So far in this book, we’ve been questioning the unspoken assumption that our brains are neutral, computer-like entities that accurately appraise the world around us and make objective decisions about it. In chapter 2, we considered how our perceptions and our cognitions could be heavily influenced or even completely determined by peers or the social influences that surround us on every side. To be an independent thinker means being aware of these effects and doing what it takes to work against them.
But it’s probably becoming clear that there are not just cognitive, intellectual threats to clear and independent thought. Human beings are also social, emotional, and even spiritual creatures guided by our thinking and feelings. And we don’t merely feel in isolated, discrete ways within ourselves, but we feel with other people. Without empathy, compassion, and cooperation, we would lose our humanity in a very tangible way.
However, being enmeshed and engrossed in the feeling worlds of others is something that can understandably jeopardize our ability to think and feel for ourselves. Being an independent thinker is not just a simple matter of sitting in a quiet room and teasing out a nice, clean, logical line of reasoning. No matter how “pure” of thought, nobody can escape the fact that they live in a world with others. This world has pronounced moral and ethical elements; it’s a world where family obligations and commitments exist, compromises are often necessary, and being “kind” and “correct” are not always the same.
The question, then, becomes
Where do my thoughts begin and the other person’s end?
What is my intention, and what is a demand or expectation placed on me by others?
What is my personal perception and judgment, and what is my acknowledgment of other peoples’?
As you can see, this balancing act is not just a philosophical and intellectual exercise but a psychological and relational one. In other words, being an independent thinker (and feeler) means having healthy boundaries.
Setting and Enforcing Boundaries
If you were to read a review of yourself, perhaps in an appraisal at work, you might be pleased to see yourself described as “accommodating” and “agreeable.” This might be a good review at work, but are they generally good words to be described with? Be careful, as you might be fooled with the misplaced positivity around them.
To be accommodating or agreeable means adapting to make others happy, which isn’t establishing boundaries—it’s a distinct lack of assertiveness.
It’s not bad to be agreeable, and often this comes from a place of empathy—a psychological desire to create social harmony and to make life better for everyone else. By itself, it’s a positive force and neutral at worst. But it’s the way that you might allow yourself to blur your lines in the name of agreeableness that it becomes a negative force in your life.
Agreeableness can also come from a desire to be liked, resulting in a lack of genuineness and self suppression. In an interesting display of the complexity of human nature, most people are annoyed by people-pleasing.In a:
The unselfish members who gave toward the provision of a public good but used little of it themselves were also excluded from the group. Two follow-up studies were conducted, which found it wasn’t unpredictability or confusion causing these results. People just found the generous players as unlikeable as the selfish ones.
It seemed that these agreeable players made other people feel bad about themselves. They were also deemed “rule-breakers.” Although they were breaking the rules of negative social norms positively, it was too much. Trying to be too nice, whether to impress or craving for social harmony, actually caused people to exclude them from the very group they wanted to help.
You may have tried taking on the dirty jobs nobody else wants or paying a bar tab at a work party in the hope it would endear you to a group. This is likely to have the opposite effect; your extreme generosity makes people just as uncomfortable as the selfish people who make life more difficult or refuse to contribute.
Going against the grain, even if that’s by doing charitable deeds, makes you stand out as a target. You’re just as likely as the selfish person to be recommended for voluntary redundancy or to find there never seems to be room for you in any of the cars on road trips.of Notre Dame researchers in:
Agreeable people do just that: they agree, don’t rock the boat, and don’t dare to tread potentially controversial topics like pay raises or higher starting salaries. Agreeing to everything is a sure path to becoming a pushover.
The agreeable employee has a huge workload causing him sleepless nights. He’s approached by five colleagues asking for support and agreed to help them all. They’ve talked, wondering what he does all day if he’s got time to help everyone. His boss makes yet another unreasonable demand, and he accepts it, disguising his impending doom at how he will get it all done.
Another colleague refuses to help others, and when asked the same question demands, he is paid more for it and is promoted to a managerial position because he’s often asked for advice. The boss agrees to his demands and delegates some of his workloads to the agreeable employee.
Since childhood, most people are told to be kind, put others first, and try to make life run smoothly; the playground peacemaker grows up to be the office diplomat. Being accommodating, agreeable, and selfless leads to being undervalued and even excluded from a group. This seems unfair but likely rings true with experiences you’ve had in your life.
There is something else at work behind the compulsion to be agreeable and accommodating. It seems that other people don’t always view these traits as positive or pleasurable to be around. When we avoid assertiveness, we don’t want to appear rude or selfish, but you’re making a bad impression when you appear selfless and altruistic. It’s in your best interest to assert your rights and boundaries and look after number one.