How do you expand your worldview? How do you get over deep seated issues? How do you go from a negative attitude to a positive one? I don’t know which one of these questions I should ask as the thesis for this article. I know there is a question that needs to be asked and a topic to be explored. Perhaps It’s best if I start from the beginning. I was at a social gathering at a friend’s house. This friend of mine had a sixty something family member visiting. Let’s call him Rob. Rob was a good old country boy who worked manual labor his whole life. I don’t know what level of education he had but I’d be surprised if it was anything beyond high school. He didn’t do well working for others so he wound up going into business for himself. Since he had common sense and a good work ethic he did well enough for a middle class lifestyle. Unfortunately, he liked his cheap beer on the weekends a little too much. He had some deep seated issues, and they came out when he had too much of his beer at that party. Watching the chaos of a drunk angry Rob on a rampage made me start to think about these bigger questions.
I have to start this off in that I have no formal training in psychology. Like most educated professionals with a degree or two, I have taken a few psych classes in college. More importantly I think, I have had friends with extensive formal training in psychology and we’ve spent a ton of time discussing the motivations behind the actions and emotions of people. I feel knowledgeable enough to at least have a semi-informed opinion, especially when what was going on seemed so obvious.
So let me set the stage. It was a gathering that was mostly outdoors. The night air was chilly so the group huddled around the fire pit and its dancing flames. Everyone in attendance was educated and experienced in the professional world except Rob. Consequently the conversation bounced around topics including college experiences, international travel and trends in modern corporate realities. All topics that Rob had very minimal experience with. After a bit of time Rob claimed he was tired and cold and he went inside.
My friend sent me a text a little after that. It read “Don’t let anyone come inside, it’s caustic in here.”
When I got close to the house I heard the fight. He was belligerent in maintaining the almost comically ridiculous position that everyone was excluding him on purpose and that my friend wasn’t doing enough to include him in the conversation. As an example, he vented about “that chatty girl who wouldn’t let him get a word in edgewise.” My opinion was that the girl was just being a chatty party goer. He continued to vent about everyone talking about topics he didn’t know anything about. He told my friend over and over that “he wouldn’t ever treat anyone the way he was treated.” The conversation was so over the top that if he wasn’t so genuinely angry it would have been comical. It got heated very fast. I found out later it got to the point where my friend was afraid for her family. Thankfully everyone went to their rooms and Rob slept it off. It’s hard for me to describe how bad the conversation was and how intense the tension was. If you have ever seen a screaming match in a public environment, or had that feeling where all you wanted to do was get away from a situation but couldn’t, I guess it was like that.
So why was he angry or defensive? A big part of it was deep seated insecurity. You can overcome insecurity with well developed social skills. I think the key word there is ‘skills’ as in it’s something that can be learned. Unfortunately, Rob had very limited formal education. He never learned how to learn beyond the basics. He could teach himself how to fix an engine, but he didn’t have the experience or skill set to understand how to approach complex topics that were alien to his life experience.
Not only were his learning skills limited, I don’t think he’s ever been in a situation that forced him to expand his understanding of people through forced interactions. I have an example of what I mean by that. I’ve been socially awkward my entire life but I was in sales for many years. Often the topic at sales meetings about how to read and react to people would come up. I would, ever so slowly, understand, and then adopt those techniques on how to engage people. These are the very same techniques I use today with friends and in the classroom. This taught me that knowing how to engage people is definitely a transferable skill.
It’s not just the actual techniques, it’s also understanding the alternate perspectives. If I only had developed the skills from what I learned in my sales days I’d be mostly placating people, or worse, manipulating them. My years in a government services program and my social time with my aforementioned friend allowed me to better relate to people’s existences. I understood their feelings and challenges better even though I have not shared their life experiences. I couldn’t do it completely, but I was more open to seeing the world from their point of view.
Going back to my friend’s family member, I think because of the lack of skills related to learning, the world became a very insular place. His reality was the only reality. Any topics or behaviors not aligned to that reality was rude and insulting to him. He was the personification of what is currently going on with mass media. Unfortunately for Rob, this ignorance wasn’t about politics or religion or some other topic we have somewhat learned to dance around. It was about basic human interactions in a social gathering.
Education is logarithmic. If you understand something in one area, often that understanding can be applied to other areas. I’ll use another example related to Rob. Although he was around when the personal computer became a thing in the 80’s and 90’s he never learned how to use one. Consequently he never felt comfortable around them and would have his wife do the books for the business as that task required a computer. Fast forward 30 years to when the telecom industry migrated to smartphones. He was forced to own one to simply make a phone call but you could see his frustration every time he had to interact with a cell phone company or use the device in a new way.
I’ve never known someone who has used PC’s for work have any issues with a cell phone. It’s easy to extend one’s understanding of Windows programs to the world of apps. Once you understand how one app works, you typically can easily figure out all the others on your cell phone. Every single time Rob had to open an app for any reason, you would hear the frustration in his voice. This frustration extended to the hardware. He just accepted what the cell phone company sent him, even if it wasn’t the right phone. The idea of understanding the basic technical specs of a phone was so uncomfortable to him that he abdicated that responsibility to the telecom provider. As I think most people know, letting a telecom company rep make the decisions for you is usually a disaster waiting to happen.
