As a writer, you spend your life hoping for the next pithy aphorism to spill out of your fingertips and onto the keyboard. The great one-liner that punches you in the face. Clear, concise, and colorful. But such literary gems don’t exactly parade two abreast through every paragraph. When they happen, it’s like magic. You more give thanks than take credit.
While I wait for the genie to exit the bottle inside of my head, I scan my world, ever alert to genius around me. I like genius. Yours or mine, thank you. Great oratory. Posters, artsy greeting cards, famous quotations. When I find such a quote, I bring it here to you, Good Reader. And that’s how I met Tony Gaskins.
Now, I say “met.” I have never shaken his hand. Haven’t spoken to him by phone or corresponded with him by mail. I stumbled upon him when I saw his name on the bottom of a poster with this quote: “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what behavior you reinforce.”
I wish I’d have said that.
Immediately I remembered a moment not quite 20 years ago. It was the moment it occurred to me that I had the right and the authority not to spend time with mean people. Now, that might seem like a no-brainer to you. But to me it was a game-changer. A brand-new way of looking at the world.
Living into this new worldview proved to be provocative to people around me, both the mean people in question and the others who, along with me, had constructed a system which allowed for “mean.” I’m saying that, when you suddenly awaken as if from some enchantment, it’s a surprise to those around us. Especially the ones for whom the new rules require modulating behavior. An inconvenient surprise.
The right and the authority: two things separate but related. The first is easier. You can usually get “buy-in” from, say, the victim of domestic violence that he/she has The Right not to be physically bullied and assaulted. But The Right isn’t much use without The Authority.
The authority of selfhood, I call it. If you agree that you have the right to make and defend just claims in relationship (aka, setting healthy boundaries), then, to do so, you’ll need a healthy, solid self. A consistent grip on a depth identity. “I know who I am” — that’s where authority comes from.
By the by, that’s my preferred, shorthand view of what depth psychotherapy is all about: selfhood! Inviting and evoking the growth of selfhood!
Back to the Gaskins’ quote: “You teach people how to treat you by what you allow, what you stop, and what behavior you reinforce.” This quote, I think, nails down our rights, presupposes our authority, but takes me to a third, vital idea: responsibility!
Think of it like this: If I’m your friend, you would likely say I have a moral responsibility to “stand up for you.” That is, part of friendship is a willing advocacy. But what would change if you extended that idea to include self? What if you held as moral responsibility the duty to advocate for self?
What if “teaching” others how to treat you was a huge, vital measure of the quality of our love for others?
I think it is.
I’m convinced that one of the greatest gifts we can give our loved ones — our spouse, our children, our parents, our friends and colleagues — is unwavering self-respect.
Lowering the bar for others is an erstwhile abandonment of others. If I love you, I am committed to making a consistent claim on the best of you. Not saying you can’t make mistakes. Just saying that The Best of You will move in a timely fashion to be accountable for The Not-Best of You. To repair things.
I remember a poster behind a friend’s desk restating Gaskins’ idea in a way crass and shocking: “The cheaper you sell yourself, the more often you get screwed.”
Yikes. Ouch. Indeed.
We have the right to “teach” others how to treat us. We can find the authority to claim those rights in the forging of authentic selfhood. But love demands we assume a mantel of responsibility to find that authority and make those claims.
Put simply, my favorite way to respect others is to have high expectations of them.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.