Reflection 46: Derailing Decency to Self

A reaction I sometimes hear to Radical Decency is that its prescription – decency to your self, others, and the world, at all times and in every context – is noble, but utopian and impractical.

The criticism is misguided. Why? Because it fails to take account of the philosophy’s full-throttled commitment to “decency to self.” When we seek to balance and integrate decency to self, with decency to others and the world, we are challenged to make choices in life that – far from being naïve – are a tough-minded, realistic and, crucially, sustainable.

In this Reflection I discuss decency to self – how it has been distorted by our engrained mainstream ways of thinking and how Radical Decency can vitalize the ways in which we tend to and love our self.


The importance of decency to self is grounded in our biology. We humans are wired to be in deep and intimate connection with one another. Our physical and emotional development and continued well-being depend upon it. But that is not the full story. Faced with perceived danger, our fight/flight brain shifts our attention, dramatically and decisively, to our own needs. Any approach to living that fails to take account of both of these biological realities – our fundamentally affiliative nature and our vital need for physical and emotional safety – is unrealistic and unsustainable.

This balanced approach is not, however, embraced in the mainstream culture. Instead, we are conditioned to view our selves and others through an illogical, all-or-nothing prism: Either we are selfish – or we are altruistic and caring. There is far too little currency for the view that we can – and should – be decent to others and the world and, at the same time, decent to our self.

This odd, biologically unnatural mindset grows directly out of the authoritarian ways of operating that dominate our world. In this model, there are two roles:

  • The dominant person – the boss, the traditional husband – who demands what he wants and projects his needs onto others; and
  • The subordinate person who tends to the dominant person’s needs.

So, for example, as the boss gets ready for the meeting, he barks at his assistant “where’s the file,” and the subordinate, internalizing the boss’s anxiety, scurries to find it.

This is, needless to say, a deeply flawed system. The dominant person’s attunement skills and ability to love and nurture atrophy. And the subordinate person’s ability to understand, assert and satisfy his needs correspondingly shrinks.

One of the special geniuses of the mainstream culture is its ability to generate cover stories that justify its preoccupation with a compete-and-win, dominate-and-control mindset. So, we celebrate the life-style of the people at the top of this authoritarian pyramid, conveniently overlooking the high emotional price paid by these purported “winners” in life. Indeed, the hallmarks of this way of life – the unbounded pursuit of money, power, and material goods and toys – have become the culture’s standard measures of decency to self.

On the flip side, the mainstream culture promotes an equally distorted version of decency to others. Implicitly glorifying the role of the subordinate person in this authoritarian structure, it relentlessly romanticizes the “ever nurturing, always there to serve others” mother/nurse/secretary who should, in fact, be more appropriately viewed as a victim of this highly exploitative system.


These twin distortions, deeply interwoven in their effects, are instrumental in short-circuiting the ability of all of us – whether we resist them or not – to be decent to our self.

Here’s how the process works.

Given the insistent pressures of the world in which we live, most people are simply seeking to get by as best they can. They do this by pursuing the culture’s prescribed path, including its limited and distorted view of what it means to be decent to your self. The all too typical by-product of this way of life is some combination of the spirit-sapping conditions that are endemic in our grasping, dog eat dog world: Self-judgment and doubt, anxiety, depression, anger and violence, addictive behaviors, failed relationships, etc.

Interestingly, while many people recognize the price they pay when they pursue this prescribed way of living, this insight seldom leads to a significant shift in outlook and approach. Why? Because the institutions that drive our culture and write our paychecks demand steady, nose to the grindstone production and penalize choices that noticeably diverge. Despite the cost, a decision to get off the treadmill in any meaningful way seems, for most, far too risky.

Reinforcing this choice is the fact that the only visible, alternative path – a service oriented life – is decidedly on the short end of the culture’s taken-for-granted either/or mindset, described earlier:

If you make the needs of others your focus, you’ll get less – and should expect to get less – both financially and, at an interpersonal level, where you’ll be expected to be a Florence Nightingale type who, in the words of the country and western song is, “always giving, never asking back.”

The idea that decency to self could be a co-equal concern for people who choose these service-oriented professions has little currency in the mainstream culture.

These considerations leave the typical mainstream person, leading a typical mainstream life, checkmated. The price he is required to pay in terms of decency to self, if he choses an alternative path, makes the decision to maintain his place in culture’s competitive win/lose game seem inevitable and unavoidable.

And, equally – when it comes to decency to self – people who choose an alternative path of service are similarly mouse trapped. Seduced and/or coerced into conformance with this self-sacrificing model, they wind up subordinating crucial needs to the needs of others.

In the end, everyone loses.


Radical Decency offers a way out.

It focuses on seven values – respect, understanding, empathy, acceptance, appreciation, fairness, and justice – and invites us to apply them on an across-the-board basis. Doing so, it replaces the distorted values of the mainstream culture with a clear and coherent alternative that, crucially, fully accounts for decency to self.

We humans are intensely creatures of habit. As we do something more and more, the likelihood that we will instinctually do the same thing, in the same way the next time, and the next, increases correspondingly. And one of the great virtues of Radical Decency is that it knowingly enlists this signature characteristic of our brains in the service of a better life. The philosophy’s central proposition is this: If our intent is to be decent at all times, in every context, and without exception, these values will over time become our new habits of living.

The really good news is that decency to self – like decency in every other area of living – will be energized by this sort of unwavering attention. We will continue to do what we have to do to maintain our economic viability – since this is an important aspect of decency to self. But, at the same time, our emerging self-decency habit of mind will guide us, more and more, toward choices that honor our broader physical, emotional, and spiritual needs – with the respect, understanding, and empathy upon which the philosophy insists.

Because we live in a world in which the mainstream culture’s “compete and win” values are so predominant, the art of being decent to our selves – like the art of being decent to others and the world – is a difficult, wisdom-stretching proposition, to say the least. Given this reality, we need to always remember:

  1. That embracing decency as a vital pathway toward decency to self requires a radical commitment to its 7 values; and, equally,
  2. That as difficult as this is, such a commitment will bring with it commensurate rewards; that, as explained in Reflection 13, Radical Decency is, truly, its own reward.