Are They Evil, or Just Scared?
I was helping a client understand his difficult co-worker this week, and he exclaimed, “Oh, I get it! He’s not evil! Wow, that helps a lot!” The way that I describe people’s negative patterns often helps my clients see those around them in a whole new light.
Essentially, you can trace negative behavior all back to fear, but this fear manifests itself in very different ways. When someone’s pattern is very different from our own, we often end up judging them, partially because we can’t see the fear in their pattern. I often hear clients describe others with words like victim, needy, judgmental, snobby, rude, and thoughtless, along with some less than genteel words, and I can always trace those descriptions back to the other person’s fear patterns.
This fear that I speak of has a common root—the feeling that “there is something wrong with me being just as I am.” I call this Learned Distress, and we absorb it early in life before we have any ability to evaluate if it’s good for us, or not. It becomes embedded in our sense of self along with a survival mechanism that allows us to cope with or control this unnatural fear, so that we can move forward in life. There are six basic patterns that result from Learned Distress and its survival mechanisms. Here’s a basic description of each along with what they tend to look like from the outside.
Perfectionist: To survive, I need things around me to be what I define as the “right” way. People with this pattern tend to see things in black and white, and they often vehemently reject anything or anyone that isn’t the “right” way for them. Others tend to see Perfectionists as judgmental, snobby and stand-offish.
Idealist: There is an ideal way things should be and I have to work hard to make sure that my “pretty picture” is maintained. People with this pattern always say “everything is great.” But, it takes hard work to maintain their ideal and if flaws are pointed out, they tend to feel threatened and react negatively. Others tend to see Idealists as people to whom success comes easily and who just seem to have some magic power to have a wonderful life.
Dictator: Everyone need to do things “my way” and I survive by telling everyone how to do things. This person is the know-it-all and when triggered, tends to just take over. They usually feel incapable of succeeding in personal relationships, so focusing on tasks and telling others how to do things is their only comfort zone. Others tend to see Dictators as overbearing, bossy, selfish people who know everything and never need any help or compassion.
Caregiver: I need everyone around me to be happy and taken care of. This is the people-pleaser, and they rarely feel capable of accomplishing things on their own. They often guess at what they think will make those around them happy and try their best to provide it, often while neglecting themselves. It’s not unusual for this person to feel invisible, unloved, or used. Others will often see Caregivers as victims or at the very least, needy. Sometimes, they’re also viewed as being pushy when they overdo it with the people pleasing.
Defeatist: Nothing ever works for me, and I’ll say anything to prove that. This is the person who first tells you everything that is going wrong for them and then, if you try to point out something that is good in their lives, they’ll give you 20 reasons why it’s not. Or, they’ll respond to your news with how their life is worse or they could never have such a good life as you do. Others see Defeatists as negative and often competitive (at having the most wrong). The “victim” label usually surfaces in relation to Defeatists, also.
Optimist: To prove that the future will be better, I have to have a crisis happening now. This person might seem just like the one above, but they’re always trying to overcome what’s going wrong for them. Because they rely on crisis to survive, you might even see them blowing something negative out of proportion. Others often see Optimists as victims, also, as well as being exasperating with their constant crises.
Do you recognize the things that frustrate you about the people around you in these descriptions? And, do you see yourself, too? Each of these patterns is negative in ways we can objectively observe. But, each pattern also has the potential to trigger someone else’s Learned Distress. One very typical trigger pattern I see is between Caregivers and Idealists. Caregivers will try to hang onto Idealists, feeling that the Idealist can show them the way to be brilliantly successful just like the Idealist is. Idealists usually hate this. They often feel like they’re just barely hanging on to their own success, and so having someone else hang on them threatens to topple their ideal.
Truly, all of these patterns just stem from the fear that something is wrong with us. Beneath all this fear, we are unique humans fueled by the well-being that resides at our core. I hope that knowing about these Learned Distress patterns may help you better understand why someone might behave negatively and even see through the mask to their well-being.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.