It is interesting to observe the disparity that exists between how we treat ourselves compared to how we treat others, and the contrasting attitudes society holds towards interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships.
We have laws, regulations and customs governing our conduct in society which advise, prescribe and instruct how to interact with and behave towards other people. These laws, regulations and customs let us know what is and what is not acceptable social behaviour.
Yet there seems to be no social contract and no established set of laws or morals that are concerned with how we treat ourselves in our inner world. Morals, ethics and laws only seem to cover interpersonal relationships and interactions. Sure, society becomes concerned if you harm yourself on a physical level, yet is completely indifferent to the way your mind assaults and abuses you.
Seemingly we live in an orderly and law-abiding society which we all pride ourselves on, yet in the inner realm no rules or boundaries are sacred. The very things you would never do to other human beings you do freely to yourself in your inner world, and if you were to treat other people that way, you would be censured, punished or ostracised by the community.
Just imagine for a moment if someone were to suddenly verbally or physically attack you viciously, without any provocation or reason, and continue doing so day after day. You would never put up with that kind of treatment, and you would certainly have the backing of the community in your defence. Yet it seems perfectly acceptable for your own mind to treat you this way, to subject you to all sorts of horrendous tortures and all kinds of vile, base and vicious acts.
When it comes to internal assaults by the mind, it seems anything goes, for they are not witnessed by other people and thus are immune from their judgements and condemnations. Because they are inwardly directed, these acts of violence are free from the moral bounds that constrain our actions towards other persons.
Additionally, because these attacks occur on the internal level, society doesn’t take them very seriously. The very language society uses to describe and address internal aggression, such as: “Stop moping! You are being self-indulgent and navel-gazing, while others in the world are having real problems and undergoing real suffering. Pull yourself together and snap out of it!” reflects the dismissive and belittling attitude society holds towards the self-abuse the mind inflicts upon you.
The other salient difference between outer and inner aggression is that in the outer world we are born into a sophisticated and highly developed philosophical and legal system which has taken millennia to develop and provides for our rights within the community and maintains law and order in our society. Also, in the outer world we can get help from others or the law if we are attacked. Indeed an attack upon you is seen as an attack against the whole orderly working of society and that’s why in Criminal Law it is The People vs. The Defendant, for a crime against one person is deemed to be a crime against all of the society. By contrast, in the inner world you are entirely on your own and it is wholly up to you and you alone to create and develop from scratch a defence system to protect yourself against the mind’s assaults. Certainly you can get advice from others about the various defence strategies you could employ, but ultimately you are all alone on the battlefield and it is a fight between just you and your mind, a fight in which no rules of engagement are followed, no laws of war are obeyed.
Not only are there social regulations and customs that prescribe our conduct in the external domain, but we also possess a sophisticated internal sense of conscience which guides us in our interactions with others and lets us know whether the way we are acting towards them is morally right or wrong. But do we possess a just-as-strongly-developed inner sense which tells us what is right and what is wrong in our interactions with ourselves? Do we ever feel pangs of guilt, stings of shame after we mentally assault or abuse ourselves? Does our conscience ever punish us for our psychological self-abuse or does it too, just like the external society, not care about the internal violence?
Also, with the inner realm, we can never know or see how other people are treating themselves inwardly and how other people deal with internal self-abuse; consequently, as children, we can never learn by example, by observing our role models, as to how to deal with one’s mind.
So it can be clearly seen that there are no standards of behaviour as applied to our relationship with ourselves on the internal level, and that our inner treatment of ourselves is not subject to any moral code. We have no objective, external reference point with which to guide our inner interactions with ourselves; we cannot tell what the limits are or where the boundaries lie because there are no external laws which deal with the internal realm of the mind.
A natural and obvious question which has to be asked at this point is why indeed does society not consider emotional and mental self-abuse to be as serious an issue as the verbal or physical mistreatment of and violence against other people?
