When People Behave Badly They are Distressed (Reading) Copy

Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient and eternal law.  The Buddha

From earlier lessons, we know that when we get emotionally reactive, we are being driven by fear.  Likewise, when our ex behaves badly we can assume that she is in a fear reaction.  When I use the word fear, it can also refer to shame.  The reason the word fear can be used to describe shame is that shame can be thought of as the fear that there is something essentially wrong with us. In fact, shame can be thought of as the deepest and most painful form of fear.

Human beings are very social and interdependent animals. As young children we can’t physically survive on our own, and as adults we can’t emotionally thrive on our own.  Deep inside we need to believe that we fit in somewhere. We know that in order to fit in we must be essentially lovable and acceptable.  If we don’t think we are, we get scared that we will be alone.  We have all known the experience of being worried that we will be rejected.   These feelings often occur on an unconscious level. The idea that we are not good enough is so painful that it gets driven into our unconscious minds. In other words, we are not aware of feeling that way, but nonetheless, that feeling is driving our behavior.

Compass of Shame

Psychologist Donald Nathanson is an “affect theorist.” (Affect is another word for emotion). He focuses a great deal of attention on shame because he believes it is so essential to our understanding of human beings, and human beings in relationship to each other.  Nathanson talks about how shame is like a “spotlight” that focuses us on our “incapacity, deficit, failure; all kinds of things about our worst possible self.”  He says that shame feels terrible; in fact it is the most difficult affect to allow ourselves to feel.  Therefore, he says, “Rather than maintain our attention on what feels awful to us, on our worst possible self, we learn from our earliest childhood a pattern of four styles of behavior, each of which reduces the likelihood that we’re going to focus on what’s wrong with us. I call this pattern of responses the Compass of Shame. We go into the Compass when we don’t look at what the spotlight is showing us.” (From an interview conducted with David Boulton in 2003 and published on “Children of the Code” website:  www.childrenofthecode.org/interviews/nathanson.html)

The four styles of behavior on the Compass of Shame are: Withdrawal, Avoidance, Attack Others and Attack Self.  We will talk about these patterns of behavior more in depth in the next chapter. But here’s a brief introduction:

  • Withdrawal refers to disconnecting and hiding ourselves from others.
  • Avoidance refers to avoiding the feeling of shame by trying to make ourselves feel good in some other way, such as excelling at a sport or career. It can also refer to addiction or use of substances or activities to distract us from how we feel.
  • Attack Others refers to how we lash out at others so as not to focus on ourselves and our fears about our inadequacies.  When we fall into Attack Others, we create disconnection from the one we are attacking. People who can’t tolerate the disconnection will fall into the Attack Self mode.
  • Attack Self involves demeaning ourselves as a way of staying in relationship with the person who triggered our shame response.

In an earlier paragraph, I highlighted the part of Nathanson’s quote that referred to how we learn these styles of behavior in our earliest childhoods. When people behave badly, they are often in a shame reaction, and are reverting back to a very old and childlike form of behavior.  They learned this defensive behavior as a child when someone was being unkind to them or shaming them.  Do you remember how you felt as a child when you were shamed? If you think of your ex as a confused and hurt child when they are behaving badly, you are likely to feel more compassion than if you are thinking of them as a mean or evil jerk who is just bad because somehow they enjoy being bad.

When people feel threatened, and fear that they are unlovable and bad, they tend to behave badly. Because these reactions occur at an unconscious level, they are not aware of the feelings of shame and fear. We can, however, bring it into consciousness for ourselves, and we can also cultivate compassion by realizing that when our ex behaves badly, they are suffering. Even if our ex does not realize this, it is helpful if we do, because it will help us feel less reactive and will also help us cultivate compassion.

Cultivate compassion

Cultivating compassion is very important. Most people in high-conflict divorced parenting situations cringe when asked to think about cultivating compassion for their ex. They believe deep down that their ex is not worthy of compassion. All humans are worthy of compassion and  it actually benefits us to find compassion for our ex, more than it benefits them.

Finding compassion benefits us in three ways:

  1. It helps our children, and of course, we are happy when we contribute to our children’s wellbeing.
  2. Compassion feels better than hatred.
  3. We are much more grounded and powerful when we have compassion.

It will help our children because if we are feeling compassion we are not going to be hateful at the same time. Our children need us not to hate the other parent. Also, when we have compassion for the other parent, we are helping our children understand the other parent better, which helps our children be more psychologically healthy.  And last, but certainly not least, we are modeling for our children how to be mature adults who are truly interested in living effective and satisfying lives. When we stay stuck in anger and resentment toward others we are unable to engage fully in our lives.  We live in small psychological boxes and miss out on so much. Is that what we want to show our children? Is that really what we want for ourselves?

Now, let’s get clear. Having compassion does not mean that we are going to lie down and give everything up or that we are going to be nice. It simply means that we feel into another person’s experience. It means that we get a sense of what it is like to be that person. If we are able to realize that when the other person behaves badly they are distressed, shamed, feeling horrible underneath it all, we are going to be much more powerful than if we are seeing them as a mean bully. Mean bullies are intimidating; hurt children, not so much. We will be more powerful because seeing who he is deep down is much more accurate than seeing what is blurting out on the surface.  We are going to understand the person much better, which will give us a better chance of effecting change.