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10 Steps to Overcome Social Anxiety

The Positive Approach - Lesson 21


Why People Behave As They Do

By Peter Shepherd

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In this lesson I'm going to describe the way the mind works, so as to understand why people behave the way they do. If we understand that, then we can look at our own motives and start to see where we are coming from.

Actions felt to be wrong and the need to withhold knowledge of them from others, is the source of both guilt and hostility. If one has been unable to resolve a problem satisfactorily one may feel 'forced' to commit an action one feels badly about. We can become quite disturbed if we feel we have done something cruel or unfair to another, particularly if this is something we then have to hide, and even more so if someone nearly finds out about it. We are then likely to rationalize our action, to justify it and find reasons why the act was deserved and indeed not wrong after all.

We are being judgmental of ourselves (rather than learning the lessons of our experience) and then we project that, anticipating that others will be equally judgmental.

A satisfying relationship with another person requires good communication, mutual understanding and empathy. If there is a significant drop in one of these factors, e.g. we disagree and have an argument, then an upset ensues - we aren't speaking to one another anymore. An upset occurs when there is a sudden departure from what is wanted or expected - an unwanted change or break in the relationship. Such upsets inevitably have emotional consequences; a poorer relationship causes a drop in emotional tone. People can equally have upsets with objects or situations if there is a reduction of control or understanding, e.g. I can get upset if my car breaks down or if I suddenly get ill.

Your feeling of control over situations may be disturbed if someone evaluates the circumstances differently from you, and particularly if they enforce their understanding upon you, saying what you should or must do or not do. A criticism of what you have done or of your capability, may equally cause disturbance.

Accompanying these factors are the decisions that have been made in the face of stressful situations and anxiety, and that have become fixed ideas and serve as defense mechanisms, to keep you safe from the same situations possibly occurring again. It is emotional pain, or the threat of such pain, which holds such distorted ideas in place, even when they are no longer rational. It is at times of upset or disturbance that we particularly grasp hold of certain ideas and beliefs in order to protect ourselves, to justify our actions (even if we secretly feel bad about them), and to make ourselves feel OK. We may feel the need to make another wrong - to manipulate, or give our own evaluations and criticisms of the other person - in order to feel more right ourselves.

When a person does something he feels to be wrong, he can either take responsibility or - and this is the norm unfortunately - he can make himself right in the situation, rationalize to justify his action so that he begins to believe it wasn't actually wrong but justified. Self right, the other wrong. It's a human need 'to be right' but not a very aware one (the aware view is not to make right or wrong, yourself or another). This justification provides a motive for the action and is expressed most commonly as criticism of the one who was originally wronged. It is a 'child-like' viewpoint as opposed to a responsible 'adult' one.

Any person is of the opinion that he is 'right' in what he believes - otherwise he wouldn't believe it. But he can have all sort of misconceptions, misinterpretations, false information and delusions, and be holding fast onto them in order to be right. The fundamental elements of his belief system, the things that have made sense of past confusions for him, are not changeable by reasoning alone because they are held in place by force - by an unwillingness or inability to face up to certain things.

All defense mechanisms are forms of lying. They misrepresent the truth, both to ourselves and others. Gurdjieff was insistent that most people lie, most of the time. That they do not know they are lying makes their situation even worse. When you know you are deliberately lying, your perception of reality is probably adequate. When you identify with the lying and experience the lie as truth, then you deceive yourself and your perception has become very distorted.

Frequently, we pretend to know a truth that we cannot know. People adopt the habit of speaking about things they cannot know, as though they know all about them, e.g. of what other people's motivations and feelings are - whereas in fact, much is imaginary. Man starts to imagine something in order to please himself, and very soon he begins to believe what he imagines, or at least some of it.

Sometimes we lie to avoid our more essential and higher natures. We may tell ourselves and others, 'Everybody does it, it doesn't mean anything', when something in us knows quite well we have not lived up to our true nature: the integrity of our loving, causative and responsible self.

Four manifestations demonstrate to man his basic mechanicalness, when they are reactively engaged in: lying, delusion, negative emotions and compulsive talking. They happen so quickly, so habitually and so imperceptibly, that one cannot notice them, and one does not want to notice them because they are defense mechanisms.

Suppression, invalidation and not acknowledging are self-lies, used to submerge the truth, to keep it subconscious, to maintain the status quo, to avoid confronting reality or one's true feelings. They are defense mechanisms, used unconsciously, habitually, automatically - attached to anything we don't want to emerge, to look at or know about: the unacceptable. They may be feelings that are opposed or held down by our most strongly held mental convictions. If a feeling or desire is triggered that is too uncomfortable, then we distance ourselves from it, we disown it - 'It wasn't me, it wasn't mine' - we identify with some other aspect of ourselves, a sub-personality that daren't have such feelings or desires. In this way we become distanced from our true feelings and motivations, laying the basis for future depression.

