A few years back I wrote – boasted? – that I was going to work on my repetitive behavior patterns, “because too often I repeat irritations, avoidances, and misunderstandings.” And then the following week, on the 4th of July, I completely missed a chance to do so. I completely blew it. I was judging the behavior of a family member, and I knee-jerk confronted, then knee-jerk turned my “inquiry” of them into a debate and then an indictment. And I caused real hurt.
I felt bad about it all the next day. On a long run and then a long car ride, my mind went through the same old mental muscle memory cycles: proving I was justified, finding fault in the other, then slowly beginning to think through ways I could take responsibility for my role. I thought of things to say, explanations, even apologies, but my mind, kept slipping into the same rut, screaming: “Heck, I was right in the first place, I was the one affronted, and it wasn’t my problem.” I am totally convinced that what I experienced may be a one-two mental trap that costs us billions in productivity and billions of hours of personal heartbreak. Trap number one: for some reason, we see others’ behavior and we feel attacked. We counter-attack. And our counter-attack creates a total self-fulfilling prophecy. How? Well, the other strikes back, just as we predicted! We knew they were a threat! We mentally play out their offenses (glossing over our own) over and over to prove we are right, victims, trapped not by our thoughts but by them.
A second possibility – and a second trap – may present themselves. If we are lucky enough, blessed enough by wise counselors and friends and lovers, we realize we’re really not perfect, we probably contributed to the problem, so we should figure out how and what to do. But so comes the second vicious rut that I described above. We feel attacked by ourselves for our failings (or feel attacked by a friend when we start to confide in them and they try to help us see how perhaps we have contributed to the problem). It’s feels like a psychic auto-immune disease, our mind or conscience is attacking us. So we fight away the thought. Our defensive mind “reasons” that the “other” person is still out there – our wife, or brother-in-law, sales competitor, or political enemy – lurking on some horizon, probably poised for another round of attack. We can’t let our guard down, undermining ourselves, and revealing our weakness. So, what do we do? We beat back the self-recrimination, as I did on my long run and continue to play the old tape: “I was right” and “s/he has wronged me.”
Jennifer helped me to step up to my bad behavior and see what I needed to acknowledge and apologize for. Now, I’ve got to watch for that tendency to judge in the future – tomorrow and the next day. We humans are nuts! Why we create the need to initially judge others and turn them into adversaries is itself peculiar. Why we help to then create or evoke this lousy reality into being is further mystery. And how we find the ability to calm the sense of attack and fear of our self-inquiry is yet another hill to climb (trusted, loving fellow travelers seem essential on that trip). I suspect that this journey is really worth it. How many marriages, businesses, or political wars might be eased if we managed our own mental patterns a little more effectively?
I’m deeply curious about your thoughts and especially your experience with this anatomy of judgment, hurt and denial, and especially with your experiences of early awareness and mental adjustment.
Searching for best-self leadership,