I was speaking with a friend the other week, and asked if I could take a moment to vent about another, non-present friend. “She’s so cold and rude to me,” I complained. “Whenever she screws up, she makes excuses for how it wasn’t her fault, or gets angry that I brought up the thing she did wrong and refuses to talk to me for the rest of the day. I feel really upset that she won’t just say “hey, my bad,” and fix the thing she screwed up, instead of taking it out on me.”
My friend nodded understandingly, but another person nearby defended her. “She’s been under a lot of pressure lately,” he said. “That’s not how she really is. She’s just been upset every time you’ve seen her. She’s really nice, and doesn’t actually do that in real life.”
I want it to be extremely clear that any action you take is something you have done in “real life”.
When celebrities are caught cyber-bullying, or making harassing or inappropriate comments, or acting out while drunk, they often release a statement that says something like, “I sincerely apologize. People who know me would tell you that I am not like this in real life. These were extenuating circumstances.” or “I think if you talk to people who know me, they’d tell you that was unlike me. I’m under a lot of stress.”
An action that someone takes under stress is the kind of person that they are when stressed. An action that someone takes while drunk is the kind of person that they are when drunk. An action that someone takes online is the kind of person that they are when they are anonymized. No person is so one dimensional that only one aspect is their “real personality”, and everything else doesn’t count.
When someone defends a friend or loved one by saying “that isn’t how they really are,” it’s an action of personal defense as well. Each person trusts themselves to be a good judge of character, and to hear that someone has done something inappropriate or unacceptable wounds one’s own sense of self.
A common response is to say “that never happened, you’re lying.” We see that a lot when there are reports of abuse or sexual assault. “My brother would never hurt a woman, you’re lying. You’re making it up.” “Those women are just saying they were assaulted for money or publicity.” An absolute denial that something bad could have happened at all, because if it had, your judgement call was wrong.
The next response I tend to see is the one I mentioned above. “Well, that’s not how she really is. He brought out the worst in her, but she’s a really nice person.” This person’s true self would never do anything bad. They’re a good person. Something happened TO them to make them act poorly. Alcohol happened to them. Exhaustion or stress happened to them. Their actions were affected by something outside of their control, which is what happened to make them behave poorly.
I am not on board with this. Any action you take is your own choice.
You may be pressured into a particular action by peers. You may make a bad decision given insufficient information, or pre-coffee. You may not know how to deal with your anger in healthy ways. You may be drunk. These are certainly things that affect how you react to any situation. But when it comes down to brass tacks, each action you make is part of who you are as a person.
If you behave poorly when you drink, you stop drinking. If you’re a grouch before you drink coffee, tell people to stay away from you until the coffee machine beeps. If your girlfriend told you that you have to lie to your friends about where you are, you might want to think about your choice in partners.
I’m not saying that every action is unforgivable, but I am saying that each person is complex. Nice people can do shitty things, and their niceness doesn’t negate those shitty things. Instead of defending someone you love against allegations of unkindness or inappropriateness, consider saying, “Wow, I’ve never seen that side of him. I’m sorry to hear that you were hurt when he did that.” If you are accused of doing something that is outside of your mental image of yourself, consider saying, “I’m really sorry that I did that. You’re right to say that my actions were inappropriate. I will work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” And then you avoid alcohol/ exhaustion/ peer pressure to make sure that kind of inappropriate behavior doesn’t happen again.
Give your loved ones/yourself the benefit of the doubt – you’re all three dimensional complex beings who are capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. The people who aren’t cruel are the ones actively making the choice.