Projection is another defense - when an unacceptable feeling or desire comes up, it is labeled 'this is what someone else feels, needs or wants', such as the person over there. It's disowned and passed to the other person, unknowingly, due to reactive, subconscious suggestions from the past, which make the feeling unacceptable for oneself.

Rationalization is substituting a plausible and acceptable rationale for the unacceptable feeling. With this protective device, a lie is covered up with a reason. The mind rationalizes away failures, finds excuses why you should not do something. We lie to ourselves, and we have the audacity to believe it!

Rationalization frequently occurs when an action is felt to be wrong, either because it is not considered acceptable by others, or because we ourself would not like to experience the effect that we caused. We cover up our feeling by intellect: we justify our action by finding a motive. Then our behavior becomes the other's fault and instead of feeling affinity, we are now in opposition and may therefore withdraw. After this break in relations the motive may then be used to make ourself right and the other wrong, and this 'computation' may become fixed in our mind as a way of handling people and the world - a defense mechanism used unconsciously (without inspection of the new reality) to aid survival.

In effect the lower state of being that is withdrawn to, then becomes a safe solution - a way of continuing toward our original goals and survival, without having to face opposition previously encountered.

Adopting another identity, viewpoint, idealization or fixed idea for its survival value, its ability to make you right or OK and another wrong or not OK, are such safe solutions. They are a view of things that was at one time in the past, felt to be of service in survival. When the solution is used reactively, without inspection in the present time, it is unlikely to be based on the truth of a current situation, or to be fair or rational behavior, and this is extremely prevalent in all our transactions and thinking.

At any time your attention may become fixed on one of these factors: a disagreement or unacceptable reality, involving breakdowns in communication, understanding or empathy in your relationship with another; on a current problem and 'ways to get around it'; on something you have done about which you feel shame or guilt and that you are afraid may be found out; on an evaluation someone is making affecting your free choice; on an invalidation you are receiving that affects you.

These are factors that cause compulsions and inhibitions, which prevent you from being stably in the present, living consciously. Life is serious, solid, heavy. Thinking is "them and us", based on compulsive rightness of identity - safe solutions to irresolvable problems. Games are stuck and unknowing. One is unhappy and at effect, at least in the area of one's true goals. One is stuck in fixed identities and failed purposes - one no longer knows who one is. And all of this is 'normal' for most of us.

The only way that I know of to resolve this impasse is through examining the reality of our existence with ruthless honesty. Done with integrity, this can help one to see, bit by bit, the truths underlying our mental distortions. One may gain understanding, and the ability to live consciously, to be one's true self, in those areas where one had shut off one's vision.

By increasing understanding one is increasing awareness of truth, and then in life one needs to actually face that reality with equanimity and take responsibility. Without actually putting our insight into action, it soon tends to be forgotten and the body-mind programming (the habit patterns of many years) take over again. Without such integrity of application, even extensive work on ourselves can become a charade.

However, it certainly is possible to regain causation in life. One is motivated again because one has recovered one's true identity and is aware of one's own goals. What were previously heavy and serious problems are now games to enjoy. One is truly happy with renewed purposes in life. Others are not enemies but either team mates or competition, who make the game more interesting and from whom one can learn - from what they do right and what they do wrong. Without fixed ways of being right, one too can learn both from things that go right and from one's mistakes. Life, love and truth become one's operating basis.

The way I see it, all experience is for learning, and when you've learned the lesson that experience offers then you can move on. Provided you have learned the lesson, and not got serious/solid/heavy about it and justified your ego - otherwise it haunts you till you have really learned the lesson (that is karma). Your actions remain to haunt you until you have learned their lesson.

One way to look at your situation is that "life is a game" and if you can see it like that, then problems disappear - you're left with challenges to meet, but not with the seriousness that causes stress and worry - you feel causative rather than at the effect of things. The stupidities of this world don't go away but one can see them in a different light. And you are more powerful and effective to act.

I realize how frustrating it sometimes is when you are aware of the discrepancy of what you can be and what you are being (many people of course are not aware of that or hide it from themselves). The answer for me, and the most workable answer that I am aware of, is to work on becoming more conscious in each moment of your day, to notice and revise your belief structures that cause this discrepancy. Your map of the world. It's not easy but it is a game in itself and therefore can be immensely rewarding. In particular, notice when you enforce your own rightness or make another wrong, as this kind of egotistic thinking is a flag for the deeper identity issues of your belief structure.

You may need help. Perhaps you are familiar with the Buddhist saying, "When the student is ready the teacher will appear." Nothing happens when you are exposed to some knowledge before you are ready for it. Your awareness level is not sufficient for you to understand the message. But once you are ready, the learning is easy. It is like a door opens. Before, when the door was closed and locked no amount of yelling, knocking or pounding on the door would open it. But once you have the key, it takes little effort to open the door. Actually, you do have the key - it is your inner sense of integrity. Your honesty. Your love.

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