Perfect for you if:
- You just started a new friendship or relationship
- You feel let down by or angry at yourself or someone else
- There are people in your life that you just can’t seem to forgive
When we feel frustrated or let down by someone else (or even ourselves) it can be helpful to remember that that person has, in fact, always been that person – what has really failed here are the expectations that we have set for them.
Climate is made up of complex seasons, weather systems and local weather patterns. Even with these general rules it can be highly unpredictable. We wouldn’t make sweeping generalisations about the general global climate from a single Summer’s day. We definitely wouldn’t stubbornly refuse to update those expectations in the face of changing context or time.
In the same way, people have personalities, phases, moods and emotions. Perhaps we judged them too hastily (halo effect). Perhaps we should have realised earlier that we needed to update our expectations (consistency bias) or chose to ignore the clues that those expectations were misplaced (confirmation bias). Perhaps the shortcuts (heuristics) that we used to set those expectations are unrealistic or hypocritical.
In any case, though learning something new about a person may be hard (especially if it undermines the foundations of some best laid hopes and plans), blaming someone else for our own misunderstandings or expending time and energy on anger, resentment or trying to change them against their will are about as effective as shaking our fists at a thunder storm.
On the other hand, taking responsibility for failures in our own judgement makes forgiveness easy. It helps us recognise the obstacle we’ve encountered as an opportunity for growth and to see each setback as a stepping stone to better laid expectations and relationships in the future.
At the end of the day, it takes thousands of new situations over many decades to start getting to know ourselves, let alone another person, and even then both can surprise us. So, when the real world and the world in our heads diverge, it can be helpful to reflect that the real problem here may simply be that we’ve mistaken the weather for the climate.
After all, being human is complicated and sometimes we all forget to pack a rain coat.
Creation is in the eye of the beholder
All it takes is a glimpse, a flash of laughter, perhaps even a single sentence and, just like that, we’ve built a deep and complex impression of a total stranger’s character. It is one of the most amazing abilities of our already remarkable brain.
Think about it, within moments of seeing or hearing about someone we subconsciously use shortcuts (heuristics) to bring our entire knowledge of the world together, fill the gaps between a handful of data points and create a unique and totally imaginary human being in our heads.
This imaginary model allows us to make useful assumptions about who a stranger is and our expectations of their (re)actions towards us and the world around them.
It’s these assumptions that enable us to cooperate quickly and effectively with strangers. It’s these expectations that are at the foundation of our ability to work in the extended social networks that have created humanity as we know it today.
But there’s no such thing as a free dinner and the super-fast and largely good-enough nature of our amazing shortcuts come at a cost.
The price of shortcuts
There are several major problems with the imaginary person that now lives in our heads:
- We base our impression on only a few data points.
- We fill the bits in-between with mostly made up information.
- We will go to extraordinary lengths to hold on to this initial model.
First impressions are a good example of giving too much emphases to a small number of data points. They’re also a good example of “the Halo effect” – our tendency to assume a lot about someone’s character or an object’s properties from only a handful of measures.
We know and fear the power and injustice of a bad first impression (though we are less likely to jump up and down about undeservedly good ones). They take away as unfairly from society’s minorities and misfits as they reward tall CEOs, good looking salesmen and attractive musicians.
But even beyond our more obvious biases we tend to fill the space between these data points with nonsense.
Sometimes we base our expectations on our understanding of how we are (or think we are) – this is what makes thieves so security conscious and murderers so paranoid.
More often we base those expectations on how believe people should be – including standards we frequently fail to live up to ourselves.
And occasionally we even build people up to be who we want or need them to be – from fools and devils to white knights or damsels in distress.
Once formed, the character of this imaginary human being becomes frustratingly persistent. We go to great lengths to preserve continuity and consistency in our lives. It is easier to pay more attention to information that agrees with our existing beliefs (confirmation bias) than it is to openly challenge, break down and reconstruct them.
As a result, it is unsurprising that people often surprise us, both positively and negatively. And even less surprising that even then, it takes a huge number of examples across a wide variety of contexts to shift our first impressions.
But, over time, as we get to know the person in question, we add more and more data points to the model in our heads. The more data points we collect the more infrequent the surprises. The more infrequent the surprises the greater our self-confidence in predicting their behaviour.
Until eventually the model in our heade becomes so good that we begin to think of it as the same thing as the real person standing in front of us. We feel that we ‘know’ that person.
