Learning to strike a balance between the negative behavior of others and how we receive that behavior can be one of our most difficult tasks. This is at the heart of developing both social and emotional intelligence. That’s all well and good as some abstract concept, but what about when it’s directly in front of us, enshrined in the messiness of our daily lives?
When confronted with the negative behavior of others, we have a choice. We can react, or we can respond. We can buy in, or we can breathe. We can hope that something will change, or recognize that it won’t. The most important thing for us to understand in this dynamic is that it is our choice, and we are responsible for creating its context.
The direction our choices go in is often just a question of habit. Whether we react, respond, buy in, breathe or get caught up in our errant expectations carries with it no more or less of a charge than how we take our coffee. The difference is that the former aren’t just habits, they are habits of mind, and the mind informs our perception of both self and other, effectively creating the fabric of our lives.
Habits of mind are like ruts in a road. We can’t help but tend to fall into them. The great thing about the flexibility of the mind—what has recently come to be called neuroplasticity—is that those tracks can be changed. It is, again, simply a matter of choice. Here’s an example.
One of the attendant characteristics of the addictive personality is narcissism. That’s not to say all addicts are narcissists, but it’s no stretch to suggest that an addict tends, by nature, to be at the very least selfish. So, a child growing up in a context of addiction generally has an experience of the addictive parent as selfish. This dynamic leads to the development of an experiential understanding on the part of the child that this particular parent tends to be selfish.
So, now this child has a given, or what I like to refer to as an ‘is’—a demonstrable and concrete element that is part of one’s personal mythology. What we do with that given determines the course of our choices and, in turn, informs the development of our habits of mind. We might choose to ignore or accept it, in which case it develops no charge. Or—and for us this is much more often the case—we might choose to give it power.
This given, or ‘is’, leads to the development of an expectation. That expectation can go in one of two directions. It might be the objective understanding that the parent’s behavior is going to be what it is—something that has no power and has nothing to do with us. Or, it might be a more reactive response that triggers defensiveness, self-doubt or some other negative emotion—the start of a cycle that increasingly deepens a mental rut, such that every interaction serves only to reinforce the very belief it fosters.
The path out of this maze is both simple, and not so simple. On the one hand, it means stepping away from the givens in our life and deciding whether to ignore them or simply accept them. On the other, it means not falling prey to the notion that if we return to the well enough times, sooner or later the water will turn to wine.
This leads us to our three takeaways. First, no action is an action. By ignoring or accepting—and, therefore, not engaging—the dynamic created by another’s negative behavior we can’t be drawn into its inertia and avoid the chaos it invites. Secondly, if we do nothing for ourselves, nothing will change in our context or experience. We must enact our own change by stepping outside the negative patterns in our lives that are driven by our habits of mind. Third, we cannot change the course of someone else’s behavior by virtue of our own. Agency and enabling only serve to perpetuate the negative patterns in our lives by reinforcing those patterns in others.
Others do not prompt our thoughts or cause our feelings—we do that to ourselves. If we want our experience of the world to change, we need to change the eyes through which we see it.
© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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