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Why It’s So Hard to Be Decent Human Beings

It turns out that biology has a lot to do with our struggle.

Why is it so hard to be a decent human being?

How many times have you promised yourself that you were going to take the high road and not get upset with your co-worker who constantly provokes you; or that you would not respond defensively to your partner when she or he tries to give you help or vowed not to lie and cover up your mistakes when your bad behavior was exposed? How often have you wanted to "do the right thing" but found yourself unable to live up to it? What are those powerful Inner forces acting upon us, preventing us from being our best selves?

It's not easy being a decent human being. If only we knew a little more about what we are all up against as members of our species, struggling to maintain our dignity. It turns out that our biology has a lot to do with that struggle.

Self-preservation instincts

We all enter the world with sell-preservation instincts encoded in our genes. When we feel a threat looming, the instincts get called up in seconds, motivating us to act in our own defense.

Some of these ingrained responses we have heard about, like our fight and flight instincts. But we have many more self-preservation instincts that we need to understand; many more behaviors that were originally designed to ensure our survival, but are getting us into trouble today in the 21st century. If we don't identify and understand these aspects of our shared humanity, we'll continue to allow our more primitive biology to rule our lives.

Just as we have instincts to protect us from physical danger (flight and flight), we also have instincts that protect us from psychological harm (what I call threats to our dignity).

How we violate our own dignity

Unfortunately, a lot of these instincts designed to protect our sense of worth, actually end up luring us into violating our own dignity.

For example, when someone delivers what feels like criticism to us, people usually react defensively and do not stay open to hearing what the person has to say. Our self-preservation instincts prevent us from taking in the information, often violating the dignity of the person trying to deliver it.

Looking bad in the eyes of others feels like death to these instincts. Defensiveness is called up to eliminate what feels like a threat to our sense of worth. This primitive reaction is overkill because there are times when we need to be told about our dysfunctional behaviors. We all have blind spots and others can easily see what we cannot see. We need to learn how to overcome these instincts and accept feedback from others.

Another common instinct is the impulse to save face. Look to what extremes Lance Armstrong went to in order to avoid looking bad in the eyes of others. He not only violated and deceived others to cover up his bad behaviors; it appears that for some time, he even deceived himself.

Winning the struggle

We need to name and understand these inner impulses that get called up when we perceive that our self-worth is on the line; when we feel our dignity is under threat. Paradoxically, our instinctive attempt to look good at all costs makes us violators of our own dignity. Not owning up to the truth about what we have done, or refusing to take feedback from others for fear of looking bad or being vulnerable, puts our primitive instincts in charge of our lives. What if those instincts are preserving a self that is in desperate need of change?

We are so much more than our hardwired instincts. We can do better. With a little knowledge of what we are all up against, we can win the struggle with these inner forces. They are certainly powerful, but self-knowledge is more powerful. It can focus our attention on the battles worth fighting by recognizing that the biggest and most noble fight is deep within us.

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