Jamie was one of the nicest and warmest people I’d ever met. He was also one of the most dangerous people I’d ever met.
Jamie was two-time national champion in Kali. Kali is the martial art they taught Matt Damon for the Jason Bourne movies. And at this point Jamie was training for the world championships. Day in, day out, nothing else. The last thing you wanna do in a fight is think. You train until every technique is an instinctive reaction.
But after a few weeks of this, Mr. Deadly-Nice-Guy needed a break. It had been nothing but training for months, drilling his skills down into his muscle memory. So he went to a party.
Now he was having fun, and of course, everybody wants to talk to the guy who kicks butt for a living, so he ends up holding court. And everybody loves him because, hey, he’s Jamie. But that’s when things went very wrong…
One of the girls decides to flirt with him. She playfully throws a light kick toward Jamie. It was cute. But, um, that’s not how Jamie’s brain responded…
All his mind sees is this “kick” coming at him out of the corner of his eye. He’s not even consciously thinking. His body reacts the way he’s been programming it to for endless hours: KICK INCOMING — ENGAGE ATTACK MODE
Like lightning, Jamie blocks the “kick”. He drops down beneath it, seizing her foot, scoops his arm around her thigh and…
Luckily — very luckily — that’s when his conscious mind flickered to life. He freezes. His eyes go wide realizing he was about 0.3 seconds away from breaking her leg. He immediately let go. She’s terrified. Everyone at the party is terrified. Jamie is terrified. He’s looking around the room with enough shame for two: What the heck did I just do?
Nobody was hurt. Everything was fine – other than being deeply, profoundly, exponentially awkward. Jason Bourne visceral reactions are great in Jason Bourne movies. Not always so good in day-to-day life.
But then again, you and I do the same thing. Well, metaphorically we do. Psychologically, we do. Often when we deal with others, we aren’t thinking; we’re just reacting. Many of those reactions were programmed long ago. And a few of them are not at all conducive to good relationships.
Something triggers you and you get inappropriately hostile. Or you withdraw. Or you apologize and give in when you’re not even wrong. Psychologists call these “schema coping behaviors.”
Schemas are deeply held unconscious beliefs you hold about yourself and others. “If you’re not nice all the time, people will reject you” or “If you don’t immediately and vigorously show them who’s boss, people will take advantage of you” or countless others. Often, we don’t even realize they’re there.
Maybe you grew up in a house where when your parents were angry, you learned to just cave and give in. And now you do that with everyone. Or when the schoolyard bully caused trouble you had to fight back – and now any challenge turns you into a rage monster. We learned these “lessons” about how to deal with people and stumbled on “solutions” that helped at that time, in that context — but they’ve been more harm than good over the long haul.
And if we try to resist that programming, it gets very uncomfortable. It’s like trying to break any bad habit or addiction. Your brain goes crazy with thoughts, tormenting you into going through with it. It’s that same voice in your head that makes you break a diet or have another drink when you’re past your limit.
Often we know these interpersonal habits are bad, but they’re wired deep from years of “practice”, like Jamie’s training. They just come out before there’s any time to think. You feel more like a marionette than a person. Maybe you can feel it coming on and don’t want to give in, but you do… and end up so angry with yourself you want to scream for three months straight.
But there’s a way to change. Researchers have found that the very potent cocktail of Schema Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can help people deal with those interpersonal bad habits we all have. The two help you handle the discomfort of resisting those bad coping behaviors – and that awful voice in your head — so you can choose better ways to interact, and be the person you want to be.
We’re gonna get some guidance from the book Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Interpersonal Problems.
Alrighty, let’s get to it…
Start by identifying your schemas. I doubt this will be very hard. We all have ’em.
Maybe you’re prone to emotionally shutting down. Someone is critical and you respond with all the emotional tenderness of an IRS form. Or maybe you lash out. Suddenly you’re someone else and friendliness has opted to do a summer abroad this semester. And this inevitably leads to a moment later in the day when you feel regret right down to your bone marrow: Why do I always do that?
You don’t need to make a full list of your schemas just yet. You may have enough to fill a walk-in closet (and then I’m going to have to write a post dealing with depression.) Just pick the biggest one that causes you the most difficulty.
If you were a character in a Shakespeare play, what would your tragic flaw be?
And then think about what usually precedes it – what triggers it. We’re going to need that for later, Othello.
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Okay, you’ve identified your big schema coping behavior. Not so hard. But this is where we go from nice and sweet psychology discussion to the arena of Eric-I-Don’t-Like-Where-This-Is-Going.
Bear with me…
Wow, what a name. (Hey, the researchers came up with it, I didn’t.)
Schema coping behaviors all come from what’s called “experiential avoidance.” Translation: we do them to avoid emotional discomfort. When those schema beliefs are engaged (“I’m unlovable”, “They’ll reject me”, etc.) we feel very unpleasant. Like an alcoholic who needs some booze. And those coping behaviors are our favorite drink. (“Give them a piece of your mind!” or “Just apologize to the bully even though it’s not your fault.”) If we don’t engage in them, the thoughts in your head turn positively lacerating. So we obey and do the awful thing we’ve always done to quell the discomfort.
And that’s where “creative hopelessness” comes in. Accepting this fact: you can’t quell all the pain in life. Some of it is unavoidable. Want a life that is free from discomfort? Sorry, wrong planet.
A very depressing philosopher who you probably should never read is E. M. Cioran. He once said, “Only one thing matters: learning to be the loser.” Ouch. But there is a positive side to that thought. A helpful one. We get better by learning to deal with the difficult moments in life; not by avoiding them. The good times are pretty easy to deal with – it’s the tough times where we need skills.
