Clueless about being clueless

There is an assumption in psychological and spiritual circles that other people, irritating as they sometimes can be, act as a mirror.  That what we react to and dislike in them is a reflection of how we also behave.  Except that we do not know that we are doing versions of the very thing that they are doing.  It takes a leap of faith to accept this assumption.  I dislike pedophiles, and I am not a pedophile and never have been.  But I have ever in my earlier life manipulated, overpowered, or humiliated a person more vulnerable than me.    As I understand the concept, the issue isn’t necessarily that I need to behave in exactly the same way as the person who offends me, but that my intense dislike or judgment of them is the first clue that their behavior is triggering something important in me .   “Joe” is a an excellent example of someone who creates this effect in many people.

I first set eyes on Joe, a retired and formerly successful businessman, when I walked into a week-long residential seminar.  About 15 people sat in a room, eyes and ears focused on Joe.  Joe was animated, waving his arms and legs as he spoke, punctuating his comments with his own laughter.  Noticing how attentive others were, I listened to Joe intently.  Though he was laughing at his own story, I did not find the story engaging or funny.  Within moments I was overwhelmed with a feeling of captivity and the sense that the story Joe was telling was not really the point.  The point was paying attention to Joe.  We were being held hostage.  I noticed how polite the group was toward Joe.  They continued to listen.

I knew I had the choice of joining in on the group politeness and hoping something would happen soon to break the momentum Joe was creating.  Or, I could leave the room and stop the buildup of resentment that was swelling inside.  I chose to leave the room.

Over the next two days, I hear people make offhand comments to Joe that he talked too much, and thankfully Joe quieted down.

In an exercise about values, Joe commented that he ran his life according to several rules, two of which involved never shouting at anyone or touching people except with love.  It is never a mistake when people have ground rules like this.  I knew then that Joe likely had been physically abused as a child or at least had grown up in a dysfunctional environment, though he did not acknowledge either.  He went on to say that he enjoyed going into fast food restaurants, prepaying for several people’s lunches, then watching the faces of people when they were told by the cashier that an anonymous person had paid for their lunch.  Joe remarked that he was creating a positive cascade of feeling: that these people, having received a free lunch, would go out with gratitude and pay it forward to others, creating a large ripple effect.

While I am not convinced that Joe was creating the ripple effect he assumed would occur, I was struck by his attempts to do something positive anonymously.  I could see he was trying to be a good person, and trying something difficult: giving without the glory of being known as a giver. During mealtimes in the small dining room at the seminar, Joe would also offer to clear participant’s plates at every meal.  The first time Joe offered to do this, I agreed to let him, though I was perfectly happy to take my plate and silverware to the tub that was left out for that purpose.

And Joe continued to clear people’s plates meal after meal.  I became annoyed, wanting to say, but not saying  “Joe, you don’t have to prove that you are a good person.”  One meal, as I was intensely engaged in a conversation with a fellow participant, I heard a small voice worming in my ear  “can I take your plate?”  Joe had managed to interrupt a private conversation and call attention to himself once again through his plate clearing.

I did not want to spend my energy and time filled with negative feeling about Joe.  As I sat with my anger about his intrusiveness, the “aha” moment emerged.  Joe was trapped in a cycle of wanting attention and needing to be perceived as a good person.  And he would get that attention through story telling, plate-clearing, or whatever he had to do to get it.   Because he assumed that being good is always “good.”  Joe’s version of being “good,” however, interfered with and affected me and others in a negative way.  My impulse was to tell Joe to go get psychotherapy to deal with the issues that prompted him to behave this way.

And then I realized that I, too, have my rules about how I should behave as a good person, and they too are in reaction to the way I was raised and the offences and slights I have suffered.  And like Joe, I do like attention from time to time.

I can only hope that I am more sophisticated at being a “good” person and seeking  positive attention than Joe is.  I too need rethink my “rules” about living.  So long as my rules are reactions to behaviors I disliked in my parents or other people around me, I will be trapped like Joe in an endless cycle of proving that unlike them, I am good!

Who knew that Joe would help me understand that freedom is stepping out of those reactive patterns rather than compulsively repeating them over the course of a lifetime.  Now that’s good information!








About Elizabeth Sudler

As a senior manager in two national behavioral health insurance companies, I had P&L responsibility for large clinical and call centers. Predominantly my work has involved turnarounds and operational expansion to meet growth targets. I have consulted in vendor roles with multiple Fortune 500 companies on behavioral change management, and led hundreds of seminars on resilience and self-management topics using psychological principles from my training as a licensed psychotherapist.

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