And then, disaster strikes.
The cost of over-confidence
At the height of our confidence, or in the face of our general beliefs about how people ‘should’ act, the person that we thought we knew acts in a way that is negatively inconsistent with our expectations. A part of the model seems to collapse, along with any plans we’ve laid on top of it, and it feels like something that was once very solid has been taken away from us.
And guess what, we don’t like things having taken away from us. In fact, scientists have consistently shown that having something taken away from us triggers a stronger emotional response than simply having it not given to us in the first place. This cognitive bias (deprival super reaction syndrome) is the same one that makes rolling back benefits or rewards from us when we are accustomed to receiving them so traumatic, even if there’s no longer any basis for those rewards to be in place.
Perhaps a parent or a friend wasn’t there for us when we needed and expected them to be. Perhaps they stole from you, or treated you unfairly or betrayed your trust. The result can be an intense emotional response of sadness and betrayal towards the person we perceive to have let us down. A response that often evolves into anger or denial (learned helplessness) if it can’t be escaped.
I’ve been on both sides many times and I know how helpless and disorienting it can feel. You feel wronged and the person who has wronged you just can’t seem to see why or how. In the absence of a solution the blame and recrimination can lead to tit for tatting which can itself temporarily or permanently damage a relationship.
But there is a solution.
It’s not you. It’s me.
And the solution starts with admitting that it is not the other person that has wronged us. It is us who has wronged them.
Recall that what’s actually fallen short here is our own mental model of a person. A model that is (and always has been) totally imaginary. A model full of expectations which we have set. Expectations which were probably at best inaccurate and at worst hypocritical or unobtainable.
Perhaps this person has actively misled us. But even so, the decision to build our model based on the full weight of their words rather than to keep our expectations open to the evidence of their actions was also ours to make.
The truth is that that person has always been that person. We just didn’t realise it until now.
Time for a new strategy
So we’ve learned something new about a person.
The bad news is that a few major hopes and dreams that we’d built on top of our shattered expectations might be smouldering in a sad little heap in the corner.
The good news is that, with only ourselves to blame, forgiving the other person becomes very easy. And that’s going to free up a lot of time and energy in pointless tit for tatting, moping and recriminations to focus on the important stuff. Namely, rolling up our sleeves and working out what to do next.
1. Pause – the power of not making things worse
First step: do nothing at all. We all have a remarkable talent for misperceiving, misinterpreting and misunderstanding. If I had a pound/euro/dollar for every time I’d made things worse by (re)acting before taking the time to pause and think I could probably bank roll World Peace. Even Abraham Lincoln’s wife would famously hide his most scathing letters until he’d had a chance to calm down.
It is rare that taking a moment to pause, observe and investigate before acting doesn’t lead to better decisions. With a little patience, situations often turn out to be much less dramatic than they first appeared. Sometimes, they even solve themselves entirely.
Creating a gap between observation and emotional response is one of the fundamental skills that can be learned through meditation. And if there were only one reason to take up twenty minutes of meditation a day, this would be it.
In the meantime, making a deal with ourselves to sleep on an emotionally charged situation before (re)acting is one of the greatest (and most challenging) habits we can form.
2. Understand – good decisions need good information
My life and the life of those around me would be and have been a lot more pleasant if I were better at “assuming benign (kind) intent”. People everywhere are generally good and kind and they rarely do things to intentionally hurt others. It is easy to assume the opposite, and occasionally we’d be right, but doing so by default can lead to many misunderstandings that would be otherwise easy to avoid.
What we really want here is to minimise future surprises and our best bet to do so is to really understand what’s going on before we make any changes to our models.
What could have been going through the other person’s head? Have I ever been on the other side of a similar situation? Do I know someone else who has? A period of extreme stress in someone’s life can cause them to think, speak or act in a way so uniquely out of character that it deserves special treatment. Is this one of those scenarios?
Talk to the other person but avoid generalisations, they will only trigger defensiveness. What exactly did they do, when, how? How did that make me feel? Give them space to explain. Remember, unless you’ve decided to end this relationship what you both want out of this discussion is to learn and move forwards.
3. Process – update our model and expectations
After we’ve paused and reflected it’s time to update our models and expectations. Does this piece of information tell us something about this person’s actions under just a few specific sets of circumstance? Or does it tell us something more about their character in general?
