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Apr 22, 2010

To build and to maintain

In most cases, building and maintaining relationships are closely linked abilities. However, I know just a few people who are reasonably good at the former, but are terrible at the latter. Let's call them achilleids, after Achilles who was famously refusing to forgive Agamemnon. It is a rare and a tragic flaw of character; it is incorrigible if the one does not know this about oneself.

Achilleids can be cordial and charming; they can be good friends, selfless and hard working. They get along with others just fine, until the moment the other person does something wrong to them. Most people have a series of strategies to overcome the conflict and get past it. We learn to forget and forgive, pretend bad things did not happen; we find excuses for others as we find them for ourselves; we make up and go on. Why? Because we figure that the benefits of maintaining a relationship outweighs the temptation of ending it. After all, our relational network (sometimes called the social capital), is crucial for our well-being; it is indispensable for jobs like ours.

The achilleids simply cannot do that. They measure relationships in stark black and white terms.Their imagination is easily taken over by fantasies of conspiracy and revenge. They find it difficult to imagine alternative - and more generous - explanations for other people's actions. They seek constant proofs of their friends loyalty, and insist on exclusive relationships. When such exclusiveness does not materialize, they become jealous, and impulsively rewrite their list of friends, scratching one person after another, until almost everyone is gone. Once an achilleid builds a cadre of enemies, he will see any relationship between his friends and his enemies ad a hostile act. If you are my friend, you may not be friendly with my enemies.

If this sounds like a case of fifth-grade logic of friendship, it is probably because it is. Achilleids are just immature in the ways of human relationships; they may get the strength of Achilles in many areas, but also inherit his vulnerable heel. They see the social world in starkly egocentric (not egotistical) terms. It all becomes about me - is this good for me or bad for me? Is this done to help me or to hurt me? The higher calculus of human relationships is just inaccessible to them, because they simply cannot see beyond the immediate circle of relationships between them and other people.

As it is the case with all human flaws, some achilleids find a compensatory strategy, if they are aware of their problem. Those moderate achileids will occasionally blow up, build a conspiracy theory, but then recognize their error (even without understanding it), and get to normal. The stubborn and entrenched achilleids do not know about their problem, and have no choice but construct elaborate conspiracy theories. Because if my friends fall away from me one by one, there must be a conspiracy against me, right? And one thing about conspiracy thinking - it manufactures a lot of proof. The stronger the belief, the more clear evidence our brain produces out of every day life to support that belief. Life is very hard for them, because no one can measure up to their expectations, and because reality provides a lot of proof of other people's evil intention.

The knowledge of one's own shortcomings is of the most useful kind. Denying or projecting one's weaknesses onto others is a recipe for a very unhappy life. I certainly have a list of my own demons, but the inability to forget and forgive is certainly not one of them.

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