The Golden Rule May Not Always Be Best

The Golden Rule says we should treat others the way we’d want them to treat us. Jesus had an even stronger way of putting it. We should love others as ourselves, he said.

Most of us would agree this is good advice. It seems if everyone followed it, we’d all treat each other well, get along, and thrive. But I’ve notice something important. We often don’t do it. I’m not even sure we can.

While we’d like to think we’re treating others the way we’d like to be treated, what seems to happen more often is we treat others the way we treat ourselves. On the surface that would seem like semantics. Same thing, right?


The Golden Rule Must Include Being a Good Friend to You

Self-help gurus often point out that we tend to be nicer to other people than we are to ourselves. The idea of the Golden Rule then, would be that we want other people to treat us better than we treat ourselves. And presumably, we will do the same for them.

But for the most part, we can’t. And we don’t.

It’s also pretty well established in psychology that people who dislike themselves (and by extension aren’t very nice to themselves) have a hard time loving others. Few people debate this one either. Sure, they might be superficially friendly to avoid conflict, but that’s only possible from a distance.

So, you see, the Golden Rule can mislead us.

You may have noticed the people you’re closest to are the ones who hurt you the most. The people you spend a lot of time with—even if you’re not close—are also likely to hurt you more often than acquaintances or strangers.

Why does this happen?

It’s said that hurt people hurt people. And while hurt people may also prefer to avoid conflict, they may bottle up that conflict until a safe victim to treat badly comes along. We know this is how playground bullies work. Bullies in the workplace and political bullies work the same way.

And so, unfortunately, do people we love if they’re hurting enough.

Of course this doesn’t mean everyone close to you will treat you badly. The key is how well they treat themselves.

Taking Care of You is Taking Care of Others

I think we treat others as well as we treat ourselves, not better. While we might want to treat them the way we’d like to be treated, we may truly not know how. If we treat ourselves badly, that’s what we know best.

How this plays out depends on the way we take things out on ourselves. For instance, if we’re angry with ourselves, we get angry at others. If we have trouble facing our imperfections, we avoid others who aren’t perfect (in other words, everyone). If we believe we need to be perfect to be loved, we hide our true selves to please others.

We learned to do this by paying attention to how people around us treated us or others like us, often a long time ago.

So while the Golden Rule makes sense, unless we’ve learned to be kind to ourselves, we’ll probably struggle with it at least some of the time, and certainly with people we’re close to.

The Golden Rule May Not Account for Our Differences

Another issue with the Golden Rule is it doesn’t address the fact that while we all want others to treat us well, we don’t all need or want the same thing. The way we treat ourselves depends a lot on what we need and whether we’re getting what we need.

If we need a lot of attention and validation, we treat ourselves differently than we would if we needed to be needed, for example.

We all need something, but we don’t all necessarily need the same thing.

If we live with shame and the belief that we shouldn’t need anything at all, that will affect how we treat ourselves and others as well.

One person might be clingy, another may lose herself in the process of meeting others’ needs, and a third might become distant.

When we don’t get what we need, a sense of lack often creates a vicious circle. And don’t believe people who tell you a mentality of lack is all your head. It may be to certain extent, but we all have needs. Denying that will ensure we never get what we need.

When we’re angry, hurt, or afraid because we don’t have what we need, we may lash out at people we believe should both know what we need and be able to provide it.

If we’re not conscious of this dynamic, we can destroy the very connections we crave, the very connections we need.

Do You Need What Others Need?

So even if we follow the Golden Rule and treat others the way we’d like them to treat us, we may not treat them the way they’d like us to treat them.

For example, some people like advice. Others prefer to vent to a friend who will simply listen. Some people enjoy lots of conversation. Others thrive in comfortable silence. Some enjoy humor, while others are more serious. Some like help. Others don’t.

You get the point.

So maybe we need to rephrase the Golden Rule a bit so the goal is to understand people and develop true connections.

The point is when we look beyond our own ideas and needs and try to see others for who they are and what they need, we form truer connections that help us grow. In a sense we’re all the same, but in another sense, we’re not.

If we’re only giving people what we need, we miss out on interconnection. It’s our connection despite our differences that creates a more vibrant, amazing world. And it’s more likely to create a world where people treat each other well, if not always, at least more of the time.

What do you think?

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