Getting along with others is a fundamental skill for living together. Misunderstandings can easily arise. Sometimes clear disagreements emerge. Generally, we can resolve these challenges with good listening and a little humility. But sometimes two people get deeply stuck, each becoming trapped in their own narrative about the situation—one that leaves them feeling righteous, separate, and unhappy.
I see three widespread beliefs that trap us, elaborated on below:
- Believing our assessments are true
- Believing our memories are accurate
- Believing people have fixed selves
1. Believing our assessments are true
Assessments or judgments are how we evaluate people and circumstances. They are as they are named: assessments. They are not statements of fact. To arrive to an assessment, we may consider many facts, but the assessment is still a judgment laid over the facts. As such, the assessment is never true, in the sense that an observable or measurable fact is.
There is nothing wrong with making assessments. We need to make assessments about all kinds of situations to move forward in our lives. The problem comes when we make assessments about others, our situation, or our lives, and believe the assessments to be true, like facts. In that moment, we become trapped by the perspective presented by the assessment.
2. Believing our memories are accurate
There is now an abundance of research which demonstrates how unreliable memory is. Memory is not a recording of the past like a video tape that we later replay. Rather, something happens to us at a certain moment which affects and alters our nervous system (creates a memory, if you will). As we continue to live life, we are affected by other events, including stories we hear. When we later “remember” the original event, we generate an experience in the present which is based upon the original changes, but also draws upon other experiences we have had. In our recalling of the event, we cannot separate the new dimensions from the original event.
I used to be amazed to hear my siblings’ account of childhood incidents—they were not how I remembered them. I was delighted when I found photos that supported what I remembered, but even then, I was struck that the scene did not look that close to how I remembered it. Now I just enjoy their accounts, as well as my own, knowing that all of them are at least partially fictional. Once you realize that your memories are not accurate, you cannot help but be humble about them. On the other side, however, if you believe your memories to be true, it is very difficult not to be righteous about them, and consequently trapped by them.
3. Believing people have fixed selves
Common sense teaches us that we have a self and that everyone else does, too. Our selves are a kind of “person object,” having finite and fixed qualities. These qualities are often named, sometimes with adjectives like “smart” or “bad,” and sometimes as more specialized objects like “alcoholic” or “drug addict.” The belief that we have these object-like selves is false.
It makes more sense to say that people are collections of patterns about which we tell stories. The patterns are biological and psychological. Some we inherit genetically; others emerge in our development. When we say someone is skilled, we are talking about positive patterns they have in some field of endeavor. When we say someone is lazy, we are talking about negative patterns in some area. Fortunately, our patterns evolve and change. When they evolve in direction recognized as positive, we say we have learned something.
About these collections of patterns, we tell stories, which generally identify the person as a fixed self. He is a smart person or she is an evil person. (We do the same about ourselves, which is the root of our suffering.) When we believe these stories are true—that there really is a fixed self with these qualities—whether about others or ourselves, we are trapped.
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These beliefs are widespread and deeply held. Even with a clear understanding of them, most of us will still get caught from time to time. Nevertheless, awareness of these traps can make resolving conflicts much easier and more satisfying.