Don't re-write history in a single moment

There is another skill we need to develop in order to avoid unfairly assassinating someone’s character: giving people credit for who they’ve proven to be over time.

Why are we so tempted to re-evaluate everything we think we know about a person in the moments when they hurt us?

People are going to hurt us, and that doesn’t mean that they are actually NOT kind, that they do NOT care, or that we’ve misunderstood them. (Understand, I’m not talking about abusive relationships here). It just means that relationships are difficult.

Here’s what we need to learn: don’t give negative experiences with a person more weight than positive ones. At least, don’t let one negative experience wipe out ten positive ones. Give people credit for their history.

How do we do this?

Talk. Have a conversation. When someone has a history of treating you well followed by a really bad experience, talk to them. Wait until you’ve processed it with some trusted people, wait until you’ve calmed down a bit, and then approach the conversation with a sense of humility. “Hey, ___ happened, and I’m hurt. Would you mind sharing your perspective with me on this?”

Having a conversation can go a long ways towards overcoming relational problems. It provides clarity on the events, which may resolve the conflict in an of itself, and it grounds us. It prevents us from too hasty in our judgments of others. That’s really our main goal: learning not to be too hasty in judging others.

One Action Cannot Destroy a Reputation

If one action cannot destroy a person’s reputation, as we suggested yesterday, then we must learn a few skills. One, as we said before, we must learn our own triggers. Two, we must become disciplined at evaluating who people prove themselves to be over time.

As for number one- we will not be able to avoid being triggered. We will always have triggers in life, and they may change over time, but there is no way to completely avoid them. What we can do, is learn how to pay attention to them and, when we learn what to pay attention to, we can, over time, learn different kinds of responses to them.

The way to know when you’re triggered is to use the gift of hindsight to evaluate when your emotional response to a situation was entirely too strong. This is going to require some serious honesty, self-reflection, and non-defensiveness. Once you’ve learned that you were triggered, you need to then spend time figuring out what exactly caused the overly-heightened emotional reaction.

In the example of Tim and James from a few days back, the trigger was actually a broken promise, not a “lie.” The broken promise led to the accusation “liar” because of Tim’s sensitivity to broken promises. It would then be his work to figure out why he’s sensitive to broken promises and, more importantly, to make a mental note of the fact that he’s sensitive to that. It would also be important, going forward, for Tim to make mental notes about the times in which people promise him things and to practice thinking through what might happen if they break that promise. This way he can be prepared for his trigger which may help him respond differently.

Using History to "Judge" Someone's Character

For the past few days, we’ve been exploring a case-study about character assassinating, get caught up before reading today’s post.

Too often we will character assassinate a person because we’re feeling hurt as a result of our pasts, and not a result of our past history with that specific person.

Our goal, our ideal, is to treat a person in accordance with who they have proven to be over the course of time. One moment, one action, does not make a person. It does not define their character and it does not describe the totality of who they are.

And yet, how often will one action, one moment, one situation, cause us to doubt everything? He (or she, or whatever) isn’t who I thought he was, we might say.

So let’s just start here, because this may just be a new idea. One action alone cannot erase a person’s entire history. If a person has proven to be reliable, trustworthy, dependable, honest, upstanding, generous, and kind, and they have one bad moment where they act mean and nasty, this doesn’t mean they were secretly mean and nasty that whole time. It means they had a bad moment.

Everyone has bad moments. We all lose our heads from time to time. The fact that someone’s head flies off does not mean that their character is substantially different from what you thought. It’s much more likely to mean they’re tired, stressed, or distracted. Perhaps they are grieving silently.

Who knows? That’s the point. Who knows?

Congruent Character

For the past few days, we’ve been exploring a case-study about character assassinating, get caught up before reading today’s post.

When Tim reacts angrily towards James, and calls him a liar, Tim is drawing on his own past harm. This means he is not considering the history of his relationship with James, neither is he considering what he knows to be historically true about James. James has neither a history of breaking promises nor a history of lying (though, granted, we can assume that he has broken promises before and lied before, but they are by no means defining attributes).

What Tim has done makes perfect sense, and it does not need to be judged. We all react out of our past harms from time to time on instinct alone, without stopping to consider the relationship. But, it must still be said, this is a big problem, and it’s one many of us have. Let me be clear. The problem is this: Too often we will call a person a liar, or say they always do ___, or never do ____, or call them selfish, or uncaring, or aggressive, or passive, or whatever, because we’re feeling hurt as a result of our pasts, and not a result of our past history with that specific person. (This is not exclusively the case, but it is the case for many people in many relationships).

