Self Dehumanization and Dehumanization Cycles

You’re stupid. You’re a moron. An evil person. Worthless and dumb.

Harsh words, especially when they are said to yourself, and we’ve all said them to ourselves at one point or another. We’ve all degraded ourselves, thought less of ourselves, because of actions we have taken which hurt others or ourselves which we shouldn’t have done. We should have known better. We should have seen what we were doing or saying was wrong. We should have been better.

The bad news is we can’t change the past. The good news is that we can be better because we can learn why we did what we did and, through mindfulness, we can prevent it from happening again to the same degree.

Our propensity for dehumanization is wired unto us. It’s evolved into us over time as a defense mechanism, because it aids us in outgrouping, which was valuable in tribal times, but today serves to allow us to be cruel, objectifying and downright unempathetic people. In short, our evolved propensity to dehumanize makes us behave like assholes.

But we have guilt and shame thrown in as well, and these emotions play a heavy role in how we see ourselves. If we hurt someone we feel bad, but only after we see them as human. In other words, the fact that we feel guilt for hurting someone because we dehumanized them is evidence for the fact that we are rehumanizing our victims, which is a good first step to learning from the process. So in this very important way, guilt is good.

It’s not a platitude for us to say congratulations for feeling guilty - because guilt is really just an admission to yourself that you did bad, which is the first step to realizing that we all have a dehumanization problem. Hence the analogy to religion's "Original Sin" where people are born sinful.

So you feel terrible. The next question is what do you do with those feelings. For most of us, we go straight to the beginning words of this section. You tell yourself you’re worthless, you’re bad, you’re an ass. You are hard on yourself because you’ve done wrong, and good people don’t want to do wrong. Very often, we are our own worst critics. We start seeing ourselves as inferior - we self-dehumanize.

When we self-dehumanize we are more likely to be hard on ourselves, and in a very real way, internalize our own self-imposed sub-human status. Unfortunately, this often results in us more easily dehumanizing other people, because we consider it normal for us, which leads to more guilt and shame, which leads us down a spiral of increasingly bad (by our own definition) behavior. We become more and more of an ass, even as we wish we were nicer, which makes us self-dehumanize even more.

This down spiral can quickly take over our psyche, making us take for granted that we are indeed less than good, less than worthy of love, and less than human. We unwittingly, unwillingly, and unintentionally become bad people in our own minds.

It’s a problem similar to addiction, including the cycle of doing something you can’t seem to stop doing, hating yourself for it, and then doing it again because you give up on giving up. However, in a very real way it’s worse than addiction, because your dehumanization of others leads them to feel animosity toward you, which triggers their dehumanism mechanism, which will make them dehumanize you, so they treat you badly, and when confronted with their behavior, feel bad about it, and dehumanize themselves as you dehumanize them back in revenge for treating you badly.

That’s why dehumanization is contagious - a “Dehumanization Cycle” that is crippling our community, all based on guilt for doing something instinctual.

Dehumanization begets dehumanization to an increasingly larger degree.

This cycle of dehumanization can be stopped with mindfulness, awareness, and kindness to yourself and others and we have a process to help.

We begin by looking at how Humanists treat our adversaries: we humanize them. We see them for the complex people they are and realize that they are mostly good people who have complicated reasons for doing what they do, including dehumanizing you. We understand that dehumanization propensities exist for everyone and that given certain situations those tendencies will guide their behavior heavily.

Like they affect us.

Now think about how you’d treat your best friend if they’d done what you did and was as remorseful as you are. You’d console them. Assure them. Show them you see past the muck in their brains that sometimes makes them dehumanize and treat other people badly. You would tell them you know they are a good person, with good intentions, who like everyone sometimes loses themself in their innate tendencies and learned behavior.

Now let’s look at how you treat yourself. Stupid, worthless, less than human. These thoughts of guilt and shame have a use, but it is to trigger our learning about ourselves and our society, not to paralyze us and make our lives worse. Guilt and shame can be good if put to good use, but causing us to dehumanize ourselves and in turn be freer to dehumanize others out of our own lack of self worth isn’t it.

We are often our own harshest critics. Harsher than our enemies treat us, harsher than we treat our enemies and friends, and it’s all based on guilt and shame on actions and brain processes that are at very least partially involuntary.

Our guilt isn’t about telling us we are bad - if we were bad we wouldn’t feel guilt. Our guilt tells us we are good because we want to be good and failed in this instance.

We need to treat ourselves as good people who want to be good and sometimes fail due to the fact that we are hard-wired to dehumanize and trained by society and internalize the guilt from dehumanizing. We need to treat ourselves with compassion and kindness and understanding, not to give ourselves a pass on bad behavior, but to look at our bad behavior and allow ourselves to learn from it without devaluing ourselves. In other words, we need to treat ourselves at least as well as we treat our friends. If you and your friend reversed positions, would you say your friend is less than human as you're telling yourself now?

Good people and bad people both do bad things. The difference is that good people don’t want to do bad, and feel guilt and shame for doing it. Good people are often hard on themselves where an ass won’t care, or may even celebrate their destructiveness. The fact that you’ve read this whole article should tell you that you are, in fact, good, and you can learn from your guilt and shame without letting it paralyze you, allowing you to make yourself better and the world better off for having you.

That would be a nice thing to say to your best friend.

Humanism And Suicide

We want to start by saying that Physician Assisted Suicide is supported by Humanism. People own themselves, and that means you have the right to terminate your own life in horrible circumstances.

The problem is that some circumstances are less dire. There is a spectrum of despair, and when it’s a matter of non-physical issues, non terminal illnesses, or any other issue that is non permanent, suicide is an option we hope you will take off the table, because taking your own life in that case does not lead to a reduction of suffering, but rather it eliminates your ability to do good for yourself and others in the future.

We see life through our own filters. Everything we observe, we categorize. When we see situations, we reflexively judge them, and depending on our state of mind, all this can change. Sometimes, when we are facing what we perceive as repercussions of our actions, we self-dehumanize, seeing ourselves as less than the complex people we are. We see ourselves as failures, not victims. We look in the mirror and see someone less than human, less than valid, less than forgivable.

Suicide is not a price to be paid, or an escape from life’s hardest moments.

We are all complex, and time does indeed heal wounds. As much pain as we might be in at any given time, there will be times when the pain is less, and in those times we will all have the ability to do good for the world, compensate for our faults and failures in our own minds, and live a life that is still very worth living.

If you are low and contemplating suicide, please remember that you can still do a lot of good for yourself and society and the ones you love in the future. You will have the ability to recover and you will be able to heal. You may have faced permanent changes in your life, and indeed your life may never be the same, but that doesn’t make you evil or bad or useless. You are complicated, and so is the world, and living in today’s society is difficult.

Also, please remember that you are seeing the world through an emotional filter and that means you are not seeing the world objectively (ever). Even if the world seems dark and the future bleak, that is only your observation through your filter given your current emotional state. It’s probably better than you think, so take some time, lots of it, to see the future pan out and brighten over the next few weeks or months. Take time, recover, allow your brain to mourn, and heal. Healing beats death, and you deserve to heal.

If someone you know seems to be suicidal, please reach out to them. Do not wait for them to reach out to you and don’t tell them to reach out if they feel bad. Take the initiative and reach out.

Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline : 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
The Secular Therapy Project - remote and confidential secular therapists [seculartherapy.org]
Helping other in distress - Interventions [psychologytoday.com]
Discussing Suicide (Psychology Today)[psychologytoday.com]
What to do when you think someone is suicidal [medium.com]

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