I lied. The step is not easy.
And, not every toxic behavior can be changed with the method I will outline. But it works for a whole lot of toxic behaviors, especially if you are male or were socialized as a male.
I am going to tell the two most absurd stories I can think of. I am telling these stories precisely because they are absurd.
Once there was a friend of mine who was attracted to this girl, but he was terrified of asking her on a date. Her mother knew both of us. Her mother wanted her to date me. The girl did not want to date me, and I did not want to date her. I’m sure she was a nice enough girl, but we had such adamantly opposed values and dissimilar lives that, on the rare occasions we tried to talk, the only thing we could discuss was the weather. We were not ever going to get along with each other, let alone date.
But that didn’t stop her mother from deciding that I was the one for her daughter. (The girl was much younger than me, and sometimes I think the mother was doing a bit of projecting.) In any case, the mother kept coming up with excuses to pair the girl and me up. It never worked.
Finally (thank God) my friend got up the nerve to ask this girl out. Now here’s where the story gets really weird.
For years, I hated my friend after that. Why? Because he “won” the competition for this girl. And the whole time I kept thinking to myself, “this doesn’t make any sense.” Oh autistic me, always looking for the logical explanation to emotional reactions. Autistic me was right though, it didn’t make any sense.
That’s story number one. Thankfully I doubt my friend ever realized that I hated him, since I was way too embarrassed to ever bring it up. But I started to wonder why, on an emotional level, I seemed so interested in “winning” a battle that I didn’t even want to win.
Here is absurd story number two.
I’ll never forget the time I started crying after losing at video games. I’m not talking about something that happened when I was twelve. This happened like four years ago. In that instant, I realized that something in my brain drastically overestimates the importance of “winning” and “losing.” I had already noticed that I act differently in conflicts, as does everyone. I had long ago noticed that winning arguments had sabotaged my friendships and my own life ambitions. I began to wonder, “just how toxic is the desire to win?”
Increasingly I began to see in myself and almost everyone I knew that toxic behaviors stem disproportionately from the need to “win”. Win arguments, win conflicts, win contests for public approval, win the affections of the opposite sex. Win, win, win. It’s like everyone’s toxic behavior is all just their inner Charlie Sheen, obsessed with “WINNING!”
I decided I needed to do something about this need to WIN.
Now it has never worked for me to try to eliminate a toxic emotional trait. If you want to try to eliminate your desire to win, or cut off your need to dominate others, all I have to say is “good luck.” For me, I have to figure out how to make these biological traits serve a better purpose. And that is what I did. I figured out how to make that desire to win serve my own deep values, instead of the angry, entitled mini-Sheen in my head who just wants to prevail in personal conflicts.
So that’s the one step. Figure out how to make your pettiness serve something bigger than your own selfishness. It’s like spiritual judo. You can use the energy and momentum of your least admirable desires to be a better person.
Here is how I did it:
I figured out my own deep values, and figured out what small steps to take to reach those values. Then, I celebrated each and every time I took even the smallest step. I danced around, cheered myself on, jumped up and down with glee. I threw parties in my head, had parades in my own honor in my imagination, had gorgeous unreal women congratulate me.
If all this feels like a bit much, here is a specific example. Writing is an essential part of my own deep values of truth, honor and independence. It is something I feel I MUST do. Every night I type in my phone’s calendar, “Write” in the slot that represents “first thing in the morning.” When I get up, writing is the first thing I do. No matter how much or how little I write, I celebrate. I celebrate each and every time I write throughout the day. Yes, every time. And I celebrate no matter how much or how little I write.
I celebrate now matter how bad the writing is, no matter how much it needs to be edited. I celebrate whether I write something new or simply revise something I already wrote.
Over time these celebrations change my emotional definition of what it means to win. As I keep this up, I care less and less about video games and revenge, and I care more and more about my values. Caring less about revenge allows me to care more about others. And doing the real work that matters to me means I don’t have to try to “win” competitions with other people any longer.
You can do the same thing. Your values are different than mine and your toxic behavior is different too. But if you can change your emotional definition of winning, you will feel far less of an urge to be toxic in the first place. Reducing the emotional intensity of your own need to dominate others will make it easier to see where they are coming from. And that will allow compassion to overcome resentment and rage.
So I lied about it being one step, too. It’s many little tiny steps, taken over and over again. But the smaller the step you have to take, the easier it is to start.