Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy
How well do you know yourself? What motivates you to do the things you do?  Do you think you influence the actions of others and believe they play a role in shaping your responses to them?

We all think we know ourselves, and it is true that we are ultimately in complete charge of our lives, decisions and actions. But it is also true that as part of our social interactions we are generally evaluating the meaning of other people’s actions and intentions toward ourselves or others. We make these assessments based on beliefs and assumptions that arise from our accumulated life experiences. These expectations about how (and why) other people do things play a large role in determining how we will be likely to understand people’s actions and communications in the present, and guide our responses to them.

Children are very vulnerable to taking in information from people around them. The messages kids hear frequently from important people in their lives contribute strongly to the self images and understandings they are in process of forming. For example, kids who are often reminded that they are sloppy or lazy may begin internalizing that information as who they are (rather than certain actions they are doing) and be more likely to behave in ways that that continue to reinforce those traits. Children who often get messages that their feelings and thoughts are valid and important will tend to become comfortable expressing themselves and working toward positive solutions in life. In other words, at this point in their lives, kids are very influenced by the messages from others.

As adults our personalities are pretty well-formed. But we continue to assess most situations through rarely examined beliefs about ourselves and others that were established in our formative years. At any moment in time, we could theoretically notice, evaluate and react to an infinite number of things in our environment. Yet we are selective about which aspects grab our attention, and our pre-formed expectations shape our responses. One person’s reaction to a situation will seem normal to him or her, while it might make quite different sense to another.

We respond to most people routinely, based on expectations (and therefore assumptions) that took shape over time depending on how we felt in earlier relationships. Bear in mind others are also responding to us based on their own accumulated beliefs and expectations as well. So we are continually engaged in ongoing interactions with others in which we—and the people we are with– draw upon habits of thinking, feeling and responding that are often so entrenched in our personal understandings that we simply don’t question them. But these assumptions carry an underlying pressure that plays a role in shaping our interactions with each other.

For instance, when a supervisor frequently comments on positive factors in an employee’s performance, that employee may develop an even more effective way of working. The supervisor still addresses errors, but if s/he responds more consistently to work and behavior that meets expectations there may well be an improved work performance and attitude in this employee.

But the reverse also occurs. If an employee harbors long-standing resentment toward people in authority, a chronically negative tone of voice or facial expression might encourage an otherwise approving supervisor eventually to be less aware of the employee’s good work performance, than to a discomfort in being around him or her. This could ultimately lead to negative interactions between them that, ironically, would serve to confirm the employee’s resentful beliefs even more.

When a spouse notices and comments on a partner’s late arrivals home at night, but rarely says a word if the partner arrives early or on time, there is a strong possibility the partner will find it increasingly easier to simply keep coming home late. When one says thank you or even just smiles at another to acknowledge appreciated actions, it is equally likely that those things will be repeated. With the significant people in our lives, we will all usually do more of what is noticed and responded to. This is true whether the responses are negative or positive.

We often respond to things according to expectations we formed about ourselves and others in our earliest relationships. Thus, an adult who felt lonely as a child might become anxious when a person they care about spends some time alone. This often leads to complaining about the distancing, which unfortunately can lead to the other distancing him or herself more (possibly because frequent complaints arising from the feelings of abandonment of the first person are perceived as nagging). Someone who felt very secure in childhood might not have such an anxious expectation, and not have interpreted the independent activities of the other as a problem. In either case the friend or partner may have originally been doing things alone with no intent of wanting to avoid the other. It was an automatic interpretation of the behavior, based on earlier (now unquestioned) conclusions about why people do the things they do, that led to the first person’s anxious reaction. Ideas we formulate about the meaning of other people’s communications and behaviors toward us in earliest relationships frequently lead to automatic and reactive patterns of immediate, rarely challenged, interpretations of a friend or partner’s actions. It is not uncommon for one friend or partner to simply assume they know the reasons for the other’s behavior without checking out their beliefs with the other. Sadly, this can trigger a long series of inaccurate reactions back and forth, eventually leading to entrenched habits of mutual responses that paradoxically sustain misunderstandings.
Usually, people have no idea that their own reactions inadvertently contribute to the very actions from colleagues, friends and partners that they would most like to avoid. They are surprised when they first begin to examine their contacts with others to see how their own personal anxiety or conflicts (often not consciously understood) play a role in fostering or maintaining what they fear or dislike.

Fortunately, one can learn to stand back from immediately reacting to others, and explore with more adult maturity and communication skills the actual present day meaning of other people’s actions. When something arises that troubles us, we can discuss what we and they are thinking and feeling—something we usually were unable to do as children.

We do not have to draw solely on our own interpretations of what happens between ourselves and others to make sense of it all. This leads to improved mutual understandings with our friends, colleagues and partners that do not rely on previously formed expectations and assumptions to guide and direct them. We pay attention to the actual messages from the people in our present rather than allow ourselves to be directed unawares by those who peopled our past.

If you recognize yourself in this sort of automatic reacting to the behavior of others as though you know exactly what it means, sometimes it can help simply to make efforts to stop and think about it before you react. If you discover you have trouble doing this, perhaps therapy could help you find new ways to more thoughtfully respond to people, to further improved communication and relationships.

Kathi Whitten Copyright 2007