The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Or, to use more modern language: Treat people the same way you want them to treat you.
Although my wording is based on Matthew 7:12, it’s not just a Christian concept. Ethical precepts similar to Golden Rule appear in other philosophies and religions, from Judaism to ancient Greeks to Confucius.
We are taught that the Golden Rule is an important ethical principle that all good people should follow.
The problem is, the way we usually apply it, the rule isn’t helpful.
Why the Golden Rule isn’t so golden
The problem lies with two assumptions we tend to make.
- We assume that other people want to be treated in exactly the “same way” I want to be treated. Since we are all unique individuals, with different personalities, values, cultural preferences, etcetera, it’s a faulty assumption that others have the same expectations, preferences, and wishes as I do.
- We translate “how I want people to treat me” into specific, tangible preferences instead of broader concepts like love and respect.
When I am sick, I want everyone to leave me alone. I don’t want to be sociable; I don’t want anyone fussing over me; and I most definitely do not want anyone in the bathroom with me when I am vomiting! Thus, when I married, I assumed that the loving thing to do when my husband got sick was to apply the Golden Rule—I would leave him in peace and solitude unless he called for my help.
However, this wasn’t how he wanted to be treated. As he plaintively explained, he was hurt that I did not stay be his side and fuss over him as his mother would have done. Oops.
This little story illustrates that when we assume everyone wants to be treated in exactly the same way we wish to, it can lead to inadvertently treating others in ways they perceive as unkind or disrespectful—at the very moment we are trying to do what’s right.
A better Golden Rule
I’m not saying the Golden Rule is wrong. I am suggesting it needs to be combined with another Biblical principle from 1 Corinthians 12. We are all different parts of one body, each with a unique role to play and unique needs to be filled. We do not treat our eyeballs in the same way we treat our big toe or our tastebuds. In similar fashion, the most respectful and loving way to treat me is not identical to the most loving and respectful way to treat you.
In light of this, I propose a new and improved Golden Rule. Let’s call it the Expanded Golden Rule.
The Expanded Golden Rule: Treat people the same way you want them to treat you—that is, with honor, respect, kindness, and grace, so that everyone feels seen, heard, loved, and understood.
Applying the Expanded Golden Rule
I admit this new version is a high bar to live up to, but it’s a bar worth striving for. Just think how much hurt, misunderstanding, and division we could avoid if we all learned how to apply this expanded version.
Here are two things to keep in mind that will help you apply this new and improved version.
- Instead of assuming we know what’s best for someone else, a better practice is to consider what they need to feel seen, heard and understood. Even if it’s very different from what we would choose.
- While it’s helpful to “put ourselves in someone else’s shoes” to gain empathy for their situation, doing so does not enable us to totally understand their situation. We do not have the full story. We cannot read other people’s minds. Therefore, we need to ask what their needs are instead of assuming we know.
You can be a golden friend
Will you join me in adopting the Expanded Golden Rule? Let it guide you to make wiser, more affirming decisions about how you treat others.
Lisa E. Betz is an award-winning author, motivational speaker, and unconventional soul. She shares her quirky mysteries and thoughts on the joys and challenges of living authentically at lisaebetz.com.