Sep2019: Why We Do What We Do

by Brad on August 29, 2019

“We are so intimidated by other people’s emotions and so convinced by our own that we lose sight of the underlying reality.”                  – Deepak Chopra

Have you noticed how much of your time and energy are consumed in defending yourself against unacceptable behavior of people around you? You know … the ones who tell you what you should do, who “need” your energy so as to fuel theirs, who make you wrong so they can be right, etc. And if so, have you noticed how much of the energy you lose takes the form of complaint rather than action? I see and hear a lot of it; significantly, however, I hear it inside me, too. And I’ve been listening to myself a lot lately. It’s truly surprising what I learn – about me – when I listen deeply. What I’ve been hearing brings me face-to-face with my on-going challenge of setting more effective boundaries. So I decided to write about boundaries, both to crystalize my own learning and to offer some possibility “out there,” as I know I’m not alone; we all want respectful, two-way relationships.

Traditional teaching on boundaries offers two points: The what: boundaries are limits you place on the behavior of those you care about that help you retain your integrity. They’re personal in that each of us has different “load limits” for what we’re willing to accept from others; they’re impersonal in that boundaries serve not to distance us from people but only from behaviors that aren’t positive influences in our lives. The how: name the behavior you find unacceptable; ask the other person to change. If they go along, great. If not, you either resign yourself to their behavior (rather than the blaming and complaining noted) or leave the relationship. But that’s where this teaching ends. I’ve tried all this, and there are still times when results fall well short of what I’d like to see. Why?

It’s tempting to complain and blame others, but that’s really a copout. We can’t make others change. Besides, if we’re honest, we’re not as angry at them for their bad behavior as we are at ourselves for continuing to tolerate it. Although we rarely learn to look inside ourselves when it comes to our challenges, there must be something in our consciousness that’s keeping the nonsense around us. I figured that if I could find it, I’d learn to set more effective boundaries. And I figured that if I didn’t, I’d continue to drain a lot of energy tolerating bad behavior.

We go through our days believing we are “living life.“ I mean, we’re thinking, right? Then we speak, choose, act and achieve … from those thoughts. But when results don’t match our thinking, as is often the case, it seems we go back far enough only to question our behavior (did I know enough or try enough?). Rarely, however, do we go back far enough to question the thoughts that created the behavior.

With help from caring family and friends, along with some deep self-reflection, I found the source of my ongoing challenge, buried in those [largely-unknown-to-me] thoughts. Early life lessons had taught me to be more sensitive to others’ needs and feelings than to my own. A twisted lesson – that I’m a better person if I give up myself for someone else’s needs (even if they’re wrong), but such is the impact of an emotionally-impoverished father. Abandoning what’s true/right for me in order to protect the feelings of others had become unconscious default (it hijacks my thinking “automatically“ unless/until I learn to notice). No wonder my boundary requests can fail. I’m giving others just what they want, not what I need. There’s nothing wrong with being giving to others. But if you can’t breathe, you can’t do a very good job of it.

The more deeply we explore our previously unconscious thoughts, the more clearly we see our old lessons and beliefs at work. The clarity we gain releases us from the stranglehold of those old beliefs. Until we do that, we go through life believing we’re living life, when instead we’re living a story of life. The story is part of a very long personal tradition, unique to each of us, a tradition made up by other people, poured into us as “lessons” from early in life. Unconsciously, we adopt this story as truth, then devote our precious energy toward trying to make our lives a worthy manifestation of the story; but in so doing, we forsake the reality in front of us … probably because we see the two as identical. Self-awareness holds phenomenal power to change all that.

We can’t make others change. The world will change when we change.


Exercise: Think of someone you believe needs to change. Name the specific behavior you find bothersome. Does he/she exhibit this behavior only with you, or with others, too? Do they themselves behave the way they think youshould behave? Chances are that the answers so far let you know it’s not personal to you.

Now, shift your perspective to your own thinking instead of their behavior, the objective being to learn about yourself. Name the feeling you experience when they “violate your boundaries.” (Example: I feel attacked.) See if you can now trace the feeling back to a thought that created it. (Example: the thought driving your stress could be that they “should” be different from the way they are. Note that in this case the upset you feel comes not from their behavior but from your judgment that it should be different. While you may be “right,” they’re not creating your stress, you are.) Chances are that the answers so far let you know that you’re a player in this mess, too.

Now, bring the two experiences together. What assumption might you be making as to the causeof their behavior? What evidence do you have for the cause (not the behavior)? It’s unlikely you have “incontrovertible evidence” for why they do what they do, so imagine for a moment some other possible causes (current challenges, lack of understanding, misperception, narcissism, etc.) Now, ask yourself what feeling you might have if the person did change. Lastly, envision and name one other way in which you could experience the same feeling even if she/he did not change. (From the example above, if you released your judgment that it had to be different.)

When you “think about your thinking,” what thoughts do you find lurking inside you that may be holding you hostage … perhaps keeping you from making effective boundary requests? Work with those thoughts; it’s surprising what you can learn about yourself when you do. If you find a thought that doesn’t serve who you want to be, you’re free to let it go. (It’s only a thought, you see.) Reminds me of the saying: “Thoughts are things; choose good ones.”


Life lessons from nature: With the complete lack of judgment that characterizes the natural world, what we call problems nature would simply call circumstances. No matter where you go, nature has three ways to respond when life’s circumstances encounter limited resources (boundary issues): (1) step back from them – avoid; (2) change them – confront; (3) tolerate them – accept (without judgment). Any one of the three relieves the constraints imposed by challenging conditions. Here’s an example from the desert, where circumstances are limited by large temperature fluctuations and by minimal moisture. Plant life here adapts by being either (1) an avoider – a saguaro cactus has waxy braches to hold water to get through droughts; (2) a confronter – an ocotillo cactus loses its leaves when it’s dry, then re-grows them as soon as it rains; or (3) an acceptor – a creosote bush grows long root systems so it can survive extended dry periods.

