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"Off With Their Heads!"–Danger! Danger! Guillotiners Ahead! – Identifying and Protecting Yourself From Expediency-Driven Guillotiners

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

In their rules there was only one clause: Do what you will.
—François Rabelais

“Off with their heads!”

“The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small.
‘Off with his head!’ she said, without even looking round.”
—Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

If all you have is a hammer, then the entire world looks like a nail. All the Queen of Hearts did in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was to repeatedly yell, “Off with their heads!” whenever anything disagreeable happened. So it is with expediency, that is, seemingly getting something handled quickly and easily, usually without regard to principles or values, ethics or morality. Expediency acts like a trap our egos, as an imaginary false sense of self, is tickled pink to endlessly dream up in the inviting garb of rationalizing “it’s just easier.” The questions are whether we’ll see the urge to expediency on the front end and take action to dissolve it, or pay exponentially on the rear end by acting it out and then mopping up the carnage and mitigating further damage. Here is a key crossroads at which human beings regularly stand.

“Killing the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,” one of the best known of Aesop’s Fables, points to an unprofitable action deriving from greed. The story depicts a cottager and his wife who had a goose that laid a golden egg every single day. Given this outpouring of golden eggs, the pair thought that the goose surely must contain a great deal of gold indeed. So they killed the golden goose to get all the gold they believed was inside it. Once accomplishing this, they found to their surprise and chagrin that the goose was no different than any other goose in terms of its mortality. The foolish couple, hoping to become rich all at once, completely defeated themselves of all the gold that was theirs one day at a time.

The moral of the ancient fable, sometimes shortened to “killing the golden goose,” is that short-term greed in wanting and needing more and more is what defeats you in receiving day-by-day, long-term benefits. A common expression says: pride goes before a fall. When you overreach, you stumble and fall. Desiring everything, you gain nothing and lose everything. In a book of prose poems entitled The Hard Stuff: Love, Peter McWilliams writes: “Expecting heaven is what hell is all about.” Actually, the golden goose is you and I, our talents, expertise and abilities; the golden eggs stand for our high productivity. Instead of killing the golden goose, better to protect it so it keeps producing golden eggs!

Definitions of expediency, according to Webster’s New world Dictionary, Third College Edition, equate it to “suitability for a given purpose” and “the doing or consideration of what is of selfish use or advantage rather than of what is right or just; self-interest.” Self-interest of any variety is selfish since it claims more for itself at the expense of everyone else. Isn’t expediency synonymous with interpersonal aggression? Public acts of expediency occur all the time in the political realm and get discussed in newspaper Op-Ed pieces and topical political books. Examples of expediency show up everywhere. Look at people driving around a stalled vehicle instead of helping the driver move it off the road, or a colleague who is attached to winning and being right brushing off and dismissing a critical point in debating an issue at a business meeting, or procrastinating and dreaming up excuses and reasons for not really committing to a boyfriend or girlfriend in a relationship. It’s just easier. Or so some say. It isn’t.

My experiences with expediency as a colleague and therapist have been remarkable, not for their brazen amorality, but rather for their being so agreeably ordinary. A colleague who was supervising me early on in my career made it a point early on to convey that he had a tendency to “cut out” people when they had broken his trust. I remember being stunned by the sheer audacity of his pronouncement. Later upon some reflection, it was clear that his rigid, black-and-white thinking and behavior pattern was all self-protective, a defense against loss, hurt and humiliation. It set a tone from the beginning that was not lost on me years later when he did exactly what he had prophesied. Shocking as that harsh behavior was at the time, it was foretold from the start. Apparently I hadn’t taken him and his word seriously given how this was completely foreign to my perception, values and the way I lived. To cut out or guillotine people and relationships was simply not in my repertoire of experience. No wonder it was so surprising.

A lesson is repeated until it is learned. Years later I was again reminded of this same pattern of thought and action when I was conducting an initial interview with a young man having difficulties with chronic pain. At one point he mentioned having “gotten rid” of someone from his life. I was intrigued and asked if you could help me understand his actions. The young man casually mentioned, “It’s just easier” to do it this way. In this timeless moment of horror over how some people conduct themselves in relationships, it became clear that what I call “guillotiners” are out there in life. Forewarned is forearmed.

A clever misguided variation on this pattern is what can be termed “reverse guillotining.” In reverse guillotining the person sets up the other party to cut off and end the relationship by making the interpersonal environment so obnoxious, difficult and unworkable that the other party is seemingly forced to leave for their own security, safety and sanity. In a couple, one party may go to extremes with philandering, substance abuse, illegal activity or outright physical, psychological/verbal or sexual abuse to force the other party’s hand to leave. In a work environment, one may be given a lateral transfer into a horrible work situation with an ogre of a boss, purely as a means to prompt him or her to quit and save the company from firing them and paying the unemployment benefits. These behavior patterns are not honest, direct or showing integrity. In fact, each is rather nasty, manipulative and passive-aggressive. With enhanced awareness and ability to identify the pattern, you are empowered to see it and steer clear.

The cavalier guillotining of relationships is a most expedient way for the ego to defend itself from an apparent threat and, at the same time, wear the mask of the innocent victim who’s been wronged and fully deserves to cut out the evil doer from their life in one fell swoop. The level of sheer self-righteousness is extraordinary. What is this apparent threat that the ego is defending the person from? How can we begin to understand what underlies the rigidity of this black-and-white mentality and the cut-and-run behavior? Is this escapist, avoidant pattern only an over-compensation for something else?

Psychologically speaking, there are many viable responses to these queries. First and foremost, it is likely these patterns of thought and action are the defense of over-compensation for some deeper hurt-filled, anger-provoking and humiliating wound from past relationships, whether familial, friendship or in a romantic relationship. Why else would someone go to all the trouble to hold such rigid and unbending thoughts and be so cut-and-dried in actions? That such expedient action is viewed as “just easier” is a telltale sign of how hard it would be to face the person and honestly address the relevant issues. It would appear most likely that the guillotiner knows of no other way to handle the emotions and reactivity that bubbles up in the face of interpersonal breakdowns and relationship challenges. Expediency would seem to be in the ego’s service of protecting the person from facing himself, feeling uncomfortable feelings and assertively acting. Expediency tends to block the person from seeing/owning their past conditioning, observing unworkable survival decisions, as well as transforming and transcending the ruthless guillotining of relationships to preserve you. The net result is that expediency ensures you stay stuck!

What is not factored in to the expediency mix is what is being overlooked, shucked aside and unaddressed-principles and values, ethics and morality, feelings and growth. By taking the “easy way,” what is being communicated to the people who report to you, your same-level associates and higher-ups? By adjusting everything so it meets your agenda, what message is being sent to everyone affected by it? By going for the selfish “quick fix,” what does it say about these means and you? What remains totally unseen, unexamined and un-followed through with? What chance is there to grow through it all?

What is profoundly sad and even pathetic about guillotiners is that not one of them was at all interested in doing anything about it, like it was perfectly fine and honorable. Thus, what options do the recipients have? First, bring sheer awareness of the pattern of behavior, the underlying mindset and motivation, and likely outcomes. Next, realize you have choices. If you care enough about the person, relationship, and consequences to all concerned, you can assert what you observe, hear and sense, and the feelings and thoughts that arise for you. You can make a clear request regarding this behavior. If you really are not so invested, you can decide what you want to do: continue knowing this and the risks, limit interactions, or toss them back into the grab bag of life. Have your eyes be wide open, be here-and-now, and know the risks you take. In life, you places your bets; you reaps your gains and suffers your losses.

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
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