In “I-It” relationships, we treat others as things, not persons. One’s I-It approach can be merely detached or utterly exploitive. “I don’t care about your feelings but only about what I want from you.” Dignified aloofness can provide a private I-It bubble.
Contrast I-It with “I-You” relationships built on communion, a state of high mutual empathy where your feelings do more than matter to me – they change me. Our I-You relationship becomes an end in itself.
The low road is where we attune I-You, where we “feel felt” – the Japanese word for it is amae. Amae describes ultra-subtle low road interactions between Japanese that may escape westerners’ attention altogether.
Our brain architecture has changed little since our ancestors lived in caves 250,000 years ago. In prehistory, being part of the clan was essential to survival. Exclusion could be a death sentence. Social exclusion was an alarm signal warning of potential banishment from the clan. We’re still hardwired to be alert to abandonment, separation or rejection – once actual threats to life itself. Our brains still register social rejection in the very area that also registers physical pain when injured. That’s why being treated like an “It” carries a particularly harsh sting.
Perception is what we think we see. Projection is what we see regardless of what’s actually there. We project our own inner reality on another person’s inner reality, assuming that the other feels the same as we do. If we map our world on another without attuning to theirs, empathy is lost. Projection makes another an It. Empathy sees the other as You. Our personal sense of well-being largely depends upon others regarding us as You.
There’s a Dark Triad of uncaring personality types: (1) narcissists, (2) Machiavellians and (3) psychopaths. At the extremes, each of these personality types may develop mental illness or become outlaws. The more common subclinical varieties dwell among us.
Up to a point, narcissism can be healthy. Garden variety narcissists have dreams of glory, are bored by routine, flourish when facing difficulties. Healthy narcissists are self-confident and self-reflective, are open to reality checks, even criticism.
Runaway narcissists crave to be admired more than loved, caring little or nothing for how their actions affect others, turning a blind eye to those who don’t feed their striving for glory. “Others exist to adore me.” Often innovators in business, runaway narcissists are driven to achieve not by an internal standard of excellence, but by the perks and glory that achievement brings. Runaway narcissists often lack a sense of self-worth resulting in inner shakiness that translates well-intentioned criticism as an attack. They take the credit for successes but never the blame for failures. Not drawn to emotional intimacy, runaway narcissists are highly competitive, cynical and mistrustful of others, glorifying themselves at the expense of someone close to them.
Entire organizations can become narcissistic. Healthy dissent dies out. Runaway group narcissism isolates co-workers who collude to maintain their shared illusions. Suppression and paranoia thrive. Work devolves into charade. Shared illusions flourish in direct proportion to suppression of truth. Self-celebration fogs over how divorced from reality narcissistic organizations have become. “The rules don’t apply to us.”
For Machiavellians, the ends justify the means, no matter what. Self-interest is the sole driving force in human nature. Altruism doesn’t exist. For Machs, uninterested in emotional connections, other people are strictly means to a desired end. Machs recognize and manipulate others’ emotions strictly to obtain the objective. As opposed to narcissists and psychopaths, Machs remain realistic about themselves. They need to see things clearly in order to exploit them.
“Kiss up and kick down” is Machs’ mode of operation in organizations. They leave a trail of ex-friends, ex-lovers, ex-business associates, all brimming with hurt or simmering resentment. Lacking the capacity to feel with others, Machs also cannot feel for them. Machs appear to experience an emotionally dry inner world, rife with primal needs for sex, money, or power. Their heads know what to do. Their hearts remain clueless.
Psychopaths are indifferent to others’ pain, feel no anxiety, or fear. They seem immune to stress and oblivious to the threat of punishment. Psychopaths can get into others heads to “push the right buttons” and can be socially smooth. Psychopaths often have a childhood history of torturing animals, and later of bullying, picking fights, forcing sex, and setting fires.
Genuine remorse distinguishes other people who dwell outside the Dark Triad, as do other “social emotions” such as guilt, shame, embarrassment and pride that act as a moral compass. We feel shame when the public learns, guilt when our misdeeds remain private. Guilt sometimes spurs people to rectify their wrongs, whereas shame more often leads to defensiveness. Inside the Dark Triad these uncomfortable emotions lose their moral power.
The ability to discern what may be going through someone else’s mind is one of our most invaluable human skills. Neuroscientists call it “mindsight”. Mindsight demands that we distinguish ourselves from others, understanding that someone else can think and perceive situations different from us, realizing that their aims may not be in our own best interests. Persons afflicted with autism or Asperger’s syndrome may be “mindblind” to what’s going on with other people. Largely indifferent to human interaction, people with autism make little or no eye contact with anyone, thereby missing out on the building blocks of human bonding as well as empathy.