Upon reflection the signs were there that this type of conflict could happen. I just didn’t see them until now. Rob’s world was very small. He has an anemic circle of friends even considering his advancing years. His spouse also has very few friends and does not put him to task for his bad behavior. In fact she makes excuses for it and sometimes even enables it.
I’ve seen this type of purposeful ignorance and technology anxiety before. Unfortunately this was when I was too young to really understand the underlying issues or develop appropriate coping skills. When I went away to college one of the biggest frustrations would be to get a phone call from my mother. She would call me every time the power would go out, which was a common occurrence in South Florida where she lived. She would call me because the VCR clock would start blinking after the power outage and would request my help to set the correct time. Thinking back to it now, it was very comical because the purpose of the clock is to set the VCR to record shows. My mother would never have used it to set a timer and record a show. She only used the VCR to play tapes which would would fine no matter if the clock was blinking or not. I guess she was so ignorant of the device she didn’t know she could ignore it and I was too frustrated with the calls to do anything but yell at her to, as they say now, RTFM. Her ignorance and my frustration continue to this day, although today it’s her incessant demands that I help her with the coffee maker.
My mothers behaviors and Rob’s have much in common. She also had a very limited understanding of the world and a nearly non-existent circle of friends. The similarities include hiding her desire to remain ignorant behind entitlement and anger. In her words “I expect to be served when I’m in your house.” The translation really is: “You have a complicated coffee maker, I feel anxiety with this technology and I’m afraid to touch it for fear that I will break something or not get it to work. Therefore I refuse to interact with it.” I will admit that with my mother, the biggest frustration on my part is that she refuses to even try to figure it out. She wishes to remain ignorant and resists all prodding to learn the device in question, no matter if it’s a VCR in 1992 or a Coffee Maker with an integrated bean grinder in 2022.
You can’t grow if you don’t want to grow. As humans we hide from understanding behind emotions and emotions can get messy. This is where I am obliged to reference Yoda’s line from one of the Star Wars films. “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” I don’t know where George Lucas borrowed that line from, but it’s a statement that applies both to Sith in a Galaxy Far Far away and to people like my Mother and Rob.
With Rob, the only way he’ll get out of this cycle of anger and outbursts is to value people with different life experiences. To do that he has to want to understand them. The ‘want’ part is absolutely critical. I had an old friend I used to spend a great deal of time with. The thing that I liked most about her was that we were always trying to understand the motivations of others. I enjoyed my exploration of the human psyche with her so much that in a world of unlimited time and money I would go back and get an advanced psych degree just to better understand the people I encounter. Rob would never do that. When it comes to technical issues, my Mother would never do it. I keep asking myself: Why is there a desire for ignorance, and no desire for growth? Why is the fear of the unknown all consuming in these people? Is it something that grew out of our earliest development? Is it genetic? Is it a lizard brain thing?
Unfortunately where this fear / anxiety / anger comes from is almost immaterial. We will run into people in our lives who exhibit this behavior and like Rob and my Mother, there is no way that I can see that will change them. So what can we do?
If this type of behavior exists in your family you can try to live with it. I think of this as dancing with the family script. In Rob’s case, his wife put up with these bouts of insanity and anger. She stayed based upon the justification that there were very good traits in him. This is true, yet all the good in the world doesn’t make up for the caustic and damaging behavior he regularly exhibits. It’s arguable that she enabled behavior to continue. At his first irrational drunken rage forty years prior she could have kicked him out for her kids sake. It’s a shame she didn’t. I don’t know if it would work, but over time, if everyone in his life shunned him there is a chance he would have changed his behavior. Peer pressure is a very powerful force. I don’t recommend working within the family script as it just creates an ever repeating cycle. This type of enablement of bad behavior can be seen everywhere. It’s not just when dealing with irrational anger. You see it when parents pay off credit cards for overspending children. You see it with people who allow loved ones to continue using drugs in a self destructive way. The list of enablement behaviors is limitless.
If you can’t change aggressive ignorance and all of the negatives associated with it, then what can you do? I think the best solution is building strong boundaries. Not only do you have to set them, you need to have the wherewithal to keep them enforced for the long haul. In my own case I was very clear in communicating to my mother that she was not welcome back in my home until she was willing to make her own pot of coffee. My friend intends to never have Rob visit her again, and she doesn’t intend to stay under his roof when she travels as she has in the past. I know her. She will stick to her guns with these decisions.
I hate to admit it but the answers to the questions I’ve been pondering mostly don’t exist, at least not easily. My initial questions were: How do you expand your worldview? How do you get over deep seated issues? How do you go from a negative attitude to a positive one? In the end you can only do these things if you want to. Desire, true desire, to understand oneself and things in one’s life experience that are unfamiliar is the only thing that will change people. For those who don’t want to do the hard work of being uncomfortable enough to better understand the world around them, no one else can do it for them. If their entrenchment, fear, anger, and other negative emotions spill out of them and affect others around them, then the only thing you can do is get away from them.
It’s that simple. Work with people who are reasonable and willing to engage the greater world. For people who are obstinate, angry and who have no desire to change, hold them at arms length or eliminate them completely from your life. This can be really challenging if the people in question are family members. Challenging does not equal impossible. I know from experience that in the end, if you make the choice to set strong boundaries from the aggressively ignorant, it’ll be one of the best things you will ever do. Of course the people you set the boundaries with won’t understand and think your being unreasonable. Sadly they will never understand that their opinion is the perfect example of why your decision needed to be made in the first place.