People do what makes sense to them
I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that people usually do what makes sense to them. While that statement may sound cliché, it holds powerful meanings that can clarify who we want to be and how we get there.
How do harmful actions make sense?
An obvious objection is that people behave in all kinds of harmful, self-destructive ways. If you are like me, you can easily remember actions that were against your values or with hindsight didn’t make sense. How do such actions compute? Let me be clear that people don’t think through each action and consciously say ‘ah yes, what a great, logical action to do.” Some of our most upsetting or harmful actions occur when we feel unable to take other paths.
To understand harmful actions, let’s do a thought experiment. Envision a family member who is making an unwise decision that will hurt them and you. Now imagine that with Star Trek-like technology, I *completely* switch you into their brain and body. ‘You’ (I use that term loosely) have shed every aspect of your own person; instead, you take on the family’s member’s experiences, genetics, learning, memories, relationships, current thinking and emotions, etc – in short, every atom of the person and their experiences.
Would the modified ‘you’ would end up making the same decision as them? I hope you agree that there is a high chance. Sure, unpredictable external and internal forces might have unexpected influences; nonetheless, on average you would likely head down the same path.
What can you take from the thought experiment? Let’s dig into the implications with the next pair of topics: understanding and acceptance.
Understanding and acceptance
One lesson from the thought experiment is that your behaviors may seem foreign at times, but they aren’t arising from nowhere. The more you understand your personal context, the more you can shed light on the black box that led you to the action.
Having a greater understanding of your actions can unlock a number of paths to change: turned inwardly, understanding helps you to identify 1) problems, 2) how your desired destinations are different than the present, and 3) what internal and external factors are contributing to problems. With the knowledge of 1-3, you can better take steps toward actual change. When oriented toward others, making sense of people’s “senseless behavior” often leads to greater mental peace and improved behavior. Imagine that your best friend has been ignoring your texts. With building irritation, you finally reach them, ready to give an earful. It turns out they’ve had a work emergency! Their boss resigned, and they are shouldering the extra load. Now how do you feel toward them? How would your behavior change? Again, understanding the causes of behavior is powerful.
Importantly, understanding ≠ excusing. We all make missteps and do ‘wrong’ according to our respective moral codes. Guilt, regret, sadness, and other emotions can motivate you to seek change and repair, as long as they don’t become excessive. As a result, understanding negative emotions about your behaviors can be a useful tool for taking appropriate responsibility. Negative emotions can help us move from doing what made sense in the moment to doing something better.
Several threads I’ve mentioned are prominent in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT integrates the notion of dialectics, or contradictory ideas that each seem to hold truth. One central dialectic is between acceptance and change. DBT contends that to change, you first have to accept the reality of the present and allow it to exist without seeking to resist it (i.e., radical acceptance). While radical acceptance is an ongoing process, heightening your radical acceptance can paradoxically move you toward future change. Here I can’t help but insert a similar Maya Angelou quotation: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Rephrased inelegantly into the current context, one might say: ‘accept that what you are doing what makes sense to you; when you learn behaviors that make more sense, do them.” I’m clearly not a poet, but the point remains: from a stance of current, active acceptance, we can free ourselves to learn, try anew, and do better.
Making sense with other perspectives
Embedded in Maya Angelou’s words is a major question: how the heck do we begin to know better? I’ve already discussed how understanding and radically accepting your behaviors can be a start. However, you have plenty of other resources at your disposal to start to know better. For some folks it is conversations with friends and family; for others it may be therapy. For still others, it may be seeking out new cultural experiences, new structured learning, trying out new behaviors directly, or all of the above. The overarching goal is to uncover perspectives that allow new behaviors to “make more sense.”
Feel like you already ‘know better’ but still are doing the same old behaviors? You aren’t alone. Still quibbling with what it means for a behavior to make sense, or to be understood? I’m in the same boat, continually. Perhaps I will tackle these topics another day – for today, I’m present in my happiness that you and I are thinking meaningfully about understanding, acceptance, and change.