You as a human are a beautiful mess. On the one hand, you are completely unique and original, and no amount of study could ever…
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In my previous post, I looked at the golden rule — treat others as you would want to be treated — to see if it was really the best way to treat people. I came to the conclusion that it was metaphorically true but literally false.
The golden rule works on the principle that what is true for me must be true for someone else. If taken to mean “do not cause others to suffer because you know that suffering is unpleasant,” then it is a worthwhile principle to live by.
However, since pleasure and suffering can take on different forms for each of us, that which brings one person pleasure can cause another to suffer. So, treating one another exactly as we personally would want to be treated isn’t always the way to go.
And so, when taken at face value, the Golden Rule falls apart.
Fortunately, there is an alternative approach that tries to rectify this problem, and it is known as the Platinum Rule.
Do unto others as “they’d” like done unto them.
Or in human terms:
Treat others as they want to be treated.
The Platinum Rule was coined by Dr Tony Alessandra and Michael O’Conner in their 1996 book, The Platinum Rule: The Four Basic Business Personalities and How They Can Lead You to Success.
I have not read this book. And I’m not really interested in the four basic business personalities and how they can lead me to success at the moment. But I am interested in the platinum rule and the message it attempts to convey. So I will be looking at it as a stand-alone principle, just like I did with the golden rule.
Gold vs Platinum
While the golden rule is a self-referencing proposition (meaning it emphasizes the point of view of the subject), the platinum rule is other-referencing.
Instead of projecting your own experience onto others and giving them what you would need in that situation, the platinum rule emphasizes the importance of tuning in to the other person’s experience and giving them what they need.
According to the platinum rule, if I want to support a friend who needs to talk their feelings out in real-time to make sense of them, I should sit down and talk it out with them. I should not leave them to process alone, which is what I would need.
And similarly, the best way this friend could support me in the early stages of emotional processing is by giving me some space to figure out what I’m feeling.
Now, the whole time I am asking my friend questions, I might feel like I am being invasive. And in leaving me alone to process a difficult emotion on my own, my friend might feel like they are abandoning me in my time of need.
The beauty of the platinum rule is that it encourages us to step out of our own perspective and see what the other person actually needs. It makes our empathetic impulses more effective.
So, if we are looking for a more actionable, down-to-earth approach to treating others, the platinum rule seems like the superior way to go.
But are there really no flaws to an entirely other-referencing way of treating people?
Probably not. So, let’s nitpick!
The Platinum Rule — Treat others as they want to be treated
On a higher plane, the platinum rule also operates under the premise that suffering is universally bad, that people don’t want to suffer, and that we should do our best to avoid inflicting it onto others.
In this regard, to treat others as they want to be treated means to treat them in a way that either reduces or does not increase their suffering.
We should also remember that experiencing physical pain is not the same as suffering.
In a BDSM pairing, a sadist who slaps a masochist is treating them in a way that reduces their suffering (in this case — the absence of physical pain) and increases their pleasure (in this case — the experience of physical pain). They are treating the masochist as the masochist wants to be treated.
Similarly, by allowing the sadist to slap them, the masochist is treating them in a way in a way that decreases the sadist’s suffering (in this case — not causing anyone physical pain) and increases their pleasure (in this case — causing someone physical pain).
They are treating the sadist in a way that the sadist wants to be treated.
As long as neither is crossing an important boundary, both are happy and no one is suffering. They are honouring both the golden rule and the platinum rule. Win-win.
So far, the platinum rule seems to be doing well both metaphorically and literally.
But there is a subtle problem on the literal level in the form of one little word:
Treat others as they want to be treated.
And that raises a serious question.
Should we always treat people the way they want to be treated?
Wants vs Needs
The platinum rule is a wonderful idea if we view it in terms of meeting other people’s needs. But it uses the word ‘want.’ I think word choice is really important because words mean things.
A need is a necessity that can cause actual suffering when it goes unmet. We have our basic biological needs that are universal, and then we have our human needs that are also universal, and our personality needs that are individual.
Tony Robbins outlines our 6 human needs — certainty, variety, love and connection, significance, growth, and contribution.
Our personality needs expand on them and play a huge role in our lives. They are the pillars of our identity that drive our actions and inform our values. They can include things like emotional connection, self-expression, recognition, learning, exploration, autonomy, family, comfort, and more.
In theatre terms, our personality needs are our objectives and super-objectives. Even when we are not aware of them, they are the reasons behind why we do what we do. Or why we don’t do what we don’t do even when we think it would make sense.
If a need goes unmet for too long, we feel frustrated, anxious, resentful, depressed, and empty. Unmet needs can tremendously affect our well-being. When our needs are met, we feel satisfied and fulfilled. We feel like we are not ourselves.
Meanwhile, a want is not a necessity. It’s a would-be-nice that we can live without. We might feel a bit out of sorts when our wants are unmet, but overall — we’ll be fine.
As the great English philosopher Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want, But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find
You get what you need.”
Our wants and needs are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Needs are abstract and general, and they can take many forms. A want is usually a concrete manifestation or indirect expression of a need.
I want a pizza — I need nourishment.
I want you to do the dishes today — I need support.
I want to go to that restaurant with my friends — I need social connection.
The cool thing about wants is that they are replaceable. And once you figure out which need(s) a want is trying to meet, you can explore other avenues.
The problem with wants is that we tend to get fixated on them. We think we really want that one specific thing, that it and nothing else will make us happy, so we pursue it with full force, get it and then…meh. We’re still unsatisfied.
This is because our moment-to-moment wants aren’t always the most effective ways of getting our needs met. How often do we hear about people who earn a lot of money but are still depressed? Or people who enter a relationship with someone they thought was the person of their dreams and end up completely miserable?