Trying to avoid discomfort hasn’t helped. Yelling or withdrawing has just made things worse for you. The real problem isn’t the schema related discomfort; it’s your attempts to avoid it. Accepting this is a big step. We need to face the bad feelings — and do something new.
What’s the key here? Remembering that those thoughts and feelings that push you toward bad behavior are temporary. Sure doesn’t feel like it in the moment, I hear you. But they are.
Bad feelings are like bad weather. Unavoidable but temporary. And they will pass if you let them. Studies show you have over 60,000 thoughts a day. There’s always another one coming in to replace the prior one. (Don’t let anybody tell you there’s not an upside to a short attention span.)
As Russ Harris says: you’re not the weather, you’re the sky. The feelings will pass and you will remain. You can outlast them. You’ve done it countless times before in the past. The feelings will dissipate and you’ll be fine again — as long as you don’t engage in those bad behaviors and make things worse.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
However, in the meantime, when you resist those coping behaviors ,you’re going to feel pretty lousy. Like a martial arts champion, you have been practicing those responses for, oh, decades. Your gray matter thinks they must happen to set things right. And it will try every trick in the book to make you feel anxious, awful, sad and scared until you comply.
But those thoughts aren’t you. They’re just thoughts. You need to realize you’re in charge. How do we fully internalize that? Time for a dry run…
Put yourself in the situation where you normally engage in your coping behavior. Maybe it’s a discussion with your partner where you usually get hostile or passive aggressive. Or it’s those times at work where you’re asked for something unreasonable and you always fold like a lawn chair.
The key thing here is to notice. To be aware and not on autopilot. “This is where I usually lose it. This is where I do the bad thing.”
And then, sure enough, the trigger happens. The switch gets flipped. This is when you respond as you normally respond but instead, this time you need to do something different. All you have to do right now is…
Don’t do anything. Don’t do the bad thing. Don’t do a good thing. Just stop. The old dictum is “Don’t just stand there! Do something!” Strike that, reverse it: “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”
Don’t act. Observe what’s going on in your noggin. The thoughts and feelings are going to push you to do that same old bad thing. Just pause and take a breath.
No, this is not easy. Inside your skull it’s pure nuclear war. The thoughts pushing you to go to your default. The siren song of your coping behavior trying to get you to steer into the rocks. You want to yell or give in or run as fast as possible for twenty-five miles in any direction. But just do nothing.
This is a very, very special period of time: the moment of choice. You created a gap here. You can choose to do something different. You can be the author of your fate. Right now your brain is going full-Thunderdome but this spot proves you can choose to be the person you want to be.
Later in the day, take a minute to think about your values. You can’t just freeze every time going forward. People will think you’re a possum. You’re not a possum. Possums don’t read blogs. You need to fill that void with a new behavior in the future. What new behavior will replace the old? What would someone you respect do? What kind of person do you want to be?
You get to choose. So choose.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
Okay, we have proof of concept. You successfully resisted doing the bad — but now you gotta learn to react with the new, good behavior. It’s tricky. Your brain is gonna fight to do what you’ve always done.
So how do we get better at coping with the onslaught of thoughts and act on your values?
When you resist the schema, man, it can feel like you’re trapped in a loveless relationship with yourself. Whispering thoughts going through your head like some kind of telepathic backseat driver: This won’t work. I can’t do this. Others will see how screwed up I am. I’ll be rejected. Others will hurt me. I can’t do anything right.
Yeah, it can be exhausting to be you.
Your brain starts coughing the thoughts out at a relentless pace, like a demon-possessed tennis ball machine. Remember, the thoughts are not “you.” They’re just thoughts — but that’s so hard to remember in the moment. The backseat driver is saying if you don’t do the usual and lash out or shut down, your worst fears will come true. And the thoughts are really convincing because unlike anyone else you argue with, this voice can read your mind.
Anytime your brain is saying “Everybody will hate me” there’s a 1% chance that’s true and 100% chance you’re doing the right thing and resisting a schema.
Problem is, fighting and denying the thoughts doesn’t work. If you’re engaging them, you’re feeding them. So what should you do?
Psychologists call it “defusion.” Don’t engage the thoughts; observe and label them. This helps you get some distance. It reminds you they’re not you. They’re just options. You have thousands of thoughts every day and most of them flit away.
So what’s the best way to flex those defusion muscles? Reframe the thought. When your brain says, “If I don’t give in, they’ll hate me”, reframe it as “Now my mind is having the thought that ‘If I don’t give in, they’ll hate me.’” That gives you the distance you need.
Another way to get that distance is to just respond to the thought with “Thank you, Mind.” When your brain says, “Tell them to shove it”, act like a CEO being diplomatic with an annoying employee: “Noted. Thank you, Mind.”
It’ll get easier with practice. Frankly, you’ll learn to quickly get bored with the voice in your head. After all, it’s been repeating this stuff for decades. You’ll learn that the voice isn’t the great and powerful Oz — it’s just your brain behind a curtain with a megaphone.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
Okay, time to round it all up and we’ll also learn the extra benefit from this process that will improve your relationships even more…
This is how to free yourself from those bad interpersonal habits:
Here’s a quote that’s been attributed to everyone under the sun: “Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
They have their own schemas, their own bad coping behaviors. They’re struggling just like you are. You’re not the only one. So have compassion. We all have crazy brains and bad habits. It may not look like it, but human frailty is all around us. So work to make yourself better – but cut others some slack. They’re struggling too. And, unlike you, they may not know how to deal with it.
Stay mindful. Defuse. Good things happen when we turn off emotional autopilot. And even better things happen when we forgive others for their weaknesses.
You’ll find yourself getting closer to the people you care about. Your connections will be more harmonious. You’ll feel better…
And you won’t break the leg of someone who’s just flirting with you.