Flaws in the Satanic Golden Rule


Nearly always I learn tons of good stuff from my adolescent clients. A few years ago I learned what “Macking” meant. When I asked my 16-year-old Latino client if it meant having sex (I gently employed a slang word while posing my question), his head shot up and he made eye contact with me for the first time ever and quickly corrected me with a look of shock and disgust. “Macking means . . . like flirting,” he said. And as he continued shaking his head, he said, “Geeze. You’re crazy man.”

The next half hour of counseling was our best half hour ever.

I’m not advocating using the F-word or being an obtuse adult . . . just pointing out how much there is to learn from teenagers.

More recently I learned about the Satanic Golden Rule. A 17-year-old girl told me that it goes like this: “Do unto others as they did unto you.”

Now that’s pretty darn interesting.

Ever since learning about the Satanic Golden Rule I’ve been able to use it productively when counseling teenagers. The Satanic Golden Rule is all about the immensely tempting revenge impulse we all sometimes feel and experience. It’s easy (and often gratifying) to give in to the powerful temptation to strike back at others whom you think have offended you. Whether it’s a gloomy and nasty grocery cashier or someone who’s consistently arrogant and self-righteous, it’s harder to take the high road and to treat others in ways we would like to be treated than it is to stoop to their level to give them a taste of their own medicine.

There are many flaws with the Satanic Golden Rule . . . but my favorite and the most useful for making a good point in counseling is the fact that, by definition, if you practice the Satanic Golden Rule, you’re giving your personal control over to other people. It’s like letting someone else steer your emotional ship. And to most my teenage clients this is a very aversive idea.

After talking about the Satanic Golden Rule many teenage clients are more interested in talking about how they can become leaders. . . leaders who are in control of their own emotions and who proactively treat others with respect.

An excellent side effect of all this is that it also inspires me to try harder to be proactively respectful, which helps me be and become a better captain of my own emotional ship.

9 thoughts on “Flaws in the Satanic Golden Rule”

  1. After working with adjudicated youth in a residential treatment center for two years, I became incredibly aware of the revenge tendencies. I’d never heard of the term “Satanic Golden Rule”, but that sums it up. I appreciate your tip on how to re-frame. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jessie.

      Thanks for your comments. It does seem like powerful revenge impulses are fairly common among adjudicated youth. Even though the students in Job Corps are exactly adjudicated, they don’t always feel they have many other options. Although as I write this I’m reminded of the youth in my former clinical practice who also operated, to a great extent, on the revenge principle. I guess Adler was onto that quite a while back. I hope you’re doing well.

      John SF

  2. Let’s not forget, the best revenge is success! (But it can be awfully fun to imagine exacting some type of revenge and/or Karma-inspired comeuppance! 🙂

  3. I didn’t think you saw clients anymore. Do you still maintain a private practice? I try to get out but they keep pulling me back in!!

    1. Hey Ric! I see clients at Trapper Creek Job Corps where I work as the mental health consultant. It’s good work. No office overhead. Amazingly motivated 16 to 24 year-olds who want to change their lives, but who have perspectives that I can always learn from. I’m glad you’re not really retired because we need you out there. I hope life is going well for you.

  4. John, always insightful and articulate.
    How about this version applied to folks unable to release the past: “Do unto others as you believe others are doing unto you”?

    1. My first thought was of people with paranoid ideation following people who they think are following them. This might work with the empty chair as a means of helping clients articulate and gain insight into what they think others have done to them in the past (and are still doing). Just a couple free associations. Thanks Nadine.

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