“Single” thinking: the belief that “the rules don’t apply to me”
A few years ago, in The criminal personality: a profile for change Samuel Yochelson, MD and Stanton Samenow, Ph.D outlined what they described as criminal thinking errors. One of those mistakes is Uniqueused by people who believe they are special or important and therefore exempt from laws or even rules of behavior that others are expected to follow.
I have been asked recently if I thought that men (currently in the news), who hold positions of power and use those positions to intimidate, control and/or abuse their subordinates, were like this before they held such positions. I don’t know. But if I’m guessing, my answer is “Yes, they probably were.”
It has been said that power corrupts. Well that happens. But I don’t suspect that power corrupts most people.
People who are emotionally and developmentally mature have moved beyond stages of development that have to do with testing personal power with others and have moved on to stages of development where they begin to demonstrate an awareness of others as equals deserving of fair treatment. . While not everyone who is mature in some areas of their lives is necessarily mature in other areas, some behaviors are not just immature, but inappropriate, period.
The power stage of development is seen in children between the ages of four and six, as they try out various behaviors to see what happens when they perform an action, such as scribbling on the wall. Four-year-olds do not have the emotional capacity to assess the effect of their behavior on another person. They may know something is wrong “because mom said so,” but most won’t understand the reason for the cutoff until later, when they develop empathy for others.
The early teen years are again a time to test one’s power, which can mean coming into conflict with parents and others. Getting through this stage means acknowledging, not just in word but also in behavior, that others who may be different in some way nevertheless deserve respectful treatment.
Emotionally mature adults do more than spew beliefs about behavior, they lead by example. All major religious traditions have some form of “The Golden Rule”, that is, treat others as you wish to be treated. This does not mean that all of us who defend the golden rule pay lip service to it constantly. But there are those who ignore this idea, and other social or even legal rules if they are not interested in doing so, and believe that they are above it all anyway. And therefore, Unique thought comes into play
In recent times we have heard of people in positions of power condemning others for behavior or breaches of conduct that they find offensive, illegal or immoral. However, the same person who condemns others may be behaving in similar or even more hateful ways.
When someone does this, they most likely consider themselves Unique, i.e. “the rules don’t apply to me”.
Many of us remember President Nixon saying “I am the president,” when he meant that he was above the law by virtue of his office. He learned that he was not.
When it is discovered or recognized that someone in a position of power has been using that power to do harm, it is a good assumption that this person has not previously been held accountable, if at all. He or she has probably been empowered somewhere by those around him (and perhaps to excess when he was a child, although that alone is not always so or prescriptive). This person doesn’t care how others are affected, or doesn’t care much beyond the desired outcome, be it intimidation, control, or something else. In other words, this is a form of self-centeredness, which is now known as narcissistic behavior.
People who consider themselves Unique you can suddenly say “I’m sorry” for something you’ve been caught doing. But because a person who sees himself as Unique doesn’t see the need to follow normal patterns of social behavior, he may not regret it at all, but simply regret being found out. People who care about how others are affected don’t hurt others in the first place. Or if they have, they learn from the experience and from developing a genuine concern for others. They modify or completely change their behavior when they see that they have been hurtful.
There are levels of severity when one is abusing a position of power. Once a problem has been identified, if changes are to be made, the person who has been considered as Unique will have to account. Consequences force this issue, but just being fired, divorced, or publicly embarrassed doesn’t necessarily mean that behavior change will occur.
As with children, consequences and limits are useful for the social control of misbehavior, but they do not teach new behaviors. A person who is chronologically an adult must take steps to overcome their Unique think and engage in a genuinely respectful treatment of others, which requires emotional growth. The hurtful person has to want to change, which means that he or she must see the benefit of doing so beyond simply shining so that he or she looks good in the future. Meanwhile, some abusers of power can at least learn to keep secret their desire to take advantage of others, a form of social control or compliance with the limits imposed on them by their workplaces, or the social pressure to do so.