Dear Drama Observers,
Everyone’s had an experience similar to this one…
I once worked with a guy who’d get mad at me for reasons that were unclear. I’d suddenly and without warning find myself in his “dog house” as it were. He wouldn’t voice anything directly but he’d freeze me out, giving me the silent treatment. If I asked what was wrong, he’d either deny it outright or say, “Nothing. It’s no big deal.” When I later learned the term “passive aggressive,” the image of his stoic, expressionless face would flash across the screen of my brain.
I’d finally get so tired of being trampled by the elephant in the room that I’d insist on clearing the air. Consistently, our conversations would reach stopping points without resolutions. When I later learned the term “exercise in futility,” those interactions would come to mind, too.
My coworker’s pattern was to form misperceptions, draw conclusions about the misperceptions, and have emotions about the conclusions drawn.
In short, he was forever fighting battles that didn’t exist.
Moreover, he was stubbornly unwilling to consider the possibility that that his initial perceptions might have been inaccurate, so our relational tension could never be resolved. As a matter of fact, it never was.
I’d like to elaborate on my co-worker’s three-step “battle” plan to consistently be offended:
Step 1: Forming Misperceptions
It was through these experiences that I came to appreciate the power of pre-determined assumptions. Somewhere along the way, my coworker came to assume that X, Y, and Z were true of me. Consequently, X, Y, and Z became a grid through which all new information was filtered so that everything came out on the other side of the grid looking like X, Y, and Z. Simply put, he concluded without inquiring.
I had a client once whose husband read an article about hoarding and unilaterally—and inaccurately—concluded his wife was a hoarder. If he ever found mail left on the kitchen table, for instance, he’d point to the stack as evidence supporting his case. (Please note: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.) I won’t go into all the ways we knew his charge was bogus and just plain asinine, but he had convinced himself that his wife had a sickness and “needed help.” If any of his wife’s behaviors looked, sounded, or smelled like hoarding, then hoarding it was—case closed. All new information simply reinforced his pre-determined assumptions.
And let me just say here that being misunderstood or summed up inaccurately is terribly off-putting, angering, and stress-inducing.
Step 2: Drawing Conclusions About the Misperceptions
Because of what happened in Step 1, anything I did or said only reinforced my coworker’s pre-determined assumptions. This process is referred to by social psychologists as motivated reasoning. As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, observes, motivated reasoning takes place when people “reach the conclusions they want to reach.” Colloquial expressions for this phenomenon would include, “He sees what he wants to see” or “She hears what she wants to hear.”
Another phrase capturing this notion would be confirmation bias that Haidt defines as “the tendency to seek out and interpret new evidence in ways that confirm what you already think.” David Frum recently wrote, “They regard as true that which they wish to believe.”
My coworker was convinced that he knew my actual motivations—you know, the sinister ones I just couldn’t or wouldn’t admit. He would, in effect, chisel his conclusions into concrete so that they became rigid, inflexible, and unchangeable. I knew he was wrong because I alone know what my motivations truly are. But there was no convincing him.
Which leads to the third step.
Step 3: Having Emotions About the Conclusions Drawn
My coworker stayed angry with me most of the time. But it was self-imposed anger because he was mad at me for things that didn’t exist in reality; they only existed between his two ears. His feelings would’ve been valid only if based on things that were real, but they weren’t. Consequently, his feelings led him astray.
This brings up another social psychological phenomenon Haidt discusses: emotional reasoning. He states, “The reasoning process is more like a lawyer defending a client than a judge or scientist seeking truth.” For all practical purposes, he believed the things he did about me because he “felt” like they were true. Our resolution discussions always ended in a stalemate because we were arguing on two separate planes. I was trying to make the case for what was real while he determined what was real by how he felt. Like trying to chisel through a stainless-steel wall with a plastic spoon, every attempt I made to clear things up accomplished nothing.
We’re all guilty at times of things like motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and emotional reasoning. Indeed, that seems to be part of the crooked timber of our humanity. But the difference between a normally wired person and a drama person in this regard is… wait for it… HUMILITY.
The normally wired, humble person’s stance is: “I could be wrong; you could be right; let’s talk.”
The humility-deficient Drama Person’s stance is: “I’m right; you’re wrong; end of discussion.”
My coworker and I were young back then and I suspect he’s since exercised his previously atrophied humility muscle. In fact, I’m sure of it. And I was bedeviled with some flabby muscles of my own which I’ve tried to exercise when their weakness has become apparent.
But Drama People never go the gym.