This step sounds simple but one of the hardest things for us to do is to face the consequences of admitting that we are wrong. This is especially true if we’ve held the suspect belief for a long period of time and doubly so if the new information is going to require us do a lot of thinking or make some disruptive changes.
Too often we fall into the trap of refusing to update our models (remember the persistence of first impressions) and hoping that the real world will change to fit us instead of the other way around. If you’ve ever tried to telepathically switch off your alarm clock in the morning and found it frustratingly non-compliant you know what I’m talking about.
If you’ve paused and taken the time to understand what’s going on then be brave and let go of your old views. You will thank yourself in the long run.
4. Act – decide what to do next
Once we’ve adjusted our model there’s only one question left to ask:
Knowing what I now know about this person, if I met them again today would I still get back into this relationship?
This kind of zero-based-thinking helps us to escape the strong gravity of invested time and energy that draws us back over and over again into a toxic relationship. By looking at the relationship as if it were starting today we can let go of the past and focus fully on the future.
If our answer to this question is no then the the best thing to do is to take steps to start getting out of the relationship as quickly as possible.
But if the answer is yes then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and focus on the future.
Working on the future
People can and do change. Change starts with a thought. Thought leads to action. Action leads to habit. And habits are the building blocks of personality.
But lasting change means breaking down deeply worn patterns of thought and action and laying new ones down. It takes time, effort, discipline, internal motivation and a lot of persistence.
Option 1: Change the other person
Think of the difficulties you’ve had breaking bad or building new, simple, well intentioned habits like waking up earlier, getting to the gym or browsing less social media. How much effort, how much strong internal discipline and motivation did that take? How many times did you fall back into old traps?
Now imagine trying to force that onto someone else. Is it any wonder that trying to change someone against their will is a waste of time?
But if a person genuinely wants to change then the best we can do is make it as easy for them as possible. It starts with creating an environment that allows and supports that change. Build trust, communicate openly and without judgement. Reinforce every positive step with love and praise.
Reflecting on our own experiences reminds us how hard it can be to change even the simplest of things. Forming a new habit takes time (at least 30 days) and daily effort so patience and focus on just one thing at a time are critical.
But perhaps the single most important step of all is to lead by example.
To change others we first have to be willing to change ourselves.
Option 2: Change ourselves
For those who like to give themselves a hard time whenever they let themselves down, I’ve found it helpful to remember this: everything written above applies as much to our relationship with ourselves as it does to our relationships with other people.
It’s ok to get things wrong and every obstacle we encounter is an opportunity to learn more about the world and people around us. Every mistake, every failed encounter, friendship or relationship helps us learn how to make the next one better.
It would be impossible to summarise even a fraction of the timeless advice given in the countless books that have been written on changing ourselves. Here are just a few of the things that I’m working on right now that have helped me make sense of the past, build better models for the future and work towards seeing the world with “a grand mother’s eyes”:
Expect the unexpected
Shortcuts (heuristics) are a critical part of the way our brain works. We can’t simply wake up one day and decide to have no expectations whatsoever.
But we can remember that our mental models are just simplified shortcuts for us to make sense of the world around us and, as a result, they are guaranteed to get things wrong.
Reminding ourselves of this fact helps us to keep a light hearted and flexible, rather than hostile, attitude to the unexpected.
Get to know ourselves
Perhaps the most effective way to make our models of other people more realistic is to build them not from expectations of how people should (or could) be but from how people actually are. And a good first step to that end is to become a bit more honest with ourselves.
Getting to know ourselves takes time and experience that is hard to speed up or manufacture. Understanding and admitting the difference between who we would like to be (or be perceived to be) and who we are takes introspection, courage and clarity.
The best thing we learn as we get to know ourselves better is the depth and complexity of our flaws. Acknowledging these flaws and taking it easier on ourselves will almost automatically lead to cutting the people around us more slack.
Ask yourself if you’re setting expectations for others that you can’t even keep yourself. Make time for meditation and honest self reflection at the start and end of each day. Travel, find mentors, read and throw yourself into new and uncomfortable experiences as often as you can.
‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool’.
Finally, as Shakespeare reminds us, you can never have too much information on the fallibility of the brain and its cognitive biases.
Excessive self-regard, availability mis-weighing, confirmation bias, halo effect, deprival super reaction syndrome – these are just a handful of the ways in which our otherwise miraculous brain trips us up on a daily basis.
Learning about and accepting our flaws reminds us that if the world isn’t living up to expectations then the problem is more likely to be with our expectations than with the world.