It’s one thing to give superficial assent to a demand placed upon us, but it’s quite another when we truly accept in our hearts some principle of conduct and change our way of doing things. That’s why adults sometimes act like children.
It’s impossible to be perfectly relaxed and anxious at the same time. That’s the secret of certain anxiety reduction techniques: get yourself into a completely relaxed state while incrementally facing situations that typically evoke anxiety, and before you know it, you’re not so anxious doing those things anymore. It’s also impossible to be simultaneously both empathetic or understanding and heartless or indifferent. Some emotions are simply incompatible with one another. The same is true of certain behaviors. You can’t be accepting of something or open to the idea of change and be combative or resistant at the same time. This principle explains why some adults with character disturbances never seem to learn, despite the lessons we try to teach them. While they might say they agree or appear to “give assent” to something that’s asked of them, in their hearts they’re often very much at war with the idea. It’s simply not possible to take something to heart and consider a course correction when you’re still actively determined to go your own way.
There’s an amusing video floating around the internet and which has even been featured on some TV talk shows that depicts a youngster named Mateo who’s been caught trying to finagle a cupcake from his grandmother after his mother told him he couldn’t have one before dinner. When you watch the video, it appears quite likely the young man is at least in part mimicking what he has witnessed others do. But when you scrutinize his nonverbal behavior closely, it’s evident he’s also not in a frame of mind to be “accepting” or “receptive” to his mother’s admonitions. He makes the case that not only does he think it okay that he advocated so hard for his cupcake (even if it meant going behind his mother’s back and petitioning his grandmother) but also that he should be allowed to escape any unpleasant consequences for so doing. And he makes his case without appearing too overtly disrespectful, hostile or defiant. As entertaining as his antics are, the result is perfectly predictable and a bit ominous. The next time he wants a cupcake before dinner, he’ll probably do some finagling again. That’s because while he knows full well his mom wants him to not to have the cupcake and not even to ask, he hasn’t accepted the “no” she’s given him and taken it to heart. Not having “internalized” the prohibition set for him, he’ll likely keep trying any number of end-runs around the obstacles that might stand between him and the object of his desire.
I’ve written before how we internalize the prohibitions and exhortations of authority figures in our lives as we develop our consciences and in my book I go into some depth about this. (See “Matters of Conscience” and Character Disturbance.)
Early in my career giving workshops on the same subject, I developed a little rhyming phrase to describe the process:
“Internalization of a prohibition is ultimately an act of submission.”
It’s one thing to give surface-level “assent” to a demand placed upon us but it’s quite another thing when we truly accept in our hearts some principle of conduct, adopt it as our own (i.e. internalize it), and thus change our way of doing things. This is truly a submission (alt: capitulation, surrender, etc.) paradigm, and finding space within the human heart to do it is never easy. (For more on this, see “Giving Assent as a Manipulation Tactic” and In Sheep’s Clothing.)
It’s particularly difficult for individuals with certain traits (e.g., aggressive traits) in their personalities. Without the “capacity to capitulate,” and the willingness to do so, problems in conscience and character development are inevitable. That’s why, as amusing as it is to witness a kid like Mateo pay such little heed to his mother’s instructions, it’s sobering to think how unlikely it is, in light of his unwillingness to acquiesce on such a small matter, that he will easily refrain from much bigger and potentially more dangerous temptations as they come along down the road.
During the past two years or so, I’ve engaged in several consultations with individuals who’ve completed 12 Step-based treatment programs for a variety of “addictions,” but continue to have big problems, including multiple, significant “relapses.” As a matter of course, I ask these individuals to recite for me the first three steps. Not unsurprisingly, they will ramble through one or two, recalling accurately a word or two but not being able to repeat them verbatim. Whether or not they’ve attended all their prescribed meetings, met with their sponsor, or participated in group discussions, they’ll inevitably admit that they have done so mainly to keep others happy or off their backs, to be seen as doing the right things, or to fulfill some requirement placed on them. They’ll admit that they haven’t been really invested or taken what they’ve been taught to heart, which is why after months of “step work,” they still can’t even recite the first step, let alone have a meaningful discussion about what it means to them. They don’t know the step because they haven’t taken it — that is, at least not in their hearts.
People begin changing their act when they have a genuine change of heart (see “What Real Contrition Looks Like”). I’ve witnessed this many times, even among those who initially gave only “lip service” to their “recovery.” Program adherents call this “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.” But first the defiance they might have harbored in their hearts has to be called out, confronted, and dealt with directly. Mateo’s mom has a cute, savvy, and charming child. But there will come a time when there’s more at issue than sneaking a cupcake before dinner. Let’s hope that when such a time comes, Mateo will excel where some adults do not — having not only been taught but also made himself emotionally open to some important life lessons.
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