In fact, this is the source of a lot of ongoing, unresolved conflict for many of us. Circumstances often tempt us, or conspire against us, to consider other people’s actions in light of our pasts, rather than the other person’s past, or our past history with that person. If Tim were considering James’ past alone, he would never have called James a liar, because James has not demonstrated that is character is congruent with the label “liar.” Now, it’s obviously not possible to only treat people on their own terms. We’re always going to bring our pasts into things. But, how can we do so in a way that is a little more fair to those around us?

Stay tuned.

A Triggered Reaction

Yesterday we started a character assassination “case study.” In the example, a made up person named Tim called another made up person named James a liar because he did not follow through on a promise.

Now, if Tim has a history of being on the wrong end of broken promises, we can understand why he might accuse James of being a liar. This has been a pattern elsewhere in his life that has caused great pain, and this similarity has led to a heightened emotional state that does not match what this particular situation demands.

That is what we call a “trigger.” (We talk about triggers too much these days, and we are calling too many things “triggers” that are actually just “bummers,” but stick with me nonetheless). When something happens to us that reminds us of something negative from our pasts that causes us to have a reaction that is too strong given the details of the specific situation we are in, we are “triggered.”

It is important to be aware of these. Why? Because when we are not aware of them, we run the risk of acting out of our heightened emotional state that does not match the situation we are in. We run the risk of causing unnecessary harm.

The first step in unnecessarily assassinating someone’s character is being triggered without awareness of our triggers.

An example of a character assassination

For the next few days, we’re talking about unfair character assassination. Yes, I know, there are times when people do not have great character. We’re not going to talk about that over the next few days. We may spend some time at the end, depending on how things go, but that is not our focus.

We’re going to start with an example. Let’s say someone is caught in a lie (we’ll call this person James) in an “in community” type of relationship, and the person who caught them calls them a liaras a result (we’ll call this person Tim).

Now, we have to start by asking the question, what is a lie? The word “lie” can mean or imply many different things depending on the context in which it is used.

Let’s say James said he was going to do something and then legitimately forgot to do it. Let’s say James has no real pattern of this behavior. Maybe he’s done it a few times over the course of a few years. It’s happened before, but it’s happened at the same rate that it might happen to anyone. It is hardly a defining attribute.

Let’s also say, since I’m making up this example, Tim is particularly sensitive to broken promises because of his own history. He’s more likely to assume ill-intent than most as a result.

Would you consider what James did a lie? Why or why not? How would you approach a conversation with him?

Is it fair for Tim to call James a liar? Why or why not? How would you approach a conversation with him?

The Character Assassination Station

What determines a person’s character? Have you ever thought about that?

It’s not uncommon for people to use the word “always” in the midst of conflict. You always do ___. Or, let’s say a person is caught in a lie, we may call that person a liar. These are judgments about character. So, what determine’s a person’s character?

To be clear, I’m not talking about your character, I’m talking about our perception of someone else’s character. How do we determine the nature of another person’s character? And, once we’ve done that, are we able to treat them as if that is their character?

This is what we’re going to be talking about over the next few days. So often, when we’re in conflict, we resort to character judgments that may not necessarily reflect the character a person has proven to have over the history of a given relationship. When someone does something we don’t like, it’s easiest, and most temporarily satisfying, to character assassinate. What might it look like to rise above that?

Denial is Not a Defect of Character

In Abraham Twerski’s book Addictive Thinking, he talks about denial and self-deception, both of which feel to me like sleepwalking. I cannot count the times in my life when I have fought knowing the truth of something only to have some event shock me into awareness. Once I am forced to face the truth I am amazed at how long I was able to pretend.

Twerski writes, “I cannot stress enough the importance of realizing that addicts are taken in by their own distorted thinking and that they are its victims. If we fail to understand this, we may feel frustrated or angry in dealing with the addict.”

Denial is a wall of limitation but it is NOT a defect of character or a shortcoming.

When someone says to me, “You are in DENIAL sister.” I hear that as a shaming condemnation.

“Maybe I am in denial, but why do you have to sound so smug?” I think. In active using and in recovery, I find some people hard to take advice from. This was especially true for me early in recovery. However, their callousness does not negate my situation. It did, however, distract me at times from paying attention to my real condition.

