In the last post we talked about how a person’s true priorities are revealed by their actions and how that allows us to see the truth, no matter what they say or we want to believe. All well and good—you now know how to discern the truth about another person…or even yourself—what good is this to you?
Well, there is the superficial good, the ability to determine that, even though they may mean what they are saying in the moment they say it, when push comes to shove, something else will take priority. That means in a domestic violence situation, for example, when he comes to you and apologizes, is horrified at the bruises he gave you, and he is so so soooo sorry and he will never do it again, he very likely is not lying. He means it, he is sorry, he fully intends to never do it again. But he does—when tensions are high something inside says he is entitled to punish you for provoking him—and he repeats the behaviour. So what is the real truth? That he will never do it again? Or, given a sufficiently stressful situation, he will, no matter what he says or even believes about himself. The real truth is, he will do it again and he will blame you for it in the bargain. That is the superficial benefit of this knowledge you compare his actions with his words and, knowing that his actions have more credibility than his words, you can discern the truth.
A more in-depth benefit of this knowledge is that it gives insights that help you to understand a person’s motivations, which can give you even more information necessary to make decisions and choices. Too often we ACoNs feel stuck because we cannot feel certain of what is going on with our Ns. “Does she love me and just doesn’t know how to show it? Or does she care only for herself? Will I ever be able to get some sign that she loves me? What if I decide on NC and I regret it later?” Without more definitive information, too often we keep the status quo, waiting for that last bit of information that will move us one direction or another.
Despite the fact that life doesn’t come with guarantees we ACoNs often hold ourselves back waiting for them anyway (because we are afraid to be wrong). We often feel insufficiently informed to make momentous decisions like whether or not to allow our Ns into the lives of our children or whether we should go LC, NC, or just keep the status quo. Knowing your N’s true priorities can be that critical bit of information that tips the scales in your mind towards one action or another.
It can also help us to learn the truth about ourselves and help us adjust our own behaviours. Like my grandparents, we may believe things about ourselves that are not true: they truly believed that their home was open to me at all times but, in reality, when September rolled around every year they returned me to my mother without even exploring the possibility of me staying. We all do the same kinds of things: we believe things about ourselves that are not strictly true, things that our behaviour, if analysed for priorities, will reveal. When a philandering husband says “I love my wife,” he may well be telling the truth—he may very well feel love for her. When he says “I would never do anything to hurt her,” however, his behaviour tells a different tale. Faced with a choice between doing something that would hurt his wife vs doing something that would give him some illicit carnal pleasure, which one is his priority? Her feelings or his pleasure? He may love her, but his wife and her feelings are not his first priority, are they, despite his belief otherwise?
Passive aggressive behaviour is very much about priorities. It is what motivates behaviours of petty vengeance or resistance, even at the cost of another person’s respect and ability to trust you: you give your vengeance or resistance a higher priority than your relationship. Being “right” or getting payback or having control is more important than settling an issue or respecting another person’s feelings. When you introduce this dynamic into a relationship it is corrosive and guaranteed to erode the relationship until whatever it was originally based on is utterly destroyed. Your behaviour shows your priorities: what is most important to you is what you actually do.
How does that work? It is a lot simpler than you think. Imagine you are sitting in your living room in your pajamas. You haven’t showered or brushed your teeth yet, nor have you taken your morning pills (vitamins, whatever)). You haven’t eaten yet, either. You are sitting on the sofa with the remote in your hand and the clock on the front of the entertainment unit says it is 10 am. You told a kinda-sorta friend you would meet her for lunch at 12 and it is an hour’s drive to get there. You need to pee. Somebody is knocking on your door. A show you really like has just come on the TV and even though the series is in reruns, you haven’t seen this episode…and your DVR/Tivo isn’t working so you can’t record it… What do you do?
Here is what I would do: 1) turn off the TV; 2) go to the toilet; 3) answer the door and get rid of the person; 4) take my pills; 5) shower and brush teeth; 6) get dressed to meet friend; 7) text her I am running late if, indeed, I was running late. What is the significance of this chain of events? It is all directed towards keeping my commitment to this other person. The TV show will come again and even if it doesn’t, nothing of importance is lost if I miss it this time (did my world crash because I missed it the first time?). The person at the door is given short shrift because I have another commitment: unless my visitor is the police or the fire department telling me to evacuate, whatever this person wants can wait. The rest of my activities are geared towards keeping my commitment. So, out of the many things available to me, keeping my commitment was my priority.
