Interpersonal Rules that Undermine Your Relationships #7

Interpersonal Rule #7

Individual Successes are more Impressive than Group Successes.

     In a separate-self culture, individual feats of strength and cunning  are idolized, the self-made man is celebrated and assumed to be different and better than the average Joes around him. Iconic figures like Albert Einstein and Henry Ford are placed on a pedestal and admired for their unique gifts. However, the idolization also plucks them from the supporting cast and context that helped them succeed. Because of Interpersonal Rule #7 most people believe that maturity is measured by the degree of individual functioning. This disappears relationships and connections that fuel all of us to succeed.     

   You can see this rule being applied to heroes routinely held up as role models for children –  from John Wayne and the Lone Ranger, to Superman, Spiderman and the Green Hornet – individuals protecting the vulnerable (and inferior) masses with extraordinary strength and cunning. In a culture that trains people to see individual strength, we all become skilled at not seeing the context and the relationships in which our heroes are embedded. A real life example is the story of Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a bus. As an admired figure in the American civil rights movement, Rosa Parks is usually portrayed as a small, non-threatening, black woman who spontaneously sat in the front seat of a segregated bus because, on that day, she had had enough.  A brave, little woman who, in a split second, became so pissed off at being treated as a second-class citizen, she risked her life to sit with the white passengers. I am embarrassed to say that this was the culturally driven story I learned in my youth and is the same one I passed on to my children. A few summers ago, I heard a very different story

      My friend and colleague, Dr. Maureen Walker, used the story of Rosa Parks to illustrate a teaching point at our annual training Institute and it is a classic example of how a culture, focused on individual strengths and power over others, can reduce a complex, relational movement into separate, independent acts of defiance.  Seeing Rosa Parks as a solo, black woman who stood up to racism, hides the true power cooperative relationships have to transform society. 

      Dr. Walker encouraged us to read “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power “ by Danielle McGuire. The book describes the way women of color were “owned”, body and soul, by the dominant white culture and tells a more complete and disturbing story of the fight for equality by African-Americans. In fact, Rosa Parks was chosen by her peers for this rebellious act, in part, because she didn’t fit a classic stereotype of a large, angry, black women held by the dominant group. The organizers of the movement knew that a woman who fit the dominant group’s stereotype could easily be dismissed.They also knew that the greater the difference between themselves and the dominant group members, the less likely it would be for the dominant group to stretch beyond their comfort zones to understand a subordinate group members’ experience. Using Rule #6 (be unique but not too different) to their advantage, they enlisted the diminutive Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus. This more detailed telling of the story makes it clear that Rosa Parks choosing a seat at the front of the bus was a well orchestrated move by a sophisticated, motivated, anti-segregation movement, not just the courageous, spontaneous act of one brave woman.

Source: Lisa Langhammer used with permission

Source: Lisa Langhammer used with permission

   This more complete telling of the story of Rosa Parks violates Interpersonal Rule #7- individual successes are more impressive than group successes, which I suspect, is why few know the real story.  But, when you think about it, the story is much more impressive when Ms. Parks is part of a larger network of people promoting civil rights. This is just one of many stories passed from generation to generation that could inspire relational growth, change and integration in our society, but continue to be replayed in their most skeletal, disconnected, deconstructed way.

         In a world where relationships are central, each of us understands that individual accomplishment is a myth. It is simply not how the human brain and body work.  The mountaineer, who courageously climbs Mt Everest, does so as part of a team emotionally and physically encouraging each other.  Even the rare solo climber has friends and families he holds dear.  These relationships live in his body and mind and are crucial to each physical step he takes up the rock face.  In a relational world, you learn that the expectation of doing things “on your own” is stressful, and when you body is stressed, your Gut takes over, making hasty decisions, and undermining your ability to succeed.

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