When faced with puzzling behavior, we often attribute reasons to it–some of them flattering to the person and some of them critical. Research has shown that when we consider the behaviors of people in our group, tribe, or community, we will create stories that show their behavior in a positive light, and the opposite, of course, for out-groups. It is difficult to remember that motivation is complex and multi-determined. We look for unitary reasons for whatever we see and particularly reasons that match what we already think.
The stories that we create, sometimes almost instantly, color how we see the world and reinforce our own biases and assumptions. It is comforting and reassuring to be right about what we think we see, and we are reluctant to get out of that comfort zone. Even within our inner circle of closest relationships, we sometimes attribute self-serving or destructive motives to the people we interact with. This factor underlies a great deal of conflict in marriages and between parents and children.
I was speaking with a young man in the throes of getting a divorce and he said, “All of my so-called friends have disappeared.” I said, “Maybe they are scared. Maybe they are afraid if you get divorced and they spend time with you, they will also get divorced. Or maybe they are scared they will say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.” This perspective was new to this young man. He assumed his friends were false friends, and he felt like he now knew the truth about them.
His story left him isolated and bitter. My story gave him more hope and more ideas about how to manage this shift in his life. It is not so much that one or another of these stories is more true as it is that each story then leads to a different perspective in the world and a different action. We create ourselves as we go, and reality tends to conform to our expectation of it.
We do not need to deny real facts about what happens in the world, but we can recognize the difference between facts and interpretations. The facts are, his friends are reaching out to him less frequently. That is all. Probably the reasons are different for each person, and they are also probably complicated. He can feel wounded and rejected or he can feel compassion for them in their own lives. His freedom comes in how he interprets what he sees, how he decides to respond to it, and what kinds of inner subjective experience of the world he is practicing inside his own mind.