Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Teach a Man to Fish…Will He?

Social intelligence and the expectation of change

One of our most profound errors of social intelligence is the assumption that if we provide someone with a vehicle for change, they will not only accept it, but undertake to make it.

How many times have you in good faith extended a hand to someone, only to have them slide right down the same slippery slope that you just dragged them up from? This isn’t just the territory of enablers and agents trapped in a cycle of addiction. It’s a frustration regularly visited upon many of us by our kids, co-workers, friends, spouses, partners, and the family pet. In fact, we could even come up with a label for it: the fallacy of expected change.

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Change comes to the willing. The willingness to change is based on a very simple equation: when the consequences of our behavior outweigh the value of that behavior to us, it is an invocation of change. There is no guarantee that this change will happen, but, before it can even be considered, the conditions of potential change—consequence outweighing value—must be met.

If you get pulled over for speeding, it may be sufficient impetus for you to begin driving at or below the speed limit. Why? Because getting there three minutes sooner is, for you, not worth the risk of the $300 fine. On the other hand, if you get arrested for your third DUI, it may not be sufficient impetus for you to stop drinking. Why? Because the value of escape still outweighs your need for vehicular independence. There really isn’t some deep, dark pathology attached to all this. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: it’s your normal, and that normal is informed by your unique perspective.

Each of us possesses a unique perspective on who we are and how we experience the world. Put more formally, we have an inside (subjective experience) and an outside (objective experience) and in between there is something we might call a transactional lens. These two things—inside and outside—are inextricably intertwined. Our unique perspective, in turn, informs the small self, the ego, and maintains our fixation in the here and now—the ‘I’ that is ‘me’.

So, if my perspective says I am a barely employable, unpublished novelist with few prospects to actually succeed—despite my social pedigree and Ivy education—I will likely tend to seek out opportunities to reinforce that belief, despite any and every evidence to the contrary.  The interjection of someone not sharing my perspective who extends herself under the aegis of “helping” isn’t going to do a damn thing to shift my world view because her belief system cannot impact mine, no matter how sincere her intention. As long as I maintain my self-perspective, I will remain stuck right where I am.

This is the crux of the fallacy of expected change. It is our faith in people, our “optimism to the point of stupidity”, as a friend of mine likes to call it, which prompts us to lend a hand to others. Our failure to recognize that despite the depth our compassion and sincerity of intention we can’t help someone who is stuck in their perspective is what leads, in part, to our frustration.

This whole dynamic leads to a few questions. First of all, what is our role in effecting change for someone else? Well, we don’t really have one. What that means is that it is not within our power to effect change in another person. While we are responsible to others, we can only be responsible for ourselves—our mind, our perspective and our attendant behavior. The fallacy of expected change goes hand-in-hand with the myth of managing emotions. We cannot help someone who is unwilling to be helped, or invest in their own transformation.

Secondly, how can we best invest our compassion without falling in the trap of the fallacy of expected change? Learning to discriminate when to actually lend that hand we so sincerely wish to extend is what will, in the long run, keep us sane.

Finally, what is our motivation to help in the first place? Is it compassion and generosity of spirit, or is it power and control?—which, of course, leads us right back to our own relationship with the biggest three letter word in the English language: ego.

Compassion and egolessness go hand-in-hand, but they are also a double-edged sword. How that sword cuts is roundly dependent upon the motivation we have for extending our compassion. The profound error in our social intelligence mentioned earlier doesn’t simply issue from our assumption that providing change leads to change. It can also come out of the ‘why’ behind what we are offering.

The fallacy of expected change is certainly a frustrating challenge, but, in addition to providing us with insight into the social dynamics of others, it can provide us with insight into ourselves. If we exercise patience and pick our moment, our offering of compassionate facilitation become a mutual shedding of the ego that leads to evolution on both sides.

Give a man a fish, he eats for today. Teach a man to fish, he eats every day. But, if a man knows how to fish, will he?—or will he stand on the riverbank waiting for someone else to come along and give him a fish? There is no way to know. For us, there is only letting go and waiting for the time when his hunger may outweigh his patience, and he will cast his line into the river.

© 2013 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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