Our problems arise because we’ve invented a fourth choice: (4) accept the circumstance, but with judgment. “I don’t like things the way they are, so I’m going to complain.” That’s a choice nature doesn’t make. In my 70 years of loving and learning from nature, I’ve never seen a plant jumping up and down bitching about the lack of rain.

Life happens now, in each unfolding moment, one after the next. In every moment that we’re consumed with judgments of the past (resentment, fear, guilt, anger) or the future (dread, anxiety), we deprive ourselves of the present, and miss out on now, where the experience of life happens. It’s time to adopt a culture of learning. Listen to nature’s wisdom. Listen to our own.


Book of the month: A Cape Cod Notebook, by Robert Finch.  A wee little book, 52 essays, one for each week, each shining a beautiful light on the variety, charm, simplicity and wisdom of life on Cape Cod. Each essay began as a radio program on WCAI, Cape Cod’s public radio station. If you like, you can hear them as podcasts, “A Cape Cod Notebook from WCAI.” The book is available even if you don’t live here, but if you do, you’ll find it at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.

Download September 2019 pdf

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sekmet August 30, 2019 at 10:43 am



Elaine Johnson August 31, 2019 at 6:27 am

Hi Brad,

Great seeing on Thursday. Boy, does this one resonate! Remembering two very challenging relationships in the past. I could have used this reflection then as both these people have died. I recognize all my faulty “co-depndent” thinking and behaviors then. Frankly, I continue to perpetuate a similar scenario in some of my business relationships but I am improving on setting boundaries. You are so right about these knee jerk reactions being seeded in childhood. I think this is something women really have a problem with_call it nature or nurture but I have found it to be very prevalent with women. Take care and many thanks for the well written post. Elaine.


Julie Fraser August 31, 2019 at 9:38 am

Ah, yes, Boundaries. A lifelong challenge for me too. Based on family belief systems, and always a cause for further curiosity and digging within myself. And TOTALLY love your nature analogy for this. So perfect. We make ourselves suffer – unless we choose not to!


Diane T. Feldhausen September 5, 2019 at 10:14 am

Hi, Brad,
Your nature analogy fits perfectly into my current situation, as I recently relocated from the Northeast to the desert Southwest. As a nurse educator and doctoral student in psychology, I agree with the importance of boundary setting and I am always learning more about my own reactions to the behavior of others. In observing and becoming an active participant in complaining in nursing, I have concluded that there may be one major underlying reason for this favorite past-time, at least, in the healthcare arena. In the helping professions, we are trained in critical thinking–to look for the problems. I hear my colleagues complain about malfunctioning computer systems, short staffing, lack of supplies, incorrigible patients, disrespectful coworkers, unfair assignments, etc. What they were actually doing was identifying and emphasizing problems, as has been ingrained in their thinking processes. The complaining became chronic when there was a lack of time or resources to fix the problem and it repeatedly resurfaced. It intensified when other staff commiserated in the misery (a way of validating each other’s feelings, which we are, also, taught).
Similar to the process you outlined, I decided to start to take it a step further and analyze the complaints, using critical thinking: What is the identified problem? Can the identified problem be fixed? If yes, how? If not, why not? Can the cause of not fixing (lack of human resources) it be addressed, e.g. hire additional staffing? Does it really need to be fixed or am I just impatient with a ‘slow printer’ because I feel overwhelmed (which is another identified problem)? Can a take a few deep breaths and slow down my hectic pace for a moment? Can I accept it and move on with my day? Can I use humor to shrug it off? Or, is it causing me enough distress that I need to change my situation (find a new department or a new job)? I’ve found this method to be helpful in addressing the real issues and in alleviating my guilt about hearing myself complaining a lot by taking action to resolve the issues.


Brad September 5, 2019 at 11:49 am

Hi, Diane, and thank you for your insightful comments. I love how are you’ve chosen to shift from complaining into action, by looking for solutions. Reminds me of stories of “prophets,” where in this context, a prophet is one who cares about the system so much that he or she can criticize it, but with the INTENTION of improving things, Not belittling them. We need more of this kind of critical thinking, the kind that shifts our systems towards improvement. Keep up all of the good stuff, including the questioning.


wendy kapp September 17, 2019 at 7:46 pm

Boundaries are a good subject for me too. I have wiggly walls and am often taken advantage of. It’s because I value acceptance over my comfort. Gives me some kind of false comfort because how can you really feel comfortable when you’re aware someone is taking advantage! Maybe it was my way of trying to find some control in the relationship- someway of steering the ship with no compass. I was a target for narcissists. Now I’ve left those relationships so I am more comfortable with my own life- I still have some family members that I wrestle with but I’m not always reaching out to please and that makes me more steady on my feet. I have found my own compass I suppose, after all these years, and set a course that fits my needs. I have even corrected myself when I went off course and asserted my needs from time to time and felt good about it. Wow it really feels good to write this down-
I just had an interesting situation, my gallery was robbed -just the cash register and money.
I was not the person opening the gallery, but was quickly alerted. It sucked but I didn’t feel angry or hurt or any disabling feelings. I thought about how much the person who needed to steal money must be hurting. Of course you know I haven’t got gobs of money or anything but I have enough, I have lots of love from family and friends and a positive outlook on my life. I feel untouched and was initially surprised by the lack of drama. I think I just stopped thinking of myself as some kind of victim. It’s just something that happened and I’m moving on.
Well we should have that cup of coffee soon 🙂


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