Sandy unlocked and opened the driver's side door, pushed the button to unlock the passenger door for Ed, and they both hopped into the car. They buckled up silently, while Sandy started the engine, put the car in gear, and moved out of the parking space toward the parking lot exit. Sandy felt it was best to wait for Ed to speak.
Finally, Ed did. "Well, at least it's over."
Sandy tried to be both supportive and honest. It was difficult: "Yes, it is over."
More silence. At a stoplight, Ed added, "If Alton hadn't made me so nervous, I could have explained the problem more clearly."
Ed's model of what went wrong is that Alton's actions made him nervous, and that caused his failure to perform. Perhaps. But we hear these explanations more often than they actually apply. Here are some other similar explanations:
- My boss is driving me nuts
- You made me so mad
- She destroyed my self-esteem
- I couldn't get a word in edgewise
- He left me no choice
In most cases,
are invalidIn most cases, these explanations are invalid. Let's suppose that Ed believes that his boss is driving him nuts. Unless his boss has him incarcerated or physically restrained, it's an unlikely scenario. To actually drive someone nuts requires great skill and significant time and resources.
It's more likely that his boss is doing some things that are pretty abusive, and that Ed is using those things to drive himself nuts. If that's what's happening, all Ed has to do to keep from going nuts is to stop doing that.
When we tell ourselves that someone else is doing it, we're telling our brains to look in the wrong place for the cause. That way, we can do what we want to ourselves without getting caught at it.
In a strange way, believing that other people have direct control over us is very liberating. It frees us to harm ourselves without feeling guilty or stupid about doing it. So for instance, if my boss is saying horrible things about me in front of others, I can use that to destroy my own self-esteem, and gain an excuse to eat cheeseburgers with fries, which is what I really wanted to do. Then I can blame my boss for making me sick and fat. The reality is much simpler: I ate the cheeseburgers myself. And the fries.
And there's another neat trick — we not only relieve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions, but we also "escape" responsibility for dealing with the consequences.
I have a small metal mirror on my desk. It's a memento with other meanings, but it also reminds me that when I want to shift responsibility to others, I ought to check my own choices first. If you get something similar for yourself, please don't think I made you do it. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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