I could have made other choices. I could have said “I may never have another chance to see this episode—I can have lunch with Jenny another time.” I could have decided whoever was at the door was more important—my upstairs neighbour is at the door with a pot of coffee and a plate of cookies and the latest juicy gossip about the woman across the hall whom we both despise… I could decide I can’t go with dirty hair and I can’t go with wet hair and I don’t feel like hunting for the hair dryer… There are numerous choices and whichever one I make and follow through on indicates what my priority is in the moment. All my actions in the first scenario are oriented towards going to that lunch, so that is my priority which, taken a level deeper, is actually about maintaining my integrity. But in the second one my priority is the TV show, not the lunch—if the lunch was my priority, I would be doing things to make that happen. In the third scenario, getting the latest dirt on a mutual antagonist is more important to me than going to that lunch because that is what I did—I sat down and gossiped rather than told my neighbour “…hold that thought…I’ll be back by 2 and we can talk then!” No, by inviting the neighbour in and having a gossip fest, I demonstrate that the most important thing to me is the gossip because I put the lunch aside in order to do it. The actions we engage in indicate where our priorities lie.
You can argue against that by saying you have a higher priority but have to get this little (unrelated) thing and that little (unrelated) thing done first but that doesn’t wash. If you need to sit down and break out the check book and write the monthly bills but instead you fritter away your time deep cleaning the carpet (which won’t fester and decompose if it waits another 24 hours) or defrosting the deep freeze (which will be no more frosty tomorrow than it is today), your behaviour says these items take precedence over paying the bills. Even if you acknowledge they are delaying or avoidance tactics, it doesn’t alter the fact that, in the scheme of your priorities, you gave them first place over writing out those checks. And even if you are clear in your mind that the bill paying comes first, the moment you delay it in favour of something else, you are actively giving that something else a higher priority.
This is a very useful tool for you in learning about yourself. You can write down a list of things you want/need to do in a given week, in order of priority and then see what priority you actually give them, as judged by the order in which you accomplished them. What if you find, at the end of a week, that something you ranked #1 priority out of 10 still isn’t done, even though some of the other items are? What does it tell you?
It identifies areas that you need to explore. For example, for many years I had a hard time sitting down to write the bills. Why? Because when once did, I was out of money. And that was terrifying. Even though I knew I had a roof over my head for another month and phone and electricity and water, and I knew there was enough for groceries…what if something awful happened? What if I needed a couple of thousand dollars for an emergency? I wouldn’t have it, would I? So every month was a struggle for me. I would avoid sitting down to write the checks and distract myself with other things—things like defrosting the freezer or cleaning a carpet—to take my mind off the struggle. Every month I would eventually sit down and write the checks and then it was another struggle to make myself put them in the mail. Once those checks left my hand, the money was gone and I was stressed about a possible emergency until the next pay check came in—and then the struggle to write those checks started all over again.
Having credit cards with a large enough line of credit—having thousands extra in the bank—did not fix this. I was still struggling with this internal tug-of-war when I had $20,000 extra in the bank. That is because the problem wasn’t really about not having enough money, it was my fear of being alone and without resources—abandonment—that came from my childhood. Enough money made a good buffer, but no matter how much I had, releasing some of it scared me and I put that off as much as I dared.
So, while I thought my first priority was paying the mortgage and the utilities so that I would continue to have a roof over my head and heat, my real priority was to assuage that fear of being alone and without sufficient resources to survive. And I learned that by paying attention to my behaviour and learning to analyse even the scary bits.
You can do this too, not only for yourself but for others around you. You can look at your passive aggressive sister and recognize that her priority is not getting you to come to Thanksgiving dinner at NM’s house, even though that is what it looks like. You can ask yourself what is she really after? How is she behaving? Is she wheedling and pleading? Is she demanding? Is she judgmental and shaming? Do you suspect she really wants you to come? Or would prefer you stay away? Look at her behaviour beyond being your NM’s flying monkey—what is her behaviour telling you that her words are not? What is her priority? (Very likely it is to stay in NM’s good graces and get whatever reward NM distributes to her good little bootlickers because her sense of self rests in the opinions of others and she is dependent on them to feel good about herself.)
All too often, when dealing with Ns and their sycophants, communication is a mine-field of miscommunication, subtext, innuendo and outright lies. But if you recognize that what a person actually does—the words s/he chooses to communicate—the attitude s/he displays—the action s/he takes—these things tell you what is really going on with them. Close your ears to what they say and notice what they do because therein lies the truth.
If you can discern what their real priority is, you can have a better handle on how to take care of yourself in dealing with them. And if you can figure out what your real priority is, you can more quickly learn what you need in order to take steps to go in the direction you really want to go.