The past is no excuse
And why we want
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Today's topic feels personal. These are things I work hard at because I was that person.
If you live long enough and pay at least a little attention to yourself, what you do and say, and what triggers you, you'll notice patterns. The more time you spend with someone, the more engrained and automatic the patterns and reactions become. Almost as if you have no control over your behavior.
This is particularly common in families and couples.
You likely begin to recognize situations and anticipate what your partner (or family members) will do or say. So you pre-emptively prepare yourself for what you think is coming. It's a shortcut your brain likes to take when it observes a situation, compares it to what it knows from the past, and determines that it is sufficiently alike some previous occurrences to necessitate a similar response.
An easy example that comes to mind is people who grow up in households where one or both parents are alcoholics. The predictable behaviors of the alcoholics bring about predictable reactions from those around them. Violent alcoholics frequently make those around them want to avoid a confrontation by disappearing into the shadows, staying hypervigilant, and mistrusting. However, this learned self-preservation transcends the particular relationship it sprang from. So, the same person will likely remain conflict-avoidant later in life and run away from anything that looks like a "fight," even if it is just an argument with a loved one.
Sometimes, the other person isn't really fighting. They may be a more animated, passionate, and expressive personality. Other times, they might be anxious, conflicted, and disorganized for some reason. Still, if seen as "angry" instead, it could trigger the avoidance and self-preservation in the adult child of a violent parent.
Alcoholics are not the only possible violent parents. Other substance abusers, people with PTSD, and manipulative cluster B personality disorders (Antisocial, Borderline, Histrionic) can just as easily be violent. However violence comes to be in someone's life, it's bound to leave behavioral marks on the person. (Also, not everyone runs and hides in an attempt for self-preservation.)
But I digress.
We have many learned coping strategies that automatically trigger depending on the situation - the way we tune out someone when they talk about a particular thing we are disinterested in or dislike, or the way we react to criticism and requests for help, when and if we become competitive or cooperative, how we respond to praise, requests for space, etc.
Usually, we go about our business without giving this much thought. For the most part, we think it works just fine; we are who we are. But sometimes, our automatic reactions become a problem. As in, when we routinely misjudge someone's emotional state and respond not to what they need and feel but react to what we just misunderstood. In such situations, we become confusing to our partners and loved ones. They do not feel heard, understood, and cared for. At the same time, we feel justified in our reactions. It turns into a mess. What could have been solved with a hug and five minutes of listening turns into an hour-long back-and-forth, escalating into an emotional tornado. If this happens frequently and without enough redeeming and mitigating factors, these relationships will fall apart.
Naturally, conscientious people want to know why they do what they do. They turn to therapy to unravel the threads of the past that bind them to their present actions. That's nice. I recommend it to everyone. But as interesting and revealing as this is, it often does not make a substantial difference in the person's behaviors. So, what gives?
Insightful information on its own is just this – information. One needs to learn how to behave correctly, not just know why they don't. Just like drug users don't only need to know that they are addicts, they need to stop using drugs if they want to get their lives back.
Learning how to behave correctly is in the realm of skill building. It takes time and effort, and most of all, it takes lots of repetition. It takes catching yourself reacting, stopping yourself because you realized that you just went down this old, familiar path, and choosing to change direction. In the heat of the moment, very few people can choose to change their behavior instantaneously. But with sufficient motivation and diligence, you can get there.
You can get even further. You can get to a place where you can make a better choice before you even have to. For example, you know what "looks like anger" to you, but you don't know if that's really what the other person feels. When you "see" them angry, just ask them how they feel and why? If they tell you that they are scared, confused, or anxious, you will find yourself miraculously not deploying your "When Angry" self-preservation strategy. If they tell you that they are indeed angry and tell you why, you will find yourself in a problem-solving mode, or a hug mode, or explaining yourself mode, should you have to. Either way, you will behave better than your usual preprogrammed reaction. At the very least, you will have much more information at hand, leaving less to your imagination and propensity to make the wrong assumptions.
Here's an example from a few days ago from a conversation I had with someone about his deteriorating marriage. He blamed it on "gender roles." Kudos to him for even bringing it up. I can't tell you how many men are confused about their role in the world!
So, "gender roles." My mind went to the usual places, such as, "Wait, does he want his wife barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen?" But instead of calling him a misogynistic a-hole, I asked, "What do YOU mean by gender roles?"
Imagine my surprise when he answered that he doesn't like how his wife "puts me on the spot."
I thought about it for a minute and realized I had no idea what he meant by that either, even though it was a far cry from "barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen." So, I had to ask, "What do you mean by that?" He was not very clear about how to explain it to me, so I just asked for an example. "Give me an example of something recent where you felt like she put you on the spot." Now, we were getting places. But it took a lot of asking and suspending my judgment as a woman to get there.
How many questions do you ask when you feel triggered?
I hate to ruffle a few feathers, but "the trigger is in the eye of the beholder." Just like beauty is. Just like love is…
We fall in love but blame others for triggering us. Seriously!?
All this is just to say that you do not have to know all the details of your personality forming from the day you left your mother's womb to become a better person. You become a better person by working on becoming a better person. Yes, your history will be insightful. Perhaps the insights will lead you to better evaluate your life and reorganize your priorities. Maybe, they will clue you into specific dynamics in your relationships. But remember, two people growing up in the same household rarely come out with the same personality quarks and relationship issues.
It's because people derive a different meaning from their common experiences.
But it also means that just knowing what happened to you won't fix what you actually do. So, get busy learning how to do things better. Learn to ask questions. Stop assuming. Stop making decisions for others. Stop playing victim. Learn to connect and listen. Learn to share and speak of your emotions and needs.
Stop living in the stories you've told yourself about yourself. That's probably the most liberating thing you can do. At the same time, stop looking at others through the stories you've told yourself about them. Give them a chance. Sometimes, they will surprise you. Sometimes, your relationship with them will change. Sometimes, it will get worse, and you should head out for the door. But at least, you will be in a more truthful place.
You always want to be at the most truthful place you can possibly be at that time.
A book worth reading – Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire In Everyday Life by Luke Burgis.
Never heard of "mimetic desire?" It was a term pioneered by the French philosopher (among other things) Rene Girard. It describes the tendency to want things because other people want them. We imitate the desires of others. It is responsible for fads but also for the crazy popularity of social media and wanting your ex back as soon as someone else wants them. Hand-in-hand with that, societies need a scapegoat or two, embodying our "collective sins."
Luke on the imitation of desire - 2 min video.
Luke on Rebel Wisdom – a 58 min video on the philosophy of Rene Girard.
The 1,000-acre project will include a one-mile stretch along the river's urban core, a three-mile recreation area with bridges and an amphitheater.
A binational bridge would connect US and Mexican citizens to a shared community space – subject to checks through customs.
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