In both my personal and professional lives, I am shocked when I come across grown ass adults who not only employ maladaptive behaviors, but defend them as inevitable.
“This is who I am,” they say when you point it out. If you’re lucky, they might stop and even apologize after the initial burst