A good friend of mine was reeling after a breakup with his serious girlfriend. He confided in me that while still seeing his serious girlfriend, he had met another girl and had started dating her. He told his serious girlfriend about it and she broke up with him.
He was genuinely taken aback by his girlfriend’s reaction and couldn’t figure out why she still didn’t want to continue their relationship. He saw his behavior as honest, since he had told his first girlfriend about the second one. From his vantage point, if he liked two people, why shouldn’t he be able to be with both of them? His girlfriend didn’t stay around long enough to explain. Buh bye.
I told him that cheating was a big deal and that his girlfriend was not overreacting at all by breaking up with him. “REALLY?”, he asked, incredulously. “Really.”, I replied. He definitely had an element of cluelessness about it all. He could understand her not being happy about it, but could not understand her getting to the point of a break up. He really did expect that she would put up with the arrangement to a certain degree.
My feelings toward my friend changed after that. I just couldn’t help but think of him as a bad person. I was unable to see his positive qualities. In my mind he had gone from a nice, fun and smart guy to a big fat cheater and nothing more. Not only did he lose his serious girlfriend, but he lost our friendship as well.
I also couldn’t be bothered to help him see why his behavior was unacceptable because I knew it was his responsibility to sort out his skewed view of relationships – or perhaps join a polygamous cult.
Years have passed and I am older and wiser. At that time, I was viewing the situation from my own vantage point, not his. What I have learned since then is that he really did not understand the gravity of his behavior. Where he came from, men cheated and women put up with it. Did that make his behavior OK? Nope, not at all. But it made my reaction to my friend and the dissolution of our friendship hasty.
View the Situation From Another’s Vantage Point
How do I know this? When my friend was a little boy his father had numerous affairs. His father used to take him along on the dates. This went on for the first ten years of his life until his parents divorced.
Whoa. I hadn’t even heard of something like that. To make matters worse, he practically worshipped his father and assumed that everything he did or said must be pretty great. To make matters worse, his father died, making it even harder for him to be critical or angry with him.
It makes perfect sense why a young man in his twenties would still have a great deal of trouble understanding the influence of his father’s behavior on his own. It also made it difficult for him to truly appreciate the gravity of his actions on others, since he came from a place where those same actions were never considered shocking. His father exhibited no shame when bringing his son along on dates. My friend learned that men were not really expected to be monogamous. They should try but if they failed, their partners were supposed to be understanding about it.
It is so easy to take for granted that where I came from, cheating was never considered normal behavior. Believe me, there was a lot of dysfunction, but it just so happens cheating was never a part of it. No one ever came out and made a proclamation about it, either – it was just understood.
Self-Compassion Diminishes Judgment of Others
Years later, it is so much easier for me to be empathetic to others who are as clueless as that young man many years ago, You know why? Because I have plenty of stories about situations in which I felt like I didn’t “get the memo”. It is because I have made many mistakes that could warrant the response, “Honestly, how could she not know that?” When someone is so clueless about something obvious to us, it is easy to assume that their cluelessness is only a rouse and that they actually intended to do something hurtful.
For instance, I remember when I learned that other people knew how to handle conflicts and disagreements much better than I. I was in grade school and a group of friends and I were playing one afternoon. Somewhere along the line, one friend had her feelings hurt, she made a bit of a scene, becoming sulky and walking away from the group. I remember being surprised when another friend walked over to the sulky one, put her arms around her shoulders and asked her to tell us what was wrong, gesturing that the rest of us should follow suit.
“She’s just looking for attention!” I accused. Where I came from, someone exhibiting hurt feelings was usually assuming to be “faking it” and was characterized as manipulative and attention-seeking. It was understood that if you were manipulative, you were not going to get any attention at all. So there.
“Well, if she is looking for attention, give it to her!”, said another friend.
Huh. Well, gee, I never thought of that. Giving someone attention who wanted it. Who knew?? Watching someone else take a very compassionate approach to a sulky hurt friend was refreshing and it felt like someone had turned on a light switch for me. Oh, so this is how it is done. We actually give the person the attention they need. We don’t nitpick about the method by which they are trying to get it.
So, along with the rest of my friends, we surrounded our sulky friend and in a few minutes, she was feeling better and our play resumed. I felt a whole lot better about myself handling it in this new way.
Not only did I learn something from my comforting friend, but I learned something from my sulky friend as well. Where I came from, you never dared to show your hurt feelings because it made you open to some sort of an attack. Either you would be told that you should have known better and that you brought the hurt on yourself or your vulnerability would be used against you later on. It was nice to see my friend feeling safe enough to express her feelings – in whatever imperfect way she wanted – and to see her friends care enough to meet her needs. Wow. What a concept. People could be really nice!
I was ashamed of my initial accusation of “attention-seeking.” It struck me how heartless my reaction must have seemed.
I’m glad that the people around me weren’t as judgmental toward me as I was toward myself. I wasn’t a heartless person. I just didn’t recognize the severity of my behavior until I saw others responding in a contrasting way. The reality was, before I saw compassionate behavior being modeling in front of me, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Everybody Feels They Didn’t Get the Memo
Since then I’ve realized that everyone has this experience. We all have areas where we feel really behind and we wish we had known something so much sooner. Welcome to the human race.
My own recognition of some really basic things that I was never taught now allows me to be more understanding of others in the same position. The things that make the most impact on our sense of well-being and happiness – relationships, emotions, health and finances – are never taught in school. Instead, the behaviors of the people around us serve as our most influential source of information in these areas. If the behavior of the people around us was at the incredibly low level of my friend’s father, then we will have a lot of catching up to do.
I really do believe that deep down most people are good. Sometime, you need to dig deep to find it, but I do believe we all start off as good people. I think this view is the one that enables me to see a solution for just about any human problem. It also enables me to be a lot more empathetic and less judgmental toward others, allowing me to engage with them enough to say, “Here is a memo I’ve received that might be of help to you.”
In what area of your life do you feel like you didn’t “get the memo”?