Understanding Attitudes, Part 1

Understanding Attitudes, Part 1

An attitude is a way of feeling or thinking that has become habitual. People show their attitudes but seldom express them in words. In some cases, they are not even aware they have them. Lack of awareness occurs with bad habits more than with good habits, no doubt because the latter take effort to develop.

An attitude that is not expressed in words can be identified by the beliefs it implies. Every attitude suggests one or more beliefs about people, places, or things; and these beliefs can be expressed in words. For example, a helpful store clerk’s attitude suggests the belief that “the customer comes first,” or “I’m here to serve.” In contrast, an unhelpful or rude clerk’s attitude suggests “my personal conversations take precedence over helping people,” “customers have no business bothering me,” or simply “I’m important, others are not.”

Identifying and evaluating other people’s attitudes can increase our appreciation of those with good attitudes and deal more effectively with those with bad attitudes. Identifying and evaluating our own attitudes, though more difficult, is even more beneficial. It can not only improve our relationships with others, but also make us better human beings.

It is no secret that self-improvement, long considered a wise goal for everyone, has in recent decades been ignored in many schools and homes and in society in general. Some people now consider it an obstacle to achievement. As a result, many flawed or completely mistaken attitudes have gained popularity. 

Here are some false beliefs about SELF that spawn bad attitudes.

“I am naturally wise and good.” Our ancestors understood that the story of Adam and Eve is not just a Judeo-Christian notion but a dramatic expression of a profound truth about human nature. We are all flawed in many ways and none of them more obvious than our vulnerability to foolishness and bad behavior. Wisdom and goodness are not inborn but require effort.

“Nothing influences me—I am an individual.” In reality we are vulnerable to both a myriad of influences and the tendency to deny that fact. We do have the capacity to resist both, but this must be activated. 

“I already know everything worth knowing.” Socrates said, ‘I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.’ He was reminding us that there is so much to learn that we can never finish our search. Thinking even for a moment that our search is complete effectively closes our mind to knowledge.

“I should accept myself as I am.” Such acceptance prevents us from becoming the better self we could be.

“I can accomplish anything if I believe in myself.” Accomplishment is the result of many factors. Diligent application to the task is one factor that we can control. Possession of the necessary skills is one that we can discover only through effort. Therefore, we should have the courage to try our best without being certain of success. 

“My ideas, feelings, and habits of mind are unique.” Each of us is unique in some ways, but ideas, feelings, and habits of mind are seldom, if ever, among them. Pretending they are will can prevent us from learning from others.

“No one understands me as well as I understand myself.” It is true that there are aspects our ourselves that we know and understand better than others do. But there are also aspects of us that others know and understand better than we do. For example, the impressions others have of us. Also, things we say and do that shame makes us deny even to ourselves. We can therefore always profit from learning what others think of us.

“All criticism, including self-criticism, creates self-doubt.” To be sure, criticism can create doubt. But at least as often it can provide insights that help us improve ourselves.

“If I have high self-esteem, I will be successful.” There are two broad kinds of self-esteem—earned and unearned. The first kind is deserved and therefore healthy. The second is not deserved and likely to lead us to a false view of ourselves.

“Guilt and shame damage my mental health.” It all depends. They can be a damaging form of mental illness if we feel guilty or ashamed when we have nothing to feel ashamed about. On the other hand, if we have done reprehensible things, feeling guilty and ashamed is a sign of mental health.

“The words should, ought, and must damage my personal growth.” The truth is exactly the opposite. The purpose of personal growth is to become a better person, which means becoming more consistent in doing good and avoiding evil.Discerning what we should, ought, and must do helps us achieve that consistency.

“If I don’t assert myself, I will be diminished.” There are times when self-assertion is helpful and times when it is quite the opposite. Both prudence and wisdom require us to distinguish between those times and act accordingly. We are “diminished” only when we ignore that distinction.

“Perfectionism is a serious threat to my well-being.” Humans are imperfect beings and perfection is therefore unattainable. For this reason, expecting to attain it can cause frustration and disappointment. On the other hand, strivingtoward perfection promotes improvement. The solution is to strive without expecting the impossible.

To be continued . . .

Note: this essay is in part borrowed from my 1999 book, Thinking Critically About Attitudes.

Copyright © 1999, 2024 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero