Living in the Shadow of the Golden Rule

By: Benjamin Reisterer, MA, LPC

The so-called “golden rule” can be found almost anywhere you go. Travel through time, value systems, countries and you will most likely find some variation of, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a valuable phrase that if truly taken to heart can create some serious good in the world. For all the good the “golden rule” attempts to inspire, without boundaries it has a shadow side which can end up causing a lot of pain and frustration in our lives and our society in general.

As individuals, each of us has our own set of preferences, beliefs, and experiences that we use to interpret our surroundings. Understanding the world from someone else’s perspective is typically foreign to us and usually requires purposeful hard work. This is where the golden rule’s shadow comes out. There is a subtle, yet powerful difference when we look at a situation from our own perspective and then engage a completely different person versus acknowledging the differences between the perspectives and then acting on that understanding.

I often see this dynamic in session and interact with it in my own life. I recognize that in my relationships with individuals, society, and institutions I often project my own preferences and experiences and then feel frustration when they are not validated as universal.

“How could someone not want or see it this way? It’s so obviously what should happen here,” I’ve caught myself saying.

In order to truly apply the “golden rule,” we must be willing to set ourselves aside and go deeper. If we are not intentionally curious about the other person(s), we are simply projecting our experience onto others and treating them as extensions of ourselves. Therefore, when our overtures, opinions, and ideas are dismissed, we tend to take that rejection and pain personally. We easily lash out by viewing the other person as irrational or just “not getting it” all the while validating our own behavior through a self-centric interpretation of the “golden rule.” The intended outcome is to honor the other or to pursue unity and understanding. Unfortunately, with this shadow side, it is always a one-sided affair, which is at odds with the golden rule’s intent.

The truth is that the world is big enough and mysterious enough for us to radically, and validly, experience it in different ways. If we are willing to engage this truth, acknowledge it in our interactions, and then act on it, the threatening feeling experienced by the self can safely diminish.

As I continually re-engage the challenge to acknowledge my own shadow I ask myself, “Am I responding how I would want to be responded to, or am I responding how they would want to be responded to?”

When I do this I am better able to enter into an understanding with others and move forward in a harmonious and affirming way. So I invite you to join me in wrestling with your own shadow as I believe our relationships, and our society, will be improved by this engagement.

Lindsey Bandy