I’m grateful to have spent some time tonight watching a video of Brené Brown speaking about the events in Charlottesville, VA, and I’d like to offer a few thoughts. If you’re familiar with my website and Facebook page, you probably know that I haven’t been very shy about expressing my deep concerns about acts of violence and hate, or my strong advocacy for love and compassion. You may also know that I’ve written and spoken with various groups about compassion and love, and that I sometimes discuss “delusions of superiority” as part of those talks. Some of you are also aware that I’ve led (or co-led) workshops and talks about empathy, reducing bias and recognizing and embracing our shared humanity. These are all topics I care deeply about and have devoted many hours and years of my life to studying.
It’s my intention that this will be the first of a series of my reflections on these topics, as they relate to the divided society we are living in today in America, and I wish to extend a sincere invitation to you to consider reflecting on these ideas for yourself, examining whether or not you find them to be true in your life, and taking a step toward love and compassion, no matter how small, and no matter your political preference.
For this first post, let’s talk about delusions of superiority.
It might be natural for you to believe you’re not racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigoted, etc. You may not make offensive remarks or do anything intentionally disparaging toward other groups. You might even think you are post-racial or “beyond” that sort of thinking. You have friends of other races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientations, religions, and income levels, to name a few. You may even stand for love, forgiveness and taking care of other people. However, I invite you to consider the possibility that you, in fact, may be holding on to a delusion of superiority. Have you ever internally thought to yourself, however subtly, that you are better than someone of another race? Do you believe that people with skin color like yours are more attractive than people with other skin colors? When you’ve heard people speaking another language or speaking English with an accent, have you ever assumed that they are not as intelligent as you? Have you ever referred to a woman as brilliant, or have you only used that word to describe men? Have you believed that you were better than another person because you are more educated, or have more money or a higher position than they do? Have you believed that you have the “right” view and people who hold different views or beliefs are “wrong”? Do you believe this about your religion?
These are some of the ways we can begin to recognize our own, often unconscious, feelings of superiority. Usually, this distorted view or “lens,” as Brené Brown described in her video, has been formed over our entire lives and shapes most of our thoughts, fears, behaviors, and reactions. It was born of our upbringing, the influence of family, friends, teachers, and mentors, of our education (or mis-education), our church, the media, and numerous other factors. It can influence who we spend time with, who we date or marry, who we adopt, who we hire and promote, who we vote for, who we contract with or give our money to, and much more.
If we take a moment to reflect more deeply and get to know other people more intimately, we begin to see that every human being has strengths and gifts to bring into this world, as well as weaknesses and struggles. We see that no one race, or religion, or other group is inherently better or worse than another, no one person is all good or all bad. When we personally do something wrong, we tend to see it as a “one off,” not core to who we are as a human being. We know that we’re a good person who just made a mistake or a poor judgment call. When another person handles things unskillfully or not to our liking, we sometimes label them as “bad” or an “idiot” (or worse!) and may begin to see them only in terms of that negative quality. We focus in on that one piece of them and may come to believe that “this is who they are” at their core. There is a term in psychology for this distorted and deluded thinking: it is called a “fundamental attribution error,” where we tend to see someone’s behavior as central to who they are as a person, and, as a result, fail to see the full picture of who they are as human being, with their own unique – and sometimes distorted – view or lens, and with inherent value and many strengths and contributions to bring to our society. We can also inaccurately apply this error in thinking to entire groups of people.
Now, this in no way excuses harmful behavior, and of course it is critical that violence and other harmful behavior is stopped. In fact, we may take very strong action to ensure that people are protected. And yet still, we can try to understand how people have come to think and act a certain way. We can try to imagine all of the influences that have caused them, and continue to encourage them, to hold the views they hold. We can recall the many influences in our own lives that have shaped our perspectives. And we can begin to imagine a different way of relating in light of this.
I invite you to reflect on the possibility that you may have your own delusions of superiority, and to become more mindful of the automatic thoughts that come into your head about people of other groups, seeing if you can release any misguided perspectives you may be holding onto in your worldview. When we can all begin to truly see each other as equal human beings who are all trying to be happy and free of suffering and struggle, though we may not always agree on the thinking or methods used to get there, we are one step closer to finding common ground, mutual understanding, and our shared humanity – and bringing our country together.
Photo courtesy of The New Yorker. Photograph by Samuel Corum /Anadolu Agency / Getty