a moderately high status white guy.

I can’t promise this will magically fix all the guilt that you experience over being kind to yourself, but I’ve found it to be an excellent start.

Ideally of course you should be kind to yourself because you are a person and people deserve nice things, but in the mean time you should also be kind to yourself because the ones around you who you care about are also people, and you need to show them that people deserve nice things.

  1. This is not the same as Kant’s Categorical Imperative because it is much weaker than universalisability – behaviour can be good even if you don’t want everyone to adopt it if it’s good enough and you do it rarely enough that it doesn’t set too strong an example.
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