Is it because society assumes it is your responsibility and your responsibility alone to look after and deal with your inner world? Is it because a person’s inner world and his intrapersonal relationship with himself are seen to be exclusively private areas which only concern that person and that person alone, and consequently are believed by society to be beyond the jurisdiction of any public law? Is it because internal violence is directed against oneself on the psychological level and doesn’t really affect others and so arouses no concern or reaction in them, and therefore society has no incentive to apply any laws or regulations to inner violence? Is it because society believes that while any person is a potential threat to other members of community and therefore laws have to be established to protect the public against possible violence or mistreatment that people may inflict upon one another, by contrast, with the situation of an individual’s relationship with himself, an individual can be expected and trusted not to inflict wanton pain upon himself?
Another factor to take into consideration is the fact that internal violence does not seem to have the same potency, the same “punch” to it as does physical violence against oneself or against other people. Psychological self-abuse is much more indefinite, amorphous, nebulous, vague and intangible. The mental states of a person are invisible and unknown to everyone else and cannot be measured or recorded.
Indeed, one also has to ask whether we take the inner violence we commit against ourselves seriously? Or do we dismiss this internal self-abuse as trivial and non-consequential, as it occurs in the inner world rather than in the real physical outer world?
This last question leads us to another possible reason as to why society holds a double standard in regards to inner and outer abuse. Consider the way we view the importance of internal and external worlds and the events that take place therein. Inner well-being, inner climate, inner state of events and their evolution all rate much less in significance and consequence than outer well-being, outer situations, outer state of events and their evolution. Our internal accomplishments, the internal assets we have gained, the internal hurdles we have overcome, the internal losses we have sustained—none of that matters very much to society. As far as society is concerned one might as well be a robot with no inner life at all or a vicious “inner psychopath” who unceasingly and unsparingly inflicts constant psychological violence against his inner self—as long as you are a law-abiding member of society you are accepted within the community and treated as an equal member with full rights. As long as your internal world and the things that go on there do not adversely affect other members of community, all is well and society is happy with you.
So, it can be seen that society’s neglect of inner self-abuse is due to society’s differing underlying beliefs about interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. It can also be seen that the case of inner violence being dismissed as trivial is just a small subset of the general disparaging and disinterested attitude society holds towards the internal world.
If we were to take a long-range perspective on the issue of inner self-abuse, we would be justified in surmising that when people of the future look back on our society, our beliefs and our moral attitudes, they might shudder at the way we condoned and ignored psychological harm that the mind inflicts upon itself, and be incredulous as to how we could have been so blind to such a fundamental and obvious truth as that every human being has the right to freedom and protection from inner, as well outer, violence.
RESPONSES TO ARGUMENTS AGAINST INNER MORALITY
Objection: Why is this question of dealing with inner self-abuse an issue at all? Couldn’t the whole problem be easily resolved simply by creating internal defences to protect yourself against the mind’s attacks?
Response: The issue of inner self-abuse cannot be solved so easily, for consider for a moment the inherent dilemma of the situation: you are entrusting the construction of the defences to the very same entity that attacks you—your mind. So in the inner world you are in the paradoxical situation whereby you depend on being defended from your enemy by that very same enemy. Given that your attacker and defender are one and the same entity, how can you ever create an effective and invulnerable defence system in such a scenario?
2) Objection: I think the idea of having a moral code or a social contract to help people stop treating themselves poorly is self-defeating. If we had this type of code or contract, the premise would be that failure to follow it would result in some sort of corrective action, whether that be public embarrassment, exclusion from parts of society or something else. So, who’s going to know who violates the code unless someone turns themselves in? How would society go about monitoring and controlling the inner violence given that, by its very nature, its existence is evident only to the victim and no one else?
Response: This argument assumes that law only serves a punitive function. However laws, by the very virtue of their existence, also play a big role in preventing certain behaviours from occurring in the first place. Laws provide us with a road map which tells us what behaviours are immoral, improper or unacceptable to society and those kinds of behaviour then assume a taboo character in virtue of the existence of those laws; thus, it is quite feasible that by legislating against internal self-abuse it too would assume a taboo character that it presently lacks.
3) Objection: Wouldn’t turning yourself in for corrective action due to violating the code against internal self-abuse be akin to self-abuse of a different form? Rather than helping, this would simply increase the issues with which that person is struggling. Rather than “training” them through a code of conduct to stop abusing themselves, we are creating an additional way for them to do just that.
Response: Whether corrective action is another type of self-abuse really depends on what form that corrective action would assume, and so corrective action as a way of dealing with the issue of psychological self-abuse can not be dismissed so casually and easily out of hand.
