Have You Ever Had a Toothache?

When you see a “toothache,” you’ll know it’s time for understanding.

It’s relatively easy to believe positive things about employees who show up on time and complete their assignments on time. It’s easy to believe positive things about people with a good attitude and who give 100 percent. But how do you believe positive things about the more difficult people you work with?

Start with the understanding that ALL UNDESIRABLE BEHAVIOR IS DUE TO A LACK OF SELF-ESTEEM. Everything. The obnoxious, loud, attention-grabbing behavior you find so distasteful comes from a lack of self-esteem. The know-it-all coworker as well as the quiet, unassertive, exasperatingly timid employee is suffering from a lack of self-esteem. The habitually tardy, sloppy, careless team members are in equally bad shape. All of these behaviors indicate a lack of self-esteem.

In a sense, everyone has a bowl of self-esteem deep inside. When the bowl is anything less than totally full, it’s difficult for the person to act in positive ways. He doesn’t care that much about himself, so it’s difficult for him to care that much about others.

When the bowl of self-esteem is full, however, when there are drippings over the edges, positive, productive behavior is the most natural thing in the world. The person takes care of himself and attends to others. He shows more respect, cooperates more fully, and communicates more assertively.

So how do you apply this knowledge to your workplace or your family? Simple. When you “see” behavior you don’t like in someone else, “see” it for what it is. It’s a demonstration of someone’s lack of self-esteem. If you can look beyond the difficult behavior — temporarily — and “see” the potential in the other person, the other person is quite likely to live up to your expectation.

In fact, I find lots of people have difficulty in resolving conflict. They get caught up in the common but unproductive responses of fight or flight. If that’s what you’re also seeing, you should bring me into your organization to present my program on “Cooperation and Conflict: Working Together Instead of Coming Apart.”

Unfortunately, it’s much easier to “see” the troubling behavior. And it’s much easier to attack that behavior. The problem is attacking may lower the other person’s self-esteem and may cause more difficult behavior.

Father John Powell, priest, psychologist, and popular lecturer, tells a poignant story about a young woman he counseled for many months. She’d been brought to him by her family because they found her behavior incorrigible. After months of counseling, Powell confesses, he also found her behavior so irritating that he finally lost his temper with her constant tales of petty annoyances.

“What you need, honey,” he said impatiently, “is a Copernican revolution. You need to realize the world doesn’t revolve around you. It’s your job to revolve around the world making this a better place to live.” (Copernicus, remember, was the astronomer who discovered that the earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa.)

His client was angry, of course, and unimpressed with his advice. She left his office and did not return. And her irritating behavior did not change.

Father Powell’s counseling had failed. So he explained his situation to a psychiatrist. He wanted to know how he might have handled his difficult client more effectively.

“John,” the psychiatrist asked, “have you ever had a toothache?” “Of course,” John said.

“Tell me,” the psychiatrist said, “what were you thinking about when you had that toothache?”

“The toothache. What else?” replied John.

“That’s the point” answered the psychiatrist. “When you have a toothache, when you’re hurting inside, when you’ve got low self-esteem, all you think about is yourself and possibly a dentist. You’re hurting too much to care about other people’s problems or the impact of your behavior on them.”

Father Powell thought about the poor self-esteem the young woman had exhibited. She was rude, slovenly, drunken, suicidal, and uncaring. She chose companions much like herself. She was difficult to be around. The clues were everywhere.

“She probably did need a Copernican revolution. She needed to get the focus off herself,” the psychiatrist said. “But telling her that accomplished nothing. You’ve got to build her self-esteem first. Then her attitudes and behaviors will tend to change.”

When I come across difficult people and difficult behavior, I use the psychiatrist’s question. I ask myself, “Have I ever had a toothache?” And immediately I know I’ve got to be careful in my judgments and my responses. I know that when I’m hurting, I’m not thinking too much about others, but I sure want them to think about me. So I remind myself that that’s where the other person is at. They need me to “see” the positive potential that lies below the surface, and they need me to care.

It’s certainly tempting to respond negatively to negative behavior. It’s almost natural to say, “Oh come on, shape up!…When are you going to stop this?…or…I’m not going to put up with this garbage anymore!”

The trouble is–when you inappropriately criticize someone, you drain the other person’s bowl of self-esteem. The offending person is left with less energy and less motivation to make the changes she needs to make.

Many of the people you need to motivate need someone to believe in them. If you can pour good things back into their bowls of self-esteem, you’ll come closer to helping these people alter their offending behavior.

As I said last week, what you get is what you see. Start “seeing” behavior for what it is — a manifestation of good or bad self-esteem. And if you don’t like what you “see,” start “seeing” the positive behavior, or at least the positive potential, in the other person.

Action:  Select a person or two that you find a bit of a challenge. Take a look to “see” if they have a toothache. If so, start “seeing” potential and watch for subtle changes in their behavior.