After All It's Only Human To

‘It is only human’ is a phrase that I frequently come upon either as an explanation for or in a verbal response to expressed anger, loss of temper, irritability, failure and forgetfulness.  It is the adverb ‘only’ that affects me in that I perceive it as a diminishment of what it means to be ‘truly’ human.  Somehow, too, the ‘only’ human becomes a clever way to reduce the weight and impact of another’s particular actions, especially those that create an unsafe situation for another person – adult or child – to be in our company.  Furthermore, the ‘only human’ response suggests that such threatening actions are ‘beyond our control’ and absolves us of having to reflect on and resolve the causes and intentions of these responses.

The reality is that as human we are ‘powerful beyond measure’ and even the use of the term ‘only human’ arises paradoxically from that power.  When human beings are under physical, sexual, emotional and intellectual threats they find the most amazing ways of reducing or eliminating such threats.  We have developed the most sophisticated technology to safeguard our homes, property and our own physical wellbeing.  Equally, when we encounter ‘put downs’, irritability, dismissiveness, aggression we find creative and powerful ways to offset the threats by blaming the perpetrators or by becoming ‘martyrs’ to these responses.  In blaming, we put all the responsibility for our feelings of hurt, disappointment, devastation onto the other; in being passive and ‘martyred’ we attempt to offset further ‘blows’ by blaming ourselves and by ‘keeping a low profile’ or by inviting the sympathy of others in the hope that they might champion us against the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.’  Whatever the response, it is clever, creative and powerful and hardly ‘only human.’

In considering our responses to the difficult behaviours of others, it helps to understand that their actions are their creative and powerful attempts to offset threats to their wellbeing.  For example, when somebody is dismissive of your sacred presence, it certainly indicates that that person is protectively unsure of self and in some way another perceives your presence or behaviour as a threat.  What is assuredly true is if that person possessed a solid sense of self he or she would be affirming of your presence.  The responsibility for the threatening behaviour of another is completely theirs and does not arise from your presence or behaviour but from that person’s own interiority.  Equally, our responses to the threatening behaviours of others belong to us and are not caused by their hostile behaviours but arise from our own interiority.  It is for that reason when you encounter a response that is demeaning and lessening of your presence that you take action for yourself to hold true to your own self and return or leave the defensive response with the person who has engaged in it.  However, when we are not operating from an inner stronghold of self, we will wisely ‘personalise’ the other person’s demeaning behaviour because it is too threatening to speak the truth.  ‘Personalising’ results in us either protectively ‘acting in’ (passive, blaming self) or ‘acting-out’ (aggressive, blaming), but its deeper purpose is to awaken us, when it is emotionally safe for us to do so, to honour our own person (‘personal-ise’ self) and stay separate from the dark actions of others.

Whether we are at the receiving end and personalising or are perpetrating actions that lessen our presence, the underlying issue is our particular sense of self that is present at that moment in time.  Blows (the protective responses of others) to our presence occur in all social systems – home, school, community, workplace, church and country.  How we respond to these ‘blows’ depends on several things:

  • our level of self-esteem at the time
  • the frequency, intensity and endurance of the ‘blows’
  • our state of physical and psychosocial wellbeing

One’s level of self-esteem can change from time to time, person to person and situation to situation.  At ‘crisis’ times it can be challenging to hold strongly to our incredible worth and capability, whilst at times of celebration, such holding is easier.  When it comes to people, with certain people who are caring and respectful of us, to ‘feel good about ourselves’ can arise effortlessly, but when we encounter ‘authority’ figures we can often find ourselves ‘feeling small’ in their company.  There is also the reality that no matter how strong a hold of self you possess, when you encounter frequently intense and daily and long enduring years of blows to your presence, it can be extremely difficult to not personalise.  Similarly, when our energy is low, or we’re acutely or chronically ill, or experiencing serious marital or familial or work-related problems, the challenge to stay centred, solid and separate is difficult.  There is the fact too that we are not surrounded by individuals who strongly practice self-reliance.  What is far more common are what I call ‘lean to’ relationships.  It is from such vulnerable relationships that the response ‘it is only human’ arises.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices clinical psychology and is author of practical books on psychology, including Myself, My Partner.