Given that human beings are very social by nature, it is not surprising that many people worry a great deal about what others think of them. Our drive to be accepted, after all, is quite strong and we see the epitome of this phenomenon in early adolescence where the focus, even obsession, on peer acceptance appears to be particularly extreme. And most adolescents learn how to “flow” with their peers, responding to them in a similar manner as they are treated. For example, if a particular friend is always giving them a hard time, they learn to hand it back to them. Similarly, if a friend is patient and takes the time to listen, then they are more likely to listen to their friend in return. This is the natural ebb and flow of social “conversation” that we have all experienced.
But there is a downside. Over time, this practiced social conversation becomes a style, even solidifying into traits that become part of our character, or the distinctive manner in which we learn to be in the world. And this leads us to behave more out of a reactive nature than a thoughtful one. For example, let’s say we adopt the response pattern of “if you hurt me, I just won’t be your friend anymore” or “if you disappoint me when I need you, then don’t expect me to be around for you next time.” Can you see can how this would limit relationships over time? It is true that people will disappoint us and hurt us at some point, not because most people are bad but because most people are human. We all have off days (or weeks, or months!). But if our response is to treat people only as we are treated, then we damage relationships over the long haul or cause our relationships to be volatile or inconsistent.
“But,” you might say, “don’t they deserve to be punished for hurting me? Do I just let folks get away with their bad behavior and always be there for them even when they let me down?” That’s a good question. And this is the point where character comes into play. The answer to the question depends upon both your goals in life and the strength of your character. If, indeed, we are more interested in keeping score than we are in growing our friendships and growing our character, then the answer is yes, they deserve your punishment (or cold shoulder, or friendship withdrawal, etc.). Tit-for-tat, right? But if your seek to nurture your friendships and focus more on your own code of behavior rather than the misdeeds of others, then the answer would be the opposite.
Now, hang onto your hat because I am about to suggest a radical concept.
Consider this: Totally contrary to our developmental learning about how to match our responses to other people, the real question is this: Why would our behavior – our chosen actions or responses – actually have anything to do with the behavior choices of another person? If I deem a particular response pattern to be right and good, why would the inappropriate or less than ideal behavior of someone else alter my predetermined course of action? For example, if I deem it to be moral and just to treat people with kindness and compassion, then why would injustice or unkind behavior toward me change my kind behavior toward others? There is no law that says we must treat others as we are being treated. Unfortunately, we have this seesaw reaction linked up in our heads such that if someone treats us in a particular way, we become angered and treat them similarly in return. In reality, though, we are responsible for our own behavior quite distinct from how anyone else behaves toward us or others. This does not mean that it is easy to do, at least not initially, until we severe the link binding our actions to those around us.
It is also crucial to not be deceived into thinking that this is about fairness. It is not about fairness. It is about freedom. As long as our behavior depends upon the behavior of another person, we are not free to maintain our character in the face of adverse circumstances. And this is a recipe for disaster because we can never control the thoughts and behavior of others. Further, abandoning our own code of conduct in the face of misconduct by others is a trap door from which we plummet into the dungeon of misery and self-loathing rather than being released into the bright sunny skies of satisfaction and confidence that we ultimately win from maintaining the higher ground.
It’s all about character.