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An acquaintance once told me “I’ve given up talking to my friends about their problems. When they did something stupid, I advised them to stop, but they never listened.”
This acquaintance, fortunately, wasn’t from the helping profession. (If you’d like to see what therapy would look like if she had been a therapist, watch this video clip ) But it’s a somewhat exaggerated form of the reaction that many of us have to the behaviors and feelings of other people. If you take a moment to think of your friends, relatives and colleagues, you can surely come up with things that they do that are difficult to understand. It might be as trivial as being late for everything, or as serious as ignoring a potentially fatal medical problem. People (often ourselves!) procrastinate, can’t stop themselves from overusing social media, drink too much, lose their tempers too easily or worry about things that will never happen.
It is tempting to look at those people and judge them. If we aren't tempted by alcohol, it’s easy to dismiss a heavy drinker as a hopeless alcoholic. If we are happy-go-lucky, that chronically anxious person is just neurotic and silly. If we take care of our health, the person who doesn’t is irresponsible. The ‘abnormal’ behavior of others seems foreign and incomprehensible, and so we chalk it up to a character flaw.
A famous psychologist once said “We are all much more simply human than otherwise, be we happy and successful, contented and detached, miserable and mentally disordered or whatever.” What he meant was that the most ‘abnormal’ behavior of others, is, at its core, very human and therefore no different from that of others we might consider more ‘normal’.
Of course, sometimes the behavior of others seems awful and incomprehensible, and it’s hard to keep in mind the idea that these people are no different from the rest of us. But the truth is that every behavior has a reason, and if we find ourselves judging these people, it’s because we don’t yet understand that reason.
Here are three examples from my practice (modified to ensure confidentiality):
The Heartbreak Kid
Joe was 35 and had never had a steady relationship. He would pursue women, sleep with them a few times, then never call them back. The only women he remained attracted to were those who refused to date him. He would become lovesick, desperate to win them over, overwhelmed with the beauty of their bodies and their perfect personalities. But if any of them were finally won over by his unwavering attention and chose to enter a relationship with him, that was the beginning of the end. Everything that had been so perfect before became flawed and repulsive, and within weeks (despite his best efforts to change how he felt) he dropped them like a hot potato. Only to regret that and begin to idolize them again.
Like everyone else, Joe deeply craved intimacy. But he was, at the same time, terrified of it. When I asked him to imagine what it would feel like to be married to someone, he refused, saying it was too frightening. His behavior, then, was entirely understandable: he pursued the intimacy he needed, but the closer he got, the more his fear pushed him away, causing him to break off relationship after relationship.
The Long Suffering Wife
Anna had been emotionally abused by her husband Charlie for a decade. Her friends begged her to leave, having seen him lash out at her time and again. He mocked her looks, her weight, her intelligence, her parenting abilities — there was virtually nothing that she could do right. And yet, time and time again, she came up with a multitude of reasons why leaving Charlie was the wrong thing to do.
Anna’s father treated her mother in a similar manner. So while Anna hated the abuse, it also felt somehow familiar. Her father had been highly critical of Anna as well, and so she grew up expecting that things wouldn’t be easy for her, that she wasn’t a good person and so she didn’t deserve to have anything really good happen to her. Leaving Charlie didn’t seem to offer a bright future because abuse was all she could expect out of life; deep down, she knew any new partner would treat her the same way. Her reluctance to exit a dreadful situation therefore made perfect sense.
Frank was a successful executive, but he couldn’t enjoy his job or his success. Virtually any problem could send him into a frenzy of anxiety. If his boss emailed him unexpectedly to set up a meeting, he became convinced he was going to be fired. Any request from a peer or superior was seen as a demand, and Frank felt that unless he leaped into the task and delivered perfect results immediately, he was a failure. A minor problem in the business would result in him working around the clock to fix it. While his bosses appreciated his dedication, his wife and friends begged him to take things easier, and no one could understand why the smallest thing could trigger such terrible anxiety.
Frank’s father had been a critical person, and Frank responded by trying his best to please him. He’d taken that style into his adult life, trying hard to please those around him, particularly those in authority. Even the possibility of disappointing them made him feel like a child again, in danger of having to endure the wrath of a critical parent. His anxiety in these situations was therefore entirely understandable.
It would be tempting to judge Joe as heartless and abusive to women; condemn Anna as weak and helpless; and look down on Frank as just silly and nervous. But once we understand their lives, we can see that they are rather more human than otherwise…and not that different from ourselves.