Step III – Look inside. Step outside.
We have now worked on divorcing the justifications for our actions from what they were and how they affected each other. On the flip side, we have divorced our sense of why someone was doing something to us and what their intentions were from the pain of the thing itself. Now that we have done this, we are ready to break the cycle. But to break the cycle, we must understand it.
First, a boring science lesson about how our brains work…
When we are born we are a blank slate. Then we start to have experiences. Every experience we have forms a pathway in our brain that forms bonds between neurons and hard wires that experience in us. Having a certain experience more frequently reinforces and strengthens that pathway. Extremely intense experiences reinforce themselves because they play over and over in our minds as we try to make sense of them. Experiences that are not reinforced eventually cause the neuropathways that were formed to dry up and the bonds to break.
The brain is completely neutral to whether or not our experiences are good or bad. This process is not conscious. It only sees connections, like letters – it doesn’t see what those letters spell. All this part of our brain cares about is familiarity. It wants to revisit the strongest neuropathways. Therefore, this will subconsciously cause us to seek out people who cause us to relive past experiences regardless of whether our conscious selves actually want to or not.
If your brain has a strong pathway that goes from C to A to R to E, the brain will subconsciously seek out people who will care for you. If your brain has a strong pathway that goes from A to B to U to S to E, the brain will subconsciously seek out people who will abuse you. But it is actually more sinister than this!
When our brain cannot find people to recreate the experiences it subconsciously wants to recreate, it will do one of two things: We will treat people in such a way so as to manipulate them into giving us the experience we subconsciously want. Have you ever felt like someone you knew who seemed new and different from people you used to know over time changed into someone you were all too familiar with? Guess what? You probably had a hand in changing them.
The other thing our brain will do is even more sinister, though. If we are not getting the repeat experiences we want – and we aren’t successfully manipulating the people around us into giving them to us – our brains will simply subjectively fool us into having those experiences anyway. This is basically like putting on color tinted glasses and seeing the world in different shades one color. This is why some people can manage to stay happy and find the good in every circumstance, even when it seems like their life is falling apart and why some people seem to find a way to be miserable no matter how many good things come their way.
This clip from Before Sunset is a great illustration of this point:
Here is how I have experienced this in my life.
I am what is called a “highly sensitive person” or HSP. I can also be called a “giver” – someone who derives a lot of motivation and self-worth based on how much I am pouring myself into others. Because of this, I tend to attract people in my life that have very strong narcissistic characteristics, or “takers.” I’m not saying they are actual narcissists, we already covered how foolish it can be to label someone and make assumptions about their motives, but many people in my life have tended to fit the pattern pretty well. If we think of narcissism as a spectrum, I tend to attract people a bit further up on that spectrum. Let’s just leave it at that.
Many people in my past have seemed to only be interested in me based on what I can do for them. The relationship would be one-sided. I give and invest in them, and they repay me with flattery and enough appreciation to make me feel good about myself so I give more and more of myself to them. What they don’t do is show up when I need them – ever, or make investments in me or my life. They couldn’t care less about my life apart from being entertained by it. I am just a means to an end for them.
Eventually, they either get tired of me and just drop off the face of the earth without so much as a “see ya later,” or they start becoming demanding and controlling. If I resist, they start playing mind games with me and engaging in abusive and manipulative behavior. My response has been to pour myself more and more into them and the relationship even to the point of self-sabotage. In the end I lose all sense of myself and when the relationship is over I feel like a failure, worthless, and depressed.
Because this has been a past experience that I have repeated over and over again with toxic people, I have a strong neuropathway that causes me to continue seeking out that experience with others. I have had to become extra aware and discerning of the people I let into my life, and as a result I am slow and reluctant to let people get too close. I may even tend to unfairly rush to judgement about people to protect myself and avoid relationships that might otherwise be healthy and beneficial.
But the worst thing I have done is that even with good people in my life who don’t necessarily fit this pattern, I have still followed the same script. I give and give and give until I reach a breaking point where I am going to inevitably feel burned out and underappreciated. In the absence of a narcissistic abuser, I create one for myself and respond the exact same way. Then, I end up with all the same symptoms of narcissistic abuse whether I was actually abused or not.
In the end, I become the engineer of my own misery and yet my subjective experience has me believing that my misery was entirely caused by external factors. It is in the midst of this confusion and trying to make sense of it that can easily cause me to fall into the pit of shame described in Step I or the trap of labeling others described in Step II.
In order to break the cycle, I have to be honest with myself and make a startling admission: What I think is real is probably not. The anchor of a single subjective reality that I can hang my hat on and explain my life around is an illusion. My mind is creating a false reality around me constantly and manipulating how I interpret the actions of others so as to fit what I am used to experiencing.
There is a more useful approach to discerning reality rather than accepting my subjective experience as the only game in town: Reality is a number of possibilities. There is more than one explanation for what is happening in my life – why I am behaving the way I am and why others are supposedly behaving the way I think they are. The more possibilities I can become aware of – and the more I accept that all of my assumptions about which possibility is the truth, the more open I can become to discovering new pathways that will take me away from the circular path I have been walking all this time.
Thinking I have it all figured out is a sure way for me to be stuck in the vicious cycle of experiencing the same pains over and over in my life. Discovering new possibilities and having the humility to admit that I don’t know which one I am subjectively experiencing right now – and the openness to explore new pathways through this range of possibilities is the only way to break the cycle.
This requires me to step outside of myself, to step outside of my own subjective experiences. If Step II was nearly impossible, then this step is downright impossible. It is impossible for me at least.
What I have discovered is that the only way to see a bigger picture than the limits of my mind will allow me to is to turn to the one who can see the whole picture and to plead with him to let me catch a glimpse of the world through his eyes. I’m talking about praying to the God who created me.
On the road to discovering radical empathy, we eventually come up to the limits of ourselves imposed by ourselves. That is where we get stuck. The only way to push beyond those limits is to seek out a higher power to work a miracle and push us beyond those limits. This takes constant prayer and humility. It also takes service – for what better way to see through the eyes of God than to live the life of service and love that Jesus demonstrated in his life?
Now we have arrived at Step IV and the really hard work can begin.