Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing someone else’s face. Frightened? Confused? Wondering whether you’re dreaming? The level of concern here connects us to why we get frustrated when other people don’t seem to see us accurately. We act in an ‘as if’ universe, where our behavior is done ‘as if’ it is as immediately understandable and clear to everyone else as it is to ourselves. When the reality that others don’t have immediate clear access to our own minds comes crashing down with all the weight of their judgment, there’s often an immediate feeling of annoyance, if not outright anger.
I believe the pure relief and, often, joy of ‘being seen’ makes sense when placed against the backdrop of living a life in a world that doesn’t conform to our ‘as if’ belief. There’s a weight lifted and that release forms many a basis for love and intimacy. Of course it does. Who wouldn’t want to create a life with someone who, out of the thousands that came before, takes away the constant wariness of looking in the mirror of our social interactions and possibly not seeing our own face?
Why is it, then, so difficult for others to understand us? We’re the same species. We’re using the same words in sentences that, in a specific culture, are generally accepted as having a common meaning. While we will accept that other people don’t have access to our inner mind, this seems a small thing. Unfortunately it isn’t small. It’s not even large. It’s the whole problem.
Past, Present, Future
In this world of digitized behavior, kept for all eternity, the human proclivity to organize the present in line with the past has gotten enormous support.
In a nutshell, people will interpret your current behavior in a way that makes it consistent with your past behavior, and they will tend to play down or completely ignore evidence that contradicts their existing opinion of you. What’s more, they will have no idea that they’re doing it.Psychology Today
The quote from Heidi Halvorson above is perhaps a bit more positive than warranted, in the sense that people will “have no idea” they’re ignoring evidence to the contrary of a set opinion. On the contrary, quite often evidence to the contrary is deliberately dismissed as being aberrations, as detours from the ‘true’ reality of the person being judged. This dismissal is particularly strong when judgment is joined with identity. In other words, it’s not simply that a behavior is wrong, it’s that the behavior is representative of their associated race, gender, social group. Any contrary behavior to this homogenized story will be dismissed as belonging to a long con or other form of manipulation.
There is a space in which people are unaware they’re ignoring data, often in the day-to-day minutiae of life. Ever been driving and suddenly came to the realization that you don’t remember the last several miles? This detached or autopilot thinking happens fairly often, especially when a job is repetitious or a person feels no sense of ownership for what they’re engaged in. We can acknowledge this tendency while still pointing to how certain ideologies seem to support doing so deliberately. Anytime in which a part of someone is taken to be the whole, rest assured there are a great many variables/aspects/characteristics/behavior being dismissed.
The First Will Be Last
First impressions are, as the oft-repeated advice goes, very important. The strength of these first impressions is intimately tied to the degree of cognitive/emotional weight given to a situation. As noted above, that weight is shifted and focused more fully based on ideologies that parse people into singular identities, rather than whole people who contain multitudes. That said, seeing a random person on public transit will not generate many associations and you likely won’t remember them if you were to see the person later. If, however, they had been belligerent to you personally, or had engaged in behavior deemed bizarre, then later there’d be a quick judgment applied. Also, a random person will generate weaker associations than someone you’re interviewing for an important job or who shows up to take your kid out for a romantic date.
In other words, information we get about a person early in our observation of them influences how we interpret and remember everything that comes after.Psychology Today
Early impressions are within the same mental spectrum of bias, but they’re stronger precisely because they’re fed by other biases and themselves become one. Indeed, first impressions are encouraged to be especially defining because they’re so often associated with one’s intuition, a form of knowing felt to be pure.
Importantly here is recognizing that, whatever the limitations of first impressions may be, the influence is ongoing. We will actively interpret a person’s behavior, not based on the intent of that person, but on the story we already have of them. Further, our memory will follow suit, selectively recalling the information that fits that story as well.
It’s the Relationship
So how do we learn to mitigate these influences? How do we start to live in such a way that the lack of our access to other people’s minds is not just acknowledged but constrains our own behavior? First and foremost, we need to look at how we construct our perspectives, namely through relationship.
Perspective and the communication based off it, is too often assumed to be like lobbing a ball back and forth over an invisible line. Each person has their space and they receive the proverbial ball whole and complete exactly as intended. The complete error of this metaphor cannot be overstated. At best what is going on is the communication ball is being shaped by the interweaving of at least six variables or threads as it moves from one person to another.
- Intent of person A
- History of person A
- Environmental context(s)
- Intent of person B
- History of person B
- Automatic biases of A and B
None of these threads are singular in themselves either. The history and intent of a person will be a build-up of learned assumptions based on all the interrelationships they’ve had throughout their lives. Nobody can have access to all that. For that matter, nobody has conscious access to all those pieces of information for themselves.
The best we can do, and it’s really not as depressing as it may initially look, is to take a pause before or very quickly after each judgment we have. Within this pause, we can consider how much the story we have about the other person is about our own judgments and the influences of our many layered context. Within that pause we can learn to listen more, speak less and seek first a greater understanding of our fellow traveler in humanity. Judgment is undoubtedly going to happen, but we don’t need to hasten its arrival.
Our feelings are not very tidy when it comes to staying within the bounds of what makes us comfortable. What to do when feelings persist after the form of relationship they’re associated with has ended? Often we may feel elation when it is considered more proper to feel chagrin. At other times we will feel sad when socially it’s expected we should be happy. When it comes to matters of the heart, it is indeed those pesky feelings which seemingly lie to us and set us down paths of confusion.
