The Limits of Reason: How to Think about Your Date, Your Boss, Your Mom, etc.

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As a therapist, I hear a lot of concerns from my patients about parents, bosses, romantic partners, and so forth. The thoughts often take the form of “Why did he do that?” or “What was he thinking?”

Some of this is worth questioning. In life it is useful to take the role of the other person, to look at things from his or her perspective, to try to “understand” that individual’s motivations and reasoning process.

But, there are limits. Here are just a few that make understanding difficult:

1. People don’t always carefully weigh their decisions before making them. We humans frequently think and act impulsively or emotionally. It can be a bit harder to fathom an ill-considered act than one that is carefully reasoned.

2. The person whose mind you wish to enter may not know himself well at all. When you recall what he says are the reasons for his actions, you need to be aware that he may be fooling himself. Alternatively, he might be dishonest with you, giving you less than a full set of data, trying to prevent himself from looking bad in your eyes, or attempting to protect you from being hurt by the truth.

3. We all act in self-serving ways much of the time. The same person who says that he hates it when someone ends a relationship without explaining why — not even making contact or returning phone calls — might well avoid the discomfort of a final farewell or confrontation himself when he decides that a relationship should end, thereby doing the very thing that has been done to him.

4. Most people, in or out of therapy, are often indirect in expressing their unhappiness with you or their disappointments about your behavior. (Marital conflicts and parents talking to children can be noteworthy exceptions to this general rule). But, in the absence of direct communication, it is difficult to be a good mind reader. Indeed, crystal balls are in short supply whenever I go shopping.

5. When trying to understand others, we look for some form of logic. To seek something that is often missing within the person is a pretty big misunderstanding of how people think and act.

6. You may not have enough history and background information to make an accurate analysis of what drives this individual to do what he does.

7. Do you really know the person well “under the skin?” There is often a mismatch between what is happening on the inside and what is occurring on the outside. Put differently, the contradiction between surface appearances and internal truth often affirms the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Too much time trying to figure out another person is unproductive. For this reason and those cited above, I encourage my patients to set some limits on the amount of time they spend attempting to get into someone else’s head. At bottom, I think, what most of us are looking for is the understanding that will allow us to return to the relationship and put it right, now that we have found the “answer” to what transpired. Or, something that will console us or produce the closure that we are hoping for at the relationship’s end. By attempting to “understand,” we are frequently seeking a sense of intellectual control, partially to acquire information that will prevent future disappointments, but also to compensate us for our loss and to silence the nagging internal voice that asks “What happened?” and “Did I do something wrong?”

It is better, beyond a certain point, to consider several things about oneself:

a. Why did I choose that person to be with? (Obviously this doesn’t apply to your parents; nor does it always apply to bosses or co-workers).

b. How did it happen that I missed the early warning signs of trouble? Oh, I know that you might think that such signs didn’t exist, but it could be that you ignored them, minimized them, or had a blind-spot for them.

c. Why didn’t I set some limits on the relationship in order to prevent the other person from injuring me? And, if I tried, why did my efforts fail?

d. Why didn’t I leave the relationship earlier?

e. What, if anything, did I contribute to the problems that occurred between my friend/partner/lover/boss and myself?

f. Have I grieved the loss or disappointment fully (including attention to both my sadness and my anger)?

g. What do I have to do differently in order to minimize or avoid problems like this in the future?

Instead of addressing the situation in these ways, with these questions, most of us spend no small amount of time ruminating, and then looking for something we can say to the other person to get them to behave as we wish. With some individuals that is possible, but not with everyone.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color-line is instructive in this regard. As you might know, Robinson and his boss, Branch Rickey, agreed that he would not respond to the abuse from fans, players, and coaches that both expected he would receive when he became the first black man in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. But, despite two years of taking every racially demeaning insult known to mid-century white males, he succeeded in playing well. Moreover, by this time there were other blacks in the Major Leagues and a great experiment in civil rights had succeeded.

If the story I’ve heard is true, Robinson and Branch Rickey had a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training at the start of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They agreed that Robinson could now be himself, and fight back with words or fists, if necessary. Soon after, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, who did not know that Robinson was no longer on a leash. The middle-aged man from the deep south who coached third base therefore once again began the verbal onslaught that he had performed with impunity for the two previous seasons. Robinson called time and walked over to the third base coaching box.

Remember that Robinson had lettered in four sports at UCLA, including football (as a running back). More than most, he radiated intensity, strength, courage, and intelligence. So it was that Robinson moved within inches of the bigot, looked straight into his eyes, and said: “If you ever say anything to me like that again, I’ll kill you.”

Now, I bring this up not to recommend death threats, but rather to point out that Robinson knew exactly who he was dealing with. He knew this man was not going to be persuaded to behave himself by high-flown verbal eloquence; he knew that spending much time thinking about this man’s character was a waste. What Robinson knew for certain was that there was only one thing he needed to understand about his nemesis (his intolerance) and only one approach that would work:

  • I’m bigger and stronger than you are, so if you don’t stop, I will beat the crap out of you.

Everything changed that day as others quickly realized that Jackie Robinson was not a man who could be insulted any more.

Of course, we all need to spend some time thinking about others and why they do what they do. But, endless rumination on the subject rarely is enlightening or successful in making us feel better.

Some people are like boulders. They are big, hard, insensate, obdurate, and potentially damaging objects. It is essential to see their potential to injure and realize that when you are downhill from such a human bolder, you are in danger.

If you understand how gravity works and get out-of-the-way, that is all you need to know and do — all you can do.

A shame, but true.

The image above is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.

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