When understanding is overrated

Years ago when I started seeing a shrink, I learned that there are ideal conditions by which a child develops in a healthy way, and when those conditions are thwarted, the child’s development gets derailed. Those ideal conditions presuppose that a child grows up with two parents, in a secure environment, and is able to pass unhindered through all the stages of human development – such as learning to crawl/walk, use the potty, resolve the oedipal complex, etc. etc. If all of those transitions are successful, the child will grow into a strong and well-adjusted adult that is able to have healthy relationships and participate fully in life. If not, there will be problems. Of course this may be an oversimplification – I realize, for instance, that it leaves out the question of nature vs. nurture – but basically, it is a pretty solid theory.

Of course none of us grow up in circumstances that completely match the ideal. All sorts of variables can derail us – divorce, addictions, physical or emotional abuse … the list is potentially endless. In other words, all of us get thrown off the track to some degree or other, and all of us need to find a way to get ourselves back on the rails if we want to have a life that works.

Vosburg Tunnel

For me, psychotherapy was not just about piecing my shattered psyche together and getting my life back on track. It was also an intense education. In learning about myself, I also learned about other people, and in learning about other people, I learned about what motivates them – what motivates us all.

On the whole, this was a good thing. It gave me a degree of compassion and a willingness to empathize. But after a while, I began to take this propensity for analyzing to the extreme. I started trying to find reasons for everything everybody did – especially when people did something to hurt me.

Before this, I had done what children instinctively do when something bad happens: I internalized the responsibility. I formed a belief – consciously or unconsciously – that the bizarre and hurtful behavior that was directed at me must be my fault. I must have done something bad, and therefore I must deserve this. 

But suddenly I was finding out that it wasn’t because of me, but because of something in the other person’s experience or make-up. In fact, it probably had very little to do with me.

And so a period began in which I tried to understand everything. When my boyfriend cheated on me and I felt devastated, I tried to understand what had made him do it. The same thing went for others in my life who did stuff to hurt me. In hindsight, it was probably a misguided effort to have some kind of control over the situation. After all, if I understood what had caused the hurtful episode, surely I would be able to prevent it from happening again.

Somewhere along the way I stopped all that. I stopped analyzing. It almost scared me when I realized how much time and energy I had expanded trying to figure out another person’s motivations for doing what they did, particularly if their behavior was bizarre and came out of left field.

The simple truth is this: it is very difficult to figure out other people’s motivations, and virtually impossible if they are self-absorbed, abusive, or narcissistic. What is worse: it can be dangerous. You shouldn’t even try to go inside the head of a sick person – it’s as risky as walking alone through a shady neighbourhood at night. It is an area where even the most skilled psychiatrists fear to tread.

Over the years I’ve learned to “live and let live” – to let other people own their shit, and to get on with my own life. Other people’s motivations are their concern. I don’t have to understand what drives them. All I need to do is figure out whether or not their behavior is acceptable to me, and if not, to walk away. At one point I may have doubted that there were healthier relationships out there, and if there were, that they were intended for me. That very doubt may have kept me stuck in a pattern of always attracting unhealthy people. But today I know that there are lots of good and kind people in this world, worthy of my trust. I just need to believe it.

[photo licensed under Creative Commons]

Posted in Being human.

2 Comments

  1. It sounds like what I have been though… and which seems like never ending process and desirable result impossible to obtain. Hope is there though, as I can see, it was possible for you to find yourself in a ‘better place’ eventually. But during my darkest days, I keep saying, some people make it, some don’t, which is true in fact, but ray of light appears sometimes. Thank you for sharing.

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