Up-ending One-Upsmanship  

Do the dynamics around our national dialogue about race remind you of a dysfunctional married couple?  Both sides are feeling unheard, hurt, and unloved, and it feels like each side is speaking a different language.  The rhetoric heats up and pretty soon there is finger pointing, blame assigned, and real bodily injury and worse, as each side engages in endless cycles of one-upsmanship.

What is needed is maybe some one-downsmanship, because solutions don’t happen at the bottom of the one-upsmanship downward spiral. 

What does one-downsmanship look like? 

First, it means taking a deep breath, hitting pause, and calming ourselves.  While our stress hormone cortisol is surging through our bodies, we cannot solve problems.  We can only engage in fight or flight, neither of which creates a pathway for long term solutions.  We should all turn to our repertoire of calming tools, or develop them if we don’t have them.


Second, we have to remember why people disagree in the first place.  Even siblings raised in the same household can be wired and react very differently to a given set of circumstances.  The difference can be even greater when you consider people across the many cultural backgrounds or demographics.    

The concept of the Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman helps us to understand part of this dynamic.  Chapman states that we all have preferences for how we perceive and communicate love.  These preferences include touch, words of affirmation, service, time together, or gifts.  If I think love is communicated through time together, and my partner communicates through gifts, I will feel unloved when he gives me gifts.  He will be confused why his expressions of love are going unrecognized when in fact there is no lack of love between us.  But yet we fight because we don’t understand each other.

We can also have conflict when we differ in our moral priorities.  Steve Pinker states we all have the same moral values, but they’re expressed in different ways and as different priorities.  Therefore, just because we don’t understand someone else’s values and moral compass, doesn’t mean they don’t have them.  Likely they are not in alignment with our own and therefore causing conflict.  For example, I might value harmony and peace (getting along) over justice (having fairness), which could, in certain circumstances, result in opposing strategies and solutions.  We are both engaging our moral compass in the dialogue, but mistakenly viewing the other as lacking morality or good judgement.

Therefore, if we can be open to the idea that the other person is likely moral, reasonable, and showing love despite all apparent evidence (collected through our selective filters), we can perhaps discover and build upon our mutual positive intentions.  In the harmony/justice example, reasonable people might agree that both values are important and try to strike a balance that avoids either/or thinking and instead uses both/and, and finds compromise, or a solution in the middle (‘compromise’ used to be in our lexicon).

Third, we should be kind and generous with ourselves.  Though we may be completely justified in our viewpoint, we may not be expressing ourselves in a way that is most likely to be well-received by the other.  The more challenging the conflict, the more we have to bring our biggest, wisest selves to the table.  This is hard to impossible when we’re upset, angry, and/or fearful.  Fear or shame is often the undercurrent of our anger and frustration, and informs, usually in a negative way, the manner in which we communicate.    

For example, according to Tara Bennett-Goleman in her book Emotional Alchemy, we tend to have certain fear beliefs, or schemas, related to themes such as mistrust, fear of abandonment, of not being loved, of failure, of subjugation, of not getting what we need, of being excluded, or of being vulnerable, which may result in feelings of entitlement or perfection.   When these hot buttons get pushed, our reptilian brain kicks in and we fight or flee as if our lives depend on it. 

Then we get into conflict with others and complain how unreasonable they are. 

Being honest with oneself about our fears and soothing that part of ourselves is hard and scary work.  That work that is worth doing if we are to create healthier relationships and dialogues with our loved ones and others in our community. 

All three of these steps involve my locus of control:  my beliefs, feelings, and behavior.  The steps allow me to get acquainted with and nurture first my internal world, then my external world, with some objectivity.  We are all reeling from current environmental, social, physical, economic, psychological and emotional challenges, all of which are in dire need of our understanding and care. 

The pandemic is sending us to our rooms to be still, to reflect, and to re-evaluate who we are and how we are caring for or harming ourselves, each other, and Earth through this downward spiral of one-upsmanship.  The universe/God/Earth is calling for one-downsmanship, de-escalation, healing and care for ourselves, each other, and for all parts of our natural world. 

As we settle down in our pandemic corners, our invitation is to allow inner stillness to find the wisdom and love within and use it to light our path forward to something brighter than where we’ve been.  Let’s not waste this opportunity.  The riches are there inside us to discover. 

Written by Dr. Susanna Calvert

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