Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Tigers Have Stripes—Do You?

Responding to others’ negative patterns of behavior

People are nothing if not consistent. Getting pulled into the inertia of that consistency—particularly when it‘s negative or, at the very least, unproductive—can quickly get you a one way ticket on the crazy train.

Over time we all develop habits of thought and behavior. The sources of those habits are varied and arguably include everything from racial memory and the collective unconscious to acculturation and intrinsic motivation. The one certainty here is that if we peel back the layers of these patterns, we find a fair amount of consistency. This accounts for one of the first rules of forensic psychology—‘the way people do one thing is the way they do everything.’

When we confront patterns of behavior in others, we are tasked with accepting, managing or rejecting those patterns to our benefit or peril. Very often our own assumptions, expectations and ideas about the way the world works—our habit patterns—get in the way of this judgment and we find ourselves, if not falling down the rabbit hole, chasing after someone who has done just that. Getting on the train means going down that rabbit hole again and again, entertaining the neurotic belief that something will change—despite every evidence to the contrary.

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This notion of impending change could be as simple as expecting the kids to stop leaving the wet towels on the bathroom floor after you’ve told them not to do it a thousand times. Or it might be considerably more charged, like hearing for the hundredth time how your employer can’t make payroll because the economy is down, knowing full well it’s because he overbid yet another job, but staying on anyway. It could be adjusting the monthly budget to absorb the replacement cost of your wife’s lost iPhone—again. Or it might be resigning yourself to a less-than-perfect relationship for fear of never finding anything better.

The level of personal compromise--and commensurate degree of neurosis--we engender in these kinds of circumstances is secondary to a discussion of what we are willing to accept, manage or reject. The degree to which we do—or don’t do—any one or all of those things in response to a particular situation could be considered more a reflection of where we are in our own head than anything else.

Kids are kids, but (repeatedly) leaving wet towels on the floor is not acceptable for any number of reasons. Rather than accept it, we can see it as a teachable moment, which comes under the category of ‘managing’. That one’s pretty easy.

The financial stress and ambient anxiety associated with your employer’s ego-driven inflexibility is also not acceptable, but the question is, ‘why do you stay’? This is where it gets interesting, because to unpack that question, we need to start peeling back our own layers and honestly examining the habits of mind and behavior that keep us stuck or, at least, momentarily immobile.

Your wife loses things, you knew that when you married her. You accepted this as part of the fabric of the relationship. Maybe it’s even part of her charm. What makes the lost iPhone an issue, rather than an eventuality, is that it’s an $800 device, not a hairbrush. You understand you can’t fix her absentmindedness, but you can mitigate it with a few built-in precautions that don’t really compromise you or the quality of the relationship.

On the subject of relationships—whether platonic, romantic, familial or professional—the degree to which we are willing to compromise ourselves for the sake of maintaining that relationship (or not) speaks directly to our own emotional wellness. Accepting a less-than-perfect relationship comes in degrees, e.g., balancing absentmindedness against emotional disregard or sloppiness against an unfulfilling sex life. On the one hand, we’re talking about acceptance, and on the other acquiescence.

So, the take away here is what are you willing to accept, and why. What is it in you that keeps you at that desk or in that relationship?  What is it in you that keeps you going back to the well of familial disappointment or emotional disregard? And, once you peel back the layers of your reasoning and intention, how much are you willing to accept, reject or manage to bring yourself a more positive and productive outcome and how are you going to undertake that change?

More questions than answers, it would seem, but questions that will bring light into the room, rather than continuing to leave us in darkness.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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