Adventure Girl learns the perils of too few points of view
Over the years I have encountered many people who appear incapable of seeing anything from another person’s point of view. You probably know someone like this. Someone who is always the ‘victim’, ‘hero’ or ‘princess’ in any encounter. You’ll often hear them repeating similar stories over and over. ‘So-and-so has let me down, just like everyone before’, or ‘I’m always the one giving and never get enough in return’, and ‘I deserve/don’t deserve this.’ It doesn’t seem to matter what happens in their life, they play out the same patterns, assume the same roles and construct the same reality.
My father was one such person. I used to try to persuade him with logic and reason, hard facts, or appeal to his conscience. It didn’t matter what tactic was used, he could spin any story, any event, in such a way that he was always right, always hard done by, or better and more deserving than anyone else. To make him so, the other players would be cast as wrong, villainous, or less deserving, and nothing I or anyone else could do would make him see otherwise. There were times I was frustrated to tears. How could he not know that his arguments were illogical? How could he deny the facts in front of him? Why could he not see the impact his actions had on others? Eventually I learned that arguing with him was not only futile but exhausting.
Since then I have encountered many more people like this, who have played bigger and smaller roles in my life, but every time I have ended up baffled at their apparent inability to see the world from anyone’s point of view but their own. Perhaps it is a lack of empathy, or perhaps an unwillingness to accept any view of the world that doesn’t align with their self-belief: typically one that casts them in a set role (hero, victim, princess) and with which every encounter and every interaction must conform.
I am lucky (or perhaps unlucky) to be able to see multiple points of view, so when the victim/hero/princess is bemoaning their fate or telling their story, I can see each side, each argument or counter argument. This makes it easy to be sympathetic to all parties, but difficult to navigate with tact when that victim/hero/princess demands undivided loyalty while refusing to see any side but theirs. And if I find myself on the other side of their anger, because I am able to see their point of view, I too readily accept responsibility: ‘Yes, I can appreciate why that would have made you feel this way,’ yet the same courtesy is not extended to me. The victim/hero/princess clings to their self-belief, only seeing the story from a single point of view.
I suspect it is this self-belief that is at the core of the problem. When an event happens, our brains store it in memory as a fragment. When we retrieve that fragment, we build a narrative around it. That narrative must be consistent with our understanding of the world so as not to cause what is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. If we find that the memory does not correlate with our world-view, we have two choices: we can shift our understanding to take into account the new information, or we can build and re-build a narrative that casts the events in such a way that it is consistent with our self-belief.
For individuals like my father, the latter is the only option. Preserving their self-belief and the role they have cast for themselves is paramount, no matter what it costs those around them.
Unfortunately, that cost can be high. When to preserve their world-view, or to live out a self-belief, a person needs to cast you in a counter-role, it can feel like an accusation. In a normal situation when someone accuses you of something you have an opportunity to rebut, to present evidence and tell your side of the story. With people like this, you don’t have that opportunity, because anything you say, any action or inaction, will be twisted, re-cast, the narrative re-written. Failing that, your side can simply be disregarded: ‘I can’t take your issues on board right now’, ‘I don’t want any drama in my life’, or a simple, ‘I’m done.’ You are acting out a play, written, cast and directed by them, and you have no right of reply: powerless.
When encountering individuals who operate in this way, I have learned it is better to walk away than to engage in any kind of debate. How can you defend yourself when the only lines that will be heard are the ones that have been scripted for you? There is no mechanism in this scenario to be heard because the accuser has no capacity or willingness to understand. To do so could threaten their world-view and self-belief. This is not a battle anyone can fight. The only sensible option is to walk away.
This strategy has served me well to a point. I have learned to recognise the pattern and the behaviour of these types of people and avoid throwing myself into hopeless battles. I simply let the argument, and them, go. On one level I can accept this: these are not the kinds of relationships I wish to pursue.
The downside is that walking away can make getting closure difficult. I refrain from having my say when I probably need to get something out. I bottle it up, feeling dis-empowered, rather than empowered by my silence. This is particularly detrimental when each new instance invokes the feelings of the old. Eventually I implode, and that doesn’t help anybody.
I don’t want my anger to fester, unresolved, so what outlet do I have? When do I get to have my say? Venting to friends who can see other people’s points of view helps, but it’s not always enough. I can’t talk to my accuser without being witness to their revisionist history and re-experiencing the powerlessness all over again. The only avenue I can see is to write my story out as fully as I can, including all sides (because I can see them). Maybe my accuser will mentally re-write them, more likely they will never read them, and though I know they are unlikely to ever see any other point of view, they also can’t alter my truth, and that is real power.