4) Objection: Wouldn’t making internal self-abuse wrong and illegal only serve to increase the sense of inadequacy that would lead to further emotional self-abuse?
Response: This is debatable, for by outlawing internal self-abuse society would then brand that kind of behaviour as socially unacceptable, and that may very well prevent it from occurring in the first place; ie the law would act in its function as a preventive measure.
5) Objection: The most common reasons for people treating themselves poorly would be: low self-esteem, childhood traumas, and stress due to the demands and challenges of work, family, relationships, school/college/university or life in general. All of these causes of inner self-abuse are the result of interactions with other people. Therefore, it is more important to focus and work on your relationships with the others, rather than on your relationship with yourself.
Response: This argument ignores the fact that a lot of the negative, self-abusive thoughts and feelings are generated by and gain their power and dynamics from your relationship with yourself, rather than from your relationship with the others and how others behave towards you. Your self-image is influenced tremendously by how you view yourself from the inside, for you can see and are aware of things about yourself that are unknown and inaccessible to everyone else and so you judge yourself accordingly, the way others cannot judge you.
You might have all the respect and acclaim of your family, partners, friends, work colleagues and community, have a great career and be successful in every way in the external world, and still that wouldn’t change one iota your self-hatred or negative self-image if that’s what your relationship with the self generates.
6) Objection: The solution to the issue of poor self-treatment is, ironically, to treat everyone else with tolerance, support, understanding, respect and love. If everyone did this, we would have a world virtually free of self-esteem issues.
Response: In order to treat others with love and respect it is necessary to first treat yourself that way. Otherwise your actions would be hypocritical and unauthentic, lacking any substance to them and of little efficacy and consequence.
This argument also again assumes that one’s self-esteem is predominantly generated by how the others treat you, whereas I would argue that it is how one views oneself from the inside that largely determines one’s self-image.
7) Objection: Trying to regulate how people think about and treat themselves on the inner level can never be a good idea.
Response: One can never really know what is and what is not a good idea until it is put into practice and its effects and consequences are seen and experienced.
8) Objection: Those who find that they are berating, criticising or generally being hard on themselves probably have good reason to act in the manner in which they do. This behaviour should be welcomed as a sign of emotional wear and tear—that it’s time for a tune-up.
Response: The flaw in this argument is best illuminated by applying it to the case of abuse towards others. Do we ever justify verbal or physical violence against others as having good reasons for occurring, and do we ever welcome that kind of behaviour as a sign of emotional imbalance that needs to be adjusted? Or don’t we see any violence against others as never being justifiable, and don’t we try to prevent ourselves from ever becoming abusers of others in the first place?
Also, the problem with the argument above is that if we wait until psychological self-abuse occurs before taking preventive action or seeking help, then we are in effect willingly allowing ourselves to be wounded, perhaps irreparably, rather than working on preventing inner violence from arising in the first place and behaving in ways that would protect us from being exposed to internal self-harm to begin with. Now is that a rational way to act? Do we, in the external world, willingly allow ourselves to be burned by fire or hit by a car before we take preventive action or do we act in ways that stop us from being hurt by those things in the first place?
This argument also ignores the fact that a great majority of psychological self-abuse is irrational in its origin and thus is unjustifiable whenever it does occur.
9) Objection: There are already many ways that society deals with and seeks to heal internal self-abuse, such as, amongst others, psychoanalysis, medication, religion and meditation. Why do we need another strategy to address internal self-abuse?
Response: Of course, those ways of dealing with inner self-abuse have their rightful place and can be useful and effective; however, judging by the amount of inner self-abuse that is rampant in society, it is obvious that those measures are not adequate, let alone perfect, and so other strategies, such as outlawing inner violence, need to be tried to address this issue.
10) Objection: Do you seriously expect any government to ever pass laws against inner self-abuse?
Response: Even if no laws are ever passed against inner self-abuse, the way that this article has shown that internal violence is just as heinous, unacceptable and immoral as external violence could be the spark that makes people start seeing the mental harm that they commit against themselves from a completely new perspective. The very fact that this article has identified the seriousness of this issue could be enough to cause a change in the collective consciousness of mankind.