Photo: mikejmartelli

In a previous post, How To Pull Good Things Out Of Others, I wrote (to paraphrase): "Who we are turns out to be largely a function of who we’re with. Have you ever noticed, for example, how you feel and behave one way with your family and another with your friends—and yet another with your co-workers and boss? Those around us exert far more of an influence on who we are than we perhaps realize—not by their conscious intention, but by being who they are themselves. (How often, for example, do you want to be loving and kind toward your spouse only to be left feeling cold and bitter by his lack of gratitude? Or fun-loving and silly with your children only to be left irritated and mean-spirited by their temper tantrums?) And as who other people are themselves is just as profoundly influenced by who we are, the people we spend our time being is ultimately influenced by how we influence the people around us."

I went on to say, "So if we want to be our best selves, the selves we ourselves like the most, we should first aim to pull the best selves we can out of the people around us. If we want to be warm toward others, for example, we should figure out what others do to trigger our warmth and trigger them to trigger it. If we want to be courageous, we should figure out what other people do to make us feel brave and trigger them to trigger that."

What I didn't do in that post, however, is describe just how one triggers others to trigger one's own best self. So I thought I'd take a crack at it in this one:

  1. Identify which traits of yours you want to suppress and which you want to express. This can be trickier than it sounds. It's easy, on the surface, to say you want to be less angry or more compassionate, but anger isn't always a bad thing (it could be considered, for example, an appropriate response to injustice), and what compassion means may changed depending on many factors (it often doesn't mean giving someone what they want).
  2. Identify who in your life has the most power to trigger you. Everyone in your life has some power to trigger you, but not everyone has the power to trigger you so powerfully that your executive self must struggle to maintain control. In general, I've found the people with the greatest power to trigger me aren't just my most intimate loved ones but also people I view as having the most influence over my future: my spouse, my son, my boss, and so on.
  3. Identify the selves these people trigger. I give mine names: angry man, competent man, loving father, and so on. Alternatively, simply identifying the predominant emotions and/or behaviors these people trigger is fine, too.
  4. Identify what these people do to trigger the selves/emotions/behaviors you do and don't like. This, to put it mildly, is challenging. First, you have to be mindful not to judge others harshly for the bad selves/emotions/behaviors they trigger in you. This exercise isn't about placing blame; it's about identifying patterns. Though these people may be the external causes of the selves/emotions/behaviors you often express, rarely do people trigger you intentionally or even consciously. Further, you yourself house the internal cause for the self/emotion/behavior they trigger. For example, if your boss makes you angry by constantly criticizing your work, that anger appears as a result of the combination of two causes: your boss's criticisms, certainly, but also, as one possibility, your inability to consider constructively what he has to say. (While changing the way you receive and consider criticism would represent the ultimate power you have to change yourself, what I'm discussing in this post is different: how to avoid that external cause, or trigger, in the first place.)
  5. Identify what you do to trigger them that then causes them to trigger you. This is perhaps the hardest step of all, both because the answer may be far from obvious and because it may be something you don't want to acknowledge. In the example I gave above, perhaps your work really is substandard. Or perhaps there's something else about you, something you're doing, that prevents your boss from seeing the value of what you do. Or, to give another example, perhaps your wife's attempts to control you (which triggers your anger) result from a few small things (you consistently forget to take your shoes off when you come inside, or forget to empty the trash, or forget to leave the toilet seat down). Even if you judge someone else's response to what you're doing or not doing (that is, your triggering of them) irrational and unjustified and think they should be working on themselves to resist being triggered by you, remember: you're not trying to be right about anything here; you're trying to change how you experience yourself. You can be indignant about someone else's irrationality and refuse to bend, or you can aim to be pragmatic and get the results you want. (This presumes the person you're dealing with is important enough to you that it makes sense to tolerate what you view as their imperfections—much as they must tolerate yours—rather than remove them from your life entirely.)
  6. Identify how you could trigger them differently. This may mean remembering to take out the trash. Or hugging your spouse when she starts complaining rather than complaining back. In general, it means doing something different, something that will undoubtedly make you feel uncomfortable. You'll likely have to experiment to figure out which of those uncomfortable things triggers your spouse or your child or your boss in a way that triggers you the way you want to be triggered (bringing out of you warm empathy, for example, instead of cold anger). But once you find the magic trigger, the one that brings someone out of them that makes you feel and respond like the person you most want to be, chances are it will stop being a trigger you have a hard time pulling.

It may seem like too much work, this list. But the truth is you're probably already following it to some degree without realizing it. Who among us hasn't paused to consider how our actions will impact someone else and adjusted them based on his prediction? I'm simply arguing to systematize the process, to become conscious in its application, specifically with the people who have the most influence over who we are, and not just to get the reactions we want but to influence how we ourselves react in turn. Because by doing that, we'll have found a way to more consistently be who we want to be, and thus like ourselves more.


Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!

About the Author

Alex Lickerman, M.D.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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