What if you could know both sides of the story? What if you could know the “why” and not just the “what”?
I spent quite a bit of my youth feeling insecure and jealous of my sister. The adults in our lives compared us, and I seemed to fall short. To my young brain, she was the favored child in the family. I took my anger out on her, which did not earn me the daughter-of-the-year award. Then the most important person in my life died: our father. I was seven and did not understand what death actually meant; I felt abandoned. I began pushing others away before they could do the same to me. An outsider might think I was a brat.
When I started in my profession as a school counselor, I wanted to help youth be able to take another’s perspective, to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy was another big-ticket topic for me. I idealistically believed that these two skills would make everything better- for them, the school, their families, the world. But how do you teach these abstract concepts?
I looked at my own story, to start. I need more than two hands to count the number of counselors I have seen in my life on this planet. With each one, I gained a new insight that I could assimilate into my knowledge of me. I feel that I have always been introspective, but I really benefited from working with professionals to help me get out of my head. A lot of work was done around needs; specifically, what need was being met by specific behaviors. It’s really eye-opening to discover that my behavior of pushing others away was my need to protect my little-girl heart from getting hurt. It was a way to have some control.
What are some of your (unmet) needs? How do they tie in with your actions, past and present? Can you have compassion for yourself?
Now try this: Write down the names (or a code name) of the people in your life (family, friends, co-workers, etc). Who do you feel good around? Who brings you down? Go down your list, and use a smiley face to note the positive emotions and a sad face for any unpleasant feelings that come up when you think of specific interactions with this person. Now count the faces.
Take it further with this: For the people with more sad faces, try to take their perspective by imagining what might be going on with that person. Maybe their needs were not/are not being met, and they haven’t learned how to work through it in a prosocial way. Or perhaps most of your experiences with that person were positive, but they had a bad day or a rough year. Of course, you are a factor, too, since each interaction involves more than one set of past experiences and all that entails.
Imaging the “why” of one’s behavior can help you be more compassionate toward them, and now you can decide whether or not you want/need to set boundaries. While it may not always be easy to do this, knowing what is unacceptable behavior for you is a starting place. Eventually you can feel more empowered to decide who is worth your effort and of whom to let go. If I had continued to treat my sister poorly, she could have decided that I was not worth having in her life; that would have been her choice, and I would not have blamed her. And pushing people away throughout my life would have just left me very lonely.
My upcoming chapter book, The Good, the Bad, and the Backstory, considers the very truth that there is more than one side to every story. I tried to tackle some of these matters head-on by showing the same day, with the same events, from the perspective of five different characters. The story reminds us that everyone is battling their own issues, and everyone comes to the table with varying abilities and support systems to manage those issues.
I have done things in my life that have hurt others, and there is a likelihood that I will in the future; I am human, after all. But I want to think that I am still a person who is worthy of love and respect. For me, this is true for others. If people could know the “why” and not just the “what” of others’ “bad” behavior, we will discover that we’re a complicated mix of needs, past experiences and personal growth. The best thing we can do is to be compassionate toward others, and to keep working on our own growth.