Seeing Differently in 2020

Don’t confuse bad behavior with the intrinsic worth of a person.

When I was little and watched westerns at the movies, I drove my older sister nuts by repeatedly asking who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I’d sensed the dramatic premise—that there are protagonists and antagonists—and knew we were supposed to cheer for one and boo the other. But while I caught the drift of moral polarities, I couldn’t apply it to what my eyes were seeing on the screen.

To me at that age, people were still just people. I wasn’t old enough to indict their worth based on their dastardly acts. People might do harmful things, but that still didn’t add up in my child’s mind to one person being “good” and another “bad.” I just couldn’t tell. My sense of judgment had not yet turned into a wholesale rejection of anyone. After all, they weren’t doing bad things all the time.

Children give second chances to people who, strictly speaking, may not deserve them. But children are spared from the state of mind that says that a person’s worth is only as good as his last good act. Psychotherapist and teacher Tom Baker suggests we try seeing the person’s innocent human essence behind his behavior, rather than confusing bad behavior with the intrinsic worth of the person. We can see behavior for what it is, yet stop short of labeling the person as bad. This gets us closer to the heart of the matter.

The heart of the matter is that scared and insecure people often act badly due to their unresolved fear of being attacked or rejected. Their interpersonal fears prompt preemptive aggression toward others. Most bad behaviors are knee-jerk defenses against past experiences of threat and unsafety in childhood.

People who are sure they don’t deserve love will try to force others to pay attention to them. People who have not been adequately loved will see manipulation as a sensible alternative to loneliness. And people who feel powerless and unworthy end up increasing rejection by trying to control and judge others.

As soon as you see the problem as the other person’s being “bad,” you will instantly notice yourself tensing up and bracing for a counter attack. By assessing others’ worth negatively, it automatically sends you into a panicky state where you rightly fear their response to you.

When you condemn others, you project that onto the other people and expect them to be as judgmental as yourself. You then automatically become more nervous and less articulate. But if you suspend judgment about their basic goodness, your problem is just with what they did, not who they are. So less judgment means you will feel better, be less anxious, and communicate more clearly.

You don’t have to blindly trust people, but you don’t have to condemn them either. Watch what happens inside you if you don’t condemn, but just address the behavior you don’t like. Your anger will go down, and you’ll be much more effective in any conflictual situation.

If you don’t condemn them, you’ll deal with their bad behavior more dispassionately and with less guilt. Judgment and discernment are two different things. One jacks you up, the other calms you down, allowing you to be more resourceful.

Try a new thought for 2020: you’re a complicated person in a complicated situation, and so are the others. No good guys and bad guys; just scared people hurting from things they can’t control. Because others get upset, it doesn’t mean you’re bad. And when you get upset, it doesn’t mean they’re bad either. Remember, we may express our pain in the form of a fight, but it doesn’t say anything about our worth.

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