Us and Them


human family.


It’s very easy to get caught up and hating people who have heard us. The natural tendency is to either fight the person or avoid them, and this is what the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous systems set us up to do. It makes sense in terms of survival, especially when we were much more vulnerable and society was a lot less sophisticated. We also developed a sense of “us versus them” that helped distinguish people who are part of your hunting tribe or clan in prehistoric times, from people who were possibly a threat or from a competing tribe. However, in this increasingly small world of ours, I don’t think we have the luxury of adhering to this knee-jerk reaction to people who are different from us.

If you ever observe very young children, they have very polarized views as they learn how to distinguish themselves from other people. At around two or three, they start to say things like “that’s mine!” And “no!” This is perfectly natural for that age and it helps us draw boundaries before our brains are more sophisticated. Our parents, if they’re doing their job well, help us learn how to smooth out the harsh edges of these strong declarations. They help us learn that we have to share and that we have to think about other people’s feelings when we speak our minds. Some people are able to make the transition into more sophisticated ways of thinking and interacting, while others, sadly, don’t. It’s natural to have strong preferences and to want to make your life comfortable for yourself based on those preferences and desires, what isn’t healthy is expecting that everyone else would here to those preferences and that the people who don’t are against you.

I see a lot of families where one person in the family is different somehow from others, in either the parents, siblings, or spouses can’t understand why that person is acting differently. If the person is acting differently is being destructive or inconsiderate of other people, then there is good reason to speak up about it. However, sometimes people are shamed just for being different in temperament, lifestyle choice, personality, or something they can’t help. This is very unfortunate because then that person feels outcast from the very people with whom they’re supposed to be able to be comfortable. When I work with such families, I try to help people understand that while you might not like the behavior of the person with whom you live, that doesn’t mean that the whole person is damaged, tainted or wrong. You can address the behavior you don’t like without shaming the person are making them feel unloved.

Similarly, I would argue that all of us on the planet are in some way related to each other. Were all sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and so on. What would it be like if we were able to differences with respect, dignity, and curiosity rather than hatred, separatism, and shaming? Certainly, there are behaviors that are violent, exploitive, and hurtful; I don’t condone such behavior and think we should do everything in our power to eradicate such behavior. But if we don’t approach it with curiosity, we don’t know why it’s happening and we can address it effectively. I believe it’s possible to use our more advanced parts of our brain, like our prefrontal cortex, to reason, use language, and remain open to many possibilities. When we get caught up in the emotional parts of our brains and stick with the binary us versus them mentality, we miss the boat in many ways. We don’t get a chance to understand why people commit violence, why people exploit each other, and what can be done to change that. Who hasn’t made mistakes in their lives and then things they later regret? Who hasn’t heard someone inadvertently or on purpose in their lives? If we of all made mistakes, should we all be bitterly condemned and outcast from society? Worse yet, should we all be treated like dangerous criminals? I am not naïve enough to think that there isn’t a need for prisons and punishment; I do believe, however, that we need more tools in our toolbox to address behavior that we find objectionable.

So the next time you have a strong reaction to another person or their behavior, you might want to consider where they’re coming from and what might be motivating it other than “evil” or “stupidity.” Remember that the person might be doing their best and may need more skills and more knowledge in order to act in a way that’s more considerate and kind to others.

One thought on “Us and Them

  1. I love this post, Dr. Larsen. Many times I have objected to the idea of people condemning people’s acts without taking out time to ask why they acted the way they did in the first place. If only we can look into what make people behave in a certain way, we will have a better world.

    Like

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