What Causes Successful Lives Derail?
With the recent FBI inquisition into Hillary Clinton’s emails, we are once again shocked with headlines announcing misbehavior from a famous member of society. Why prominent people destroy their reputation with stupid behaviors is a head-scratcher. From David Petraeus’ affair to Lance Armstrong’s doping to Utah Attorney General John Swallow’s elicit deal brokering we have consistent examples of successful lives derailed from poor judgment.
But are the well-publicized peccadillos the result of a rare rash act? Or upon closer examination would we likely find a pattern of flawed thinking that eventually leads to their decline? In the 1960’s researchers looked at thinking patterns widespread in the criminal population. Among inmates they found a common core of beliefs, which eventually lead to misconduct.
These “thinking errors”, as Aaron Beck, father of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, coined are found in the general population and often lead to problematic behavior. There are a dozen or so “thinking errors” but one frequently found in individuals in high profile cases is termed uniqueness or entitlement. Followers of this thinking pattern have the engrained belief they are one of a kind. They are very special and rules don’t apply to them. They are entitled to special privileges and societal norms don’t apply to them.
Less sophisticated followers of entitlement or uniqueness dogma, lie, steal and fight often. The justice system quickly notices anti social behavior and they are often jailed as juveniles. A more sophisticated version of this faulty belief is often off the societal radar screen because the individual does appear special to us. They appear extra ordinarily intelligent, attractive, or athletic. Social norms still apply to them but somehow they slide by on their charm. Eventually tattletale behaviors such as embezzlement, marital affairs, prescription fraud or doping appear and they fall from grace.
We are shocked by their demise but a close examination will reveal a life long belief in their uniqueness or entitlement and general disregard of the harm of their behavior. So if you are tempted to speed down the highway, under report taxable income, ignore your parking ticket, neglect to pay library fines, or park in a handicap zone—- examine your beliefs.
Those infractions may seem small but at the core is a belief that you don’t have to follow rules which are set up for everyone’s best interest.
Appropriate parenting can influence character formation
Parents, allow your children the consequences of their behaviors. They aren’t special; sometimes they deserve failing grades, aren’t safe at home base or make bad choices. Early childhood accountability builds good citizens. Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of the best selling book, Positive Discipline says, “Over-involved parenting leads to demanding entitled children who expect undue services.” Dr. Nelson recommends parents allow children to develop their “disappointment muscles” and experience failure and frustration.
As recent news accounts describe, repetitive self-serving behavior eventually has consequences. Common criminal thinking harms all of us. Let’s keep it uncommon.
Camille Curtis Foster, MSW, LCSW
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