I had several patients this week who experienced some pretty negative behaviors from other people. Nothing tragic or traumatic, mind you, but still pretty negative.
They were really disappointed in what they experienced and how they were treated. They really had expected more from these other people. And, although I could not come right out and say it, my thoughts each time were the same: “You really shouldn’t have been surprised."
From the beginning, psychotherapy has recognized human’s more negative impulses. Freud, making reference to Darwin and other authors writing about the animal world, saw clear evidence of just how natural it was for humans to be negative towards each other. Then, many later authors recognized that there is often a natural tendency for humans to be mean, aggressive, or otherwise negative towards others. In fact, much of psychotherapy writings have emphasized the need for human beings to overcome these more negative impulses.
Competition often lies at the very base of these negative tendencies. Animals have a natural instinct to engage in competition for survival. They look for their own survival along with the survival of their offspring. This often starts with competition for food and territory as the individual focuses on ways of maintaining survival. And then it moves more into competition for potential mates. Gaining some sort of leg up in this way means competing to come out ahead of other members of the species.
Most people reading this will recognize that previous paragraph as a very brief summary of “survival of the fittest." This is a concept emphasized as a major part of evolution. What is important to note here—and this is a point many forget—is that evolution is not always a positive thing.
Just because something fits with evolution does not mean that it is something that we would consider “good." Evolution brings out what is considered to be a species’ “basic” nature but it does not always bring out a species’ “best possible” nature. Evolution is basically considered neutral in terms of whether the behavior is morally “good” or “bad." Behaviors that arise due to evolution just “are,” rather than being positive or negative.
Recognizing the necessity of competitive behaviors, and how it fits in with natural instinct, is easier when observing animals out in the wild. They fight for survival and try to outrun each other to get the best food source.
Animal behavior out in the wild is very well summarized in a cartoon I saw once about two animals out on the plains. They see a lion, and one animal puts on sneakers. When the second animal says “Why are you putting on sneakers? You can never outrun a lion,” the first animal responds “I don’t have to outrun the lion—I only have to outrun you."
Human competition is often almost as obvious as animal competition—think of what multiple employees working for the same promotion does to an office, for instance—but not always. This is part of what makes it so surprising. We may not be surprised at the behaviors of friends who are trying to get a promotion at work, but may then be surprised when those same friends are “lukewarm” in their response if we get a promotion. Similarly, we may be surprised at how someone brings up negative things to “bring us down to earth” when we are excited about something good happening in our lives.
These are all part of the negative impact of our competitive drives and all similarly work towards one individual feeling a sense that they are coming out ahead in some sort of competition. That competition may not be real but that does not change how the other person responds.
And it is in this last part where we have our expectations for the better part of human nature—because much of what we expect from humans is to overcome some of our more negative natural instincts. Saying that something is “instinctual” or “evolutionary” does not mean it is “good” or “moral." In fact, it often means that it is something we are expected to overcome if we are going to act in morally positive ways. This is why we don’t physically fight our boss when we feel slighted and do not cheat on our partners even if the opportunities present themselves. We are expected to be better than just our natural impulses.
So, the next time you feel like others are not treating you well, remind yourself that you are allowed to feel that way. People are not always that great—and very often, they give in to their natural impulses. That is not an excuse but it is an explanation.
You have every reason to expect people will overcome their natural instincts and treat you in positive and respectful ways. But this does mean that, even if the behaviors you see have an explanation, you have to decide how to respond. Expecting others to think through how they act towards you means expecting that you will think through how you act towards them. You may decide to say something, ignore the behavior, or just not have much more to do with the person. Accepting that we have reason to feel the way we do can help get rid of emotional barriers keeping us from thinking through rationally how we want to respond to those feelings.
It is also worth noting here that even animals overcome more negative impulses. Wolves still survive in the wild in very competitive and aggressive ways. But when wolves were domesticated as pets thousands of years ago, they learned to control those impulses. They learned that the best way to get food is to not fight; this would make it more likely that humans would bring them food. Animals can learn to direct their competitiveness in positive directions—and humans should be expected to do the same.