When a person’s wants and needs are in alignment, the platinum rule is a wonderful approach.
But sadly, they often are not because we don’t know what our needs are. We can attribute this to a whole host of reasons — the main ones being that we weren’t taught or encouraged to identify and fulfil them.
We often don’t even know what general needs people tend to have.
And I think this is a real shame because our personality needs (resulting from some combination of nature and nurture) tend to remain constant throughout our lives. They can alternate — the most depleted or pressing ones take precedence — but they don’t change too dramatically.
And that is why models like the 6 Human Needs or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are useful reference points.
Wants, on the other hand, are fickle. Today I want a pizza, tomorrow I want a salad. But I’m always going to need nourishment. And sometimes, the things I want are not at all what I need.
So, if we take the platinum rule to mean “treat people as they need to be treated” it works. Even if we narrow down the needs to “avoid suffering” and “seek fulfilment.”
Like the golden rule, the platinum rule is metaphorically true.
But if we take it literally to mean, “give people what they want,” then it starts to fall apart.
In this regard, the ideal way to treat people would be to meet their needs across time.
Low-Order Suffering vs High-Order Suffering
Perhaps it’s not fair to devalue our wants entirely. It can feel extremely painful not to get what we wanted if we were invested enough in them.
Even though getting what we need can be a soothing balm, not getting what we wanted sucks.
Even when your need is love and connection and there are plenty of other fish in the sea, breaking up with the person who wasn’t right for you hurts.
Even when your need is career growth and there will be plenty of other job opportunities, being passed up for the job you wanted hurts.
Even when your need is freedom and you know you feel so much freer when you’re sober, quitting hurts.
And if you don’t derive pleasure from pain, you are probably suffering.
But this is what I think of as low-order suffering. In Jaggerian terms, it’s the “can’t always get what you want — you get what you need” kind of suffering that arises from letting go of things that don’t serve you.
And sometimes, if we take the metaphorically true approach to the platinum rule and treat people as they need to be treated, we often have to treat them as they don’t want to be treated.
And, boy, do they hate that!
Have you ever asked a friend to hold you accountable when you’re trying to break a bad habit no matter how much you beg or plead or coerce them to do otherwise? It sounds like a great idea.
But then they actually do it…. The craving hits, you are in pain, and they don’t indulge you no matter how much you beg or plead or coerce them. You kind of hate them for it.
Later, you might appreciate them for looking out for you and feel good about yourself, but in that moment, you think they are the worst, most unreasonable, most unempathetic person on the planet, and you kind of hate them.
But if they do indulge your wants, you kind of hate them more the next day. You blame them, saying “Why did you let me do that?!”
What’s worse, you hate yourself for it. You beat yourself up, saying “Why did I do that? What is wrong with me?” And that is a different kind of suffering altogether that can cause you to spiral downwards and seriously hurt yourself in the long run. High-order suffering.
I recently heard the quote, “Surround yourself with the people who want the best for the best in you.” And that often means the people who look out for your needs in the long run. The people who treat you in ways that reduce your high-order suffering.
That is essentially how good parenting works. If you have a small child in your life, you probably know that they can be relentless in the pursuit of the thing they want.
A toddler in the grip of a tantrum is willing to destroy everything and everyone in their wake — including themselves —when they don’t get what they think they want. Even when it’s not good for them.
And a parent often has to watch them suffer through it to do what is best for them in the long run. Taking responsibility for the well-being of another person often means “being the bad guy” in their eyes.
And that relentless childhood trait of ours never really goes away. As we mature, we just learn to subdue it into more socially acceptable tantrums. Although, we’ve all probably witnessed ourselves or other mature adults going all out when sufficiently triggered.
It is really easy to forget what we really need and what is truly best for us in those moments.
And if we are watching someone whose well-being we care about go through it, we often have to make the often unbearable decision not to treat them as they want to be treated.
Let’s go back BDSM. Although the submissive is technically in control, it is the dominant who holds the responsibility for their mutual well-being.
In the heat of the moment, the masochist may not be thinking straight and might demand something that is actually dangerous. Something that can seriously hurt them — physically or psychologically.
Remember, paradoxical as it may seem, in BDSM the sadist’s objective is to increase pleasure and reduce suffering for both of them. And to prevent a game from turning into abuse, they have to honour that objective.
And so, like the parent with the child, or the supportive friend, the dominant partner must look out for the submissive’s well-being across time.
And sometimes that means, denying them their wants, decreasing their pleasure and increasing their low-order suffering in the moment.
And we need to acknowledge how painful that can actually be for everyone involved.
But, experiencing pain does not equal suffering if the pain is a stepping stone on the way to well-being.
So far, we have acknowledged that:
we can suffer
others can suffer
we do not necessarily suffer from the same things
there are degrees of suffering
And that generally, we should aim to act in a way that reduces high-order suffering across time.
The less serious long-term high-order suffering we cause others, the better.
Despite its hiccups, I think the platinum rule serves as a useful elaboration on the golden rule. If you sort out the wants vs needs situation, I would say it is literally and metaphorically true enough.
But there is still something very important missing here.
What if we don’t want to treat others as they want/need to be treated?
And that is the question I will attempt to answer in the third and final post of this series where I unpack the rule whose name I don’t actually know, so I call it the…Other Rule:
Treat others as you want to treat others.
Thank you for your attention and engagement. I have entered into some interesting discussions with people who shared their experiences with the golden rule. And I genuinely enjoy hearing your ideas, so keep them coming!
This article was originally published on Medium.
Photo by Artiom Vallat on Unsplash
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