If I am active in my substance use, denial is a factor in my decision-making. But there is no need to shame me about that situation. Denial is a function of a hijacked brain, not a representation of my character. Sincere people often stumble as they try to help those they love. Later in the process of recovery, we will explore ways to deal with our feelings about the way others treat us. But try not to let other people’s clumsiness distract us from the seriousness of our situation.

Denial is dangerous. It keeps us from naming our problem/s, which guarantees that we are not free to find a solution. How do we get out from under this burden of self-deception?

We start acknowledging what we can. When you are asked to acknowledge things like powerlessness, unmanageability and name your Substance Use Disorder(s), please try not to judge yourself too harshly if your list is not satisfying to others. There is stuff about you that you cannot see.

BUT. And here is where it gets really, really hard: try to not immediately reject other people’s feedback, even if their delivery is awkward or even rude. If in fact you have a Substance Use Disorder, there may be people who have rejected you. Please try to give the people who have stayed a break. This is hard; no doubt they have their own issues, secrets and compulsions. Just do your best to consider what others are saying - especially if what you are hearing feels pretty repetitive!

More Success(ful) Questions

I don't think we spend enough time asking ourselves questions.  So often we're out of balance simply because we haven't taken the time to deeply reflect.  Use these questions today as a guide in re-thinking success and the role it has played in your life.

 

Do you live as if you value what you say you value?  Do you prioritize it?

 

Consider character.

 

Do you consider the development of character a success?  When you react to a difficult situation with grace when you've had a lifetime of reacting, well, poorly, do you think of that as success?

 

When you have something difficult to discuss with a close friend or family member and you pause to prepare, plan your speech, and speak your truth calmly and clearly, do you consider yourself a success?

 

You should.

 

Imitation of Christ

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
 
Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV

We could just as easily title this day, “Character Part III.”  

The idea here is that our spirituality, our participation in God’s spirit, doesn’t happen just so we feel good, or calm, or peaceful (though those things are good), but so that we become people who embody God’s values, such as humility and obedience to God’s way of seeing.  The idea here is that participating in God’s spirit creates within us the capacity to give up on the rat race of striving for power and, instead, being willing to be people who find meaning in a life defined by service.  

Service looks many different ways (though it does not look like codependency, for instance) but it seems to take place where presence meets humility.  When presence and humility meet, we are free to simply be available for a difficult conversation, or show up to a meeting when you know you won’t benefit from either.  You may not benefit, but presence plus humility gives us vision to see that other people benefit from learning that showing up to meetings is meaningful and impactful.  When presence meets humility we are prepared to do things that we don’t need to do (for our own benefit), or things that may actually be beneath us, so that someone else may benefit.  

I don’t want to sound too legalistic.  This humility plus presence stuff is about a mentality, not a certain set of right actions.  Situation and context always inform our actions.  This is about learning to become people who desire to live in ways that benefit others, and then learn to act on that desire.  

Character Part II: Character in Community

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  
Galatians 5:22-26, NRSV

From yesterday: If we aren’t paying attention to our character then we may have meaningful spirituality.  

It’s important to note, though, that character is also communal and not simply individual.  When Paul writes about character he is telling groups of people who they need to bind together to be.  And, our character is not something we’re solely responsible for creating.  It is a gift that comes to us as a consequence of life in the spirit which is, in part, shaped by our spiritual disciplines.  

I hope what’s becoming clear is that a well-rounded spiritual life is like a kaleidoscope.  There are multiple parts that come together to create a whole, but it’s not totally clear where the beginning of the image is.  It’s not totally clear which piece does what.  Spirituality is the product of drawing on a number of different thoughts, practices, and ideals and trusting that God weaves them together into a meaningful whole as he shapes us, as people, into a group that embodies His character and will.

Character: Part I

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  
Galatians 5:22-26, NRSV

Spirituality is life in God’s spirit.  Whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit he is casting vision for Christian spirituality.  Additionally, whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit,  he discusses character.  Almost without fail.  He writes very little about prayer (although I haven’t done a formal analysis of this- I’m sure someone has).  Interesting stuff.  

So, we can’t talk about spirituality without talking about character.  In the days on humility before God and the communal mindset, we wrote that spirituality asks us to consider who we are to others or, in other words, our character.  Spirituality and character are not separate entities.  I probably haven’t been clear enough on this before, so I’m going to be bolder than I’m normally comfortable being:  One does not shape the other, one does not inform the other.  They are inherently intertwined and cannot be separated out and studied separately.    If we aren’t paying attention to our character then we must question whether or not we are pursuing any meaningful spirituality in our lives.