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How Do You Fix Greed? Part I: The Roots of Greed

Society and culture

How do you fix greed? It’s a question that’s plagues our country and much of the world right now, although I’m going to talk about America specifically–because let’s face it, where greed is concerned, we Americans are at the top of the charts. In some other countries, corruption and greed in the government is an especially nasty problem, but here in America greed is more or less a core value, something that’s encouraged for every citizen. As a result, we’re the wealthiest large nation in the world and consume a percentage of the world’s resources that’s far out of proportion to our population.

What specifically is so bad about greed? Isn’t it natural, anyway? Even if it isn’t, what can you do if greed is just something bad people embrace?

What’s wrong with greed?
The problem with greed is that it leads to people and corporations trying to amass resources they don’t need and can’t use well, often straining the capacity of the rest of society and the natural environment in the process. It’s not just the multi-millionaire tossing back caviar while homeless families try to survive on canned soup: it’s kids amassing electronic devices instead of going outside and playing with friends, adults trapping themselves in jobs that make them miserable in order to get the larger houses and better cars they think they “should” be able to have, and people whose lives are dominated by abject envy of everyone wealthier or more famous than they are. Greed is bad investments, celebrity idolization, consumerism grown out of proportion, lousy jobs, waste, inequity, and disconnection of us all from one another.

Isn’t greed natural?
We’ve grown to think it’s natural and normal for people to want as much money as they can get, but we don’t really want money at all: what we want is what money gets us, and by this I don’t mean the products and services, but rather things like a sense of safety, power, indulgence, or validation. When we talk of caring about something, we’re saying we have an emotional stake in it. Our emotional stake in money doesn’t have anything to do directly with having the assets: it’s first about answering physical needs—the minimum of food, shelter, health care, safety, clothing, transportation, and education that is the baseline for our society–and second about gratifying unmet emotional needs.

The emotional roots of greed: some examples
Let’s say Ed grows up in a house where his parents only pay attention to him when he accomplishes something–gets good grades or wins a trophy in a track meet, for example. Ed may very well internalize the idea that the only way people will care about him–in fact, the only way he’s actually worth anything–is if he has something to show for it that everyone can appreciate. He may therefore go into a high-income career and spend his money on trophies: trophy house, trophy clothes, trophy vacations, trophy foods … all so that he can impress people into caring about him and so that he can feel worthwhile. This may sound a little pathetic, but consider how many people buy things–cars, houses in the right neighborhood, even certain foods–in order to act out the life they want to be seen leading.

Actual human connection could make all of this trophy-getting unnecessary. If Ed acquires a set of friends who appreciate his sense of humor and determination and don’t care about his money, Ed may come to stop caring about money so much too, which could lead to enormous changes in making his life happier–like living where he really wants to live, doing what he really wants to do, and prioritizing experiences with friends and family or meaningful accomplishments in the world over acquiring things.

Ed’s situation isn’t the only way we get emotionally involved with money. Imagine Deborah, whose childhood was one disaster after another resulting in moves, loss of friends and homes, and other kinds of upsets. Once Deborah gets out into the world on her own, she may prioritize security over all else, meaning that she has to pile up a lot of things and a lot of money so that she will feel safe against things like the layoffs her father went through or the loss of her home to a flood because her parents couldn’t afford flood insurance.

Or imagine Nick, who was awkward and shy as a kid and ended up being the butt of everyone else’s jokes. They won’t be laughing at him when he pulls up to the high school reunion in a Ferrari while wearing a twenty-six hundred dollar suit, now will they?

Or Andrea, whose parents gave her all the physical things she wanted but left her actual care to a string of nannies and boarding schools. As an adult, Andrea buys anything she wants, whether she can afford it or not, because she “deserves” it–constantly trying to fill an emotional void with things, and probably failing just as badly as her parents did no matter how delightful that first, brief glow of pleasure may be.

That’s not nearly the whole list, but I hope my point is clear: the roots of greed are emotional ones. People want to feel safe, loved, valued, validated, and respected. In different ways, money promises all of those things, even though it often doesn’t deliver.

Are greedy people bad people?
It’s tempting to write off anyone who acts greedy as simply a bad person, yet there’s a more exact and constructive way to look at the problem. First, problem behaviors like greed usually come from people trying to meet their emotional needs, which is a pretty understandable thing to try to do, even if somebody hasn’t chosen a very successful method.

Almost all people who act greedy also do things that we would admire in their lives–they might parent their children well, give to charities, have a strong work ethic, work for causes, help friends and neighbors, have a lot of integrity, or otherwise show their true value.

Writing these people off also means writing off whatever part of ourselves might agree with them, the part that may covet clothes or free time, travel, cars, expensive foods, luxury, or even having a lot of money to help other people with.

Writing off anyone who acts greedy is wasteful, too, because if people can learn not to be greedy, as surely seems to be the case even without the fictional or legendary examples of Siddhartha and Ebeneezer Scrooge, then there’s a powerful reason to try to find ways to fix greed: if a greedy person becomes a non-greedy person, we’ve gained an ally–sometimes a powerful one.

In the next part of this series, I’ll take a look at how greed is entrenched in American culture and what would be necessary to root it out.

Photo by subsetsum

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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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