In these turbulent times, social conscience is a valuable asset. What we think, feel, say and do impacts on the people with whom we interact in personal and professional settings. Some have blind spots when it comes to attitude that leads to faux pas and mis-steps. It is what we do with our oops moments that places it on one side of the line or the other.

In an NPR interview with Dolly Chugh, Ph.D. the author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, she explains to Radio Times host, Marty Moss-Coane, the dynamics involved in being what she calls a “goodish person”, knowing that we are works in progress. It isn’t about perfection, especially as we are more focused on being PC, when many of our leaders just aren’t.

Someone who would carry that label learns from being called out when they have said something inappropriate. She relates a story of overhearing someone introducing a speaker at an event and found his language to be sexist and racist as the speaker was a Black woman. Initially, she told others how offended she was and with prompting, she approached the man and told him how she felt. To his credit, he asked her to educate him as to how he had taken the wrong turn and how he wanted to change. They have since become good friends.

Further, she talked about the ways in which we embody implicit bias. Harvard offers the Implicit Association Test to help people discern our opinions based on our worldview. Children who grow up in homes and communities in which kindness, caring and pro-social values are more likely to honor diversity. Children who grow up in exclusionary, compartmentalized, biased homes and communities are more likely to fear diversity. Even those whose education was either in the first group or neutral sometimes mistake someone of one culture for another, or mis-pronounce an unfamiliar name. Chugh admits to doing so.

When I encounter a person, whose name seems challenging to pronounce, I always ask them to clarify. It isn’t about perfection, as she was quick to point out, but rather being willing to remedy the situation. It can be compared to the difference between apologizing for stepping on someone’s toes and making amends for doing it by helping them sit down and checking to see if they are injured.

Chugh goes on to explore that white people experience “ordinary privilege.” As a white, cis-gender, well educated, middle class, professional woman, I have that and because of that status, it feels incumbent upon me to use it well, wisely and in an empowering way.

My grandparents came to America from Russia to flee the pogrom. I can hear the ancestral echoes to make the most of what they sacrificed to come here. It doesn’t just imply being “successful” by society’s standards. For me, it means doing well by doing good. I call it “showing up, standing up and speaking out”. Not speaking for others who may feel voiceless, such as those in marginalized groups, but rather, asking what I can do to be of support and following that person’s lead. Not assuming I know what it is like to be part of that group, in the same way I would not tell someone I know how they feel, even if I have had the same experience. We are all unique individuals.

I question often what it means to be a “good person”. Social conscience and consciousness go hand in hand. As a therapist, I have mused about the idea that I am here in part, to teach pro-social skills. Consider the television show, What Would You Do? In it, people are “set up” in scenarios in which they clarify their values by ways in which they act and fail to do so. What emerges is both shocking and amusing. The best and worst inclinations are on display.

A few years ago, while attending a conference, I was confronted with my own biases that were formed in childhood around the importance of instilling and reinforcing conscience. In a workshop, the facilitator presented a case study that was an “in-your-face” reminder for me that even as therapists, we don’t all share the same values or intention.

I grew up with the adage, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” As a result, I have often held back expression of what I was feeling. These days, while I am mindful of what might push people’s buttons, I find ways of saying what I mean, meaning what I say, but not saying it meanly. I take into consideration my motivation in sharing information. Am I doing it to educate, enlighten and inform? Am I intending to change someone’s mind? And lastly, am I doing it to make someone wrong for not seeing the situation through my lenses?

Another aspect of being a good person might be a willingness to be a positive change agent and exhibit what Philadelphia-based psychotherapist and attorney Jeff Garson, JD, LCSW calls radical decency.

He says, “At its core, Radical Decency grows out of this simple premise: If we whole-heartedly commit to this different way of living, allowing it to guide our day-by-day, moment-by-moment choices, we have a fighter’s chance of leading a better life and more effectively contributing to a better world.”

My own environmentally instilled values and those I have adopted/adapted throughout my life, include:

  • Considering the feelings of others.
  • Being of service.
  • Cleaning up after myself, literally and in relationships.
  • Leaving the “campground” better than I found it.
  • Using my skills for the betterment of the world.
  • Speaking respectfully.
  • Listening to the stories people share about their lives so I can better understand them.
  • Having reciprocal relationships.
  • Being non-violent.
  • Embodying compassion.
  • Keeping my word/being in integrity.
  • Making amends if I am in the wrong.
  • Taking my own inventory.
  • Showing up where and when I say I will or renegotiating if necessary.
  • Being accountable for my actions.
  • Seeing similarities and not just differences.
  • Helping someone in danger.
  • Feeding the collective soup pot with emotional ingredients that nourish the world.

What values do you hold that make you a good person?