Feelings are Selective
Let’s start with assuming love still exists after the ending of a relationship. Such an experience doesn’t require any particular behavior on your part. It’s a feeling, an assessment by you about the person, selecting particular parts of them and the history you had. Unless the time was an unmitigated disaster in which every moment was epically painful, there were then periods that were good and provided the means for there to be love.
Those times are what your mind is drawing on and from those memories, there is likely going to be feelings of loss. This is completely normal. Again though, this doesn’t require any particular behavior from you. Accept the feelings as part of being human, of acknowledging there were good times and you miss those. Call it love, call it whatever you want, but none of this requires anything out of you.
From: Return Of The Ex and Hope For Rebirth
“The loss is often so large, so ridiculously painful, not because the other person wasn’t worth it (though let’s face it, there really isn’t anybody worthy of invoking the feeling of soul-spasming pain felt by romantic loss) but because in a very real sense the world created by the connection was torn away. This isn’t poetic license, this touches upon attachment and how our minds work, giving us a bit of insight into why even after all the tears and sorrow there’s a part of us that leaps for joy at the possibility the ex may return.”
Feelings Have Many Stories
This is why labeling our emotions as ‘positive’ and ‘negative,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ is so unhelpful, it’s an attempt at making the nuanced, the complex, into a simple subtraction problem. Surely, so the thinking goes, without x-person in my life, we can subtract any associated y-emotions. Life doesn’t work that way however. Just as the initial attraction and shared experience drew on individual histories, social context and future desires, so then any emotional experience that comes after will draw on the same. That there will overlap to some degree allows for our internal stories to have coherence, but it also provides the space to make connections we don’t have to hold onto.
Our thoughts/emotions are not the sum total of who we are. Nor do they guide all of our behavior, not in any one-to-one sense. Spend a moment considering just how many thoughts/feelings you have that you don’t act upon or don’t do so in a particular way. You’ll quickly see that your life is far larger than any simple causal relationship between thought/feeling and action.
Relationships change/end for any number of reasons, from the obvious to the subtle, from the clear to the obscure. Very rarely is it because there was absolutely nothing good going on. Welcome to humanity, where the breadth of our relationship potential is as wide as there are people to connect with. Embrace the feelings, during and after, just know that what you do with them is up to you and the story you have about them is only partly about the person your attention is currently on.
“Two may enter, but only one may leave.” The image of a cage-match is older even than the post-apocalyptic landscape that line comes from, stemming perhaps all the way back to the myth of Cain and Abel, the first murder. There’s something intrinsically seductive about a simplistic binary choice. It speaks to our need for quick answers. Unfortunately, like any siren song, the binary quality hides an ocean of possibilities. As it is in the ways we may worship a deity, so it is in relation to our Values.
How often have you felt caught between two different choices? Ever been confronted with the desire to support one Value (say ‘career success’) and feel doing so would get in the way of supporting another Value (say ‘family’)? Life is often about choices, sometimes difficult ones, but the struggle here is made all the more difficult precisely because the Values are considered with such an adversarial framework.
Multiple Ways of Support
How this happens is largely due to what I’ll call ‘the tyranny of outcome.’ Meet someone new and the first question is often “what do you do?” When judging someone, it is the immediate behavior we look at, often without concern for context or intent (unless it’s about judging our own behavior, then suddenly and often self-servingly context matters, but that’s another point altogether). That process of judgment is at the heart of our experience of being overwhelmed and/or trapped in a spiral of self-doubt, depression and anxiety. It is based on the false notion that in any given situation there was or is only one behavior possible to support what we care about. This limited vision of behavior, as if thoughts and emotions aren’t actions as well, blinds us to how often similar intent and shared Values get supported through many different ways.
How do you express yourself to ‘family,’ ‘intimate partner’ and ‘co-worker’? Is it always the same way? I certainly hope not, such would be rather dull and not support how relationships grow and change with time. Ever notice how different people in relationships of ‘family,’ ‘intimacy’ and ‘work’ show their care/concern in different ways than you? Who hasn’t heard some version of the phrase “I could never express myself that way”? Values are what we care about, but they need not be supported in exactly the same way all the time. We do this automatically anyway, it is only when we get flustered and overwhelmed with a seeming impossible social hurdle that we forget our lives are full of behavioral variations.
More than One
Once space is made to slow down and appreciate our ability to support our Values in many different ways, the metaphor of a cage-match starts to seem problematic. To finally dismiss it altogether, we have only to recognize how we care about more than one Value at any given time.
We are constantly having to make choices about what Value to support over another. We do this nearly effortlessly precisely because we intuitively know three things:
- Our behavior quite often supports more than one Value at any given time, it is only our immediate awareness that makes it appear as if there’s only one in mind.
- Making a choice to support one Value does not mean we no longer care about another Value.
- The choice being made does not remove our ability to shift our priorities at another day and time, perhaps even in the very next moment given to us.
The metaphor of a Value cage-match supports a vision of our humanity that is unhelpful and often destructive. ‘Honor’ without ‘camaraderie’ forgets ‘team.’ ‘Truth’ without ‘humility’ leads to fundamentalism. ‘Self-care’ without ‘social awareness’ leads to pathological narcissism.
When confronted with a simple dualistic choice it is best, if possible in the moment, to pause and reflect on what else you care about in the current situation. We are simply not creatures constrained to a singular way of living our lives and our ability/struggle to do so is found in the many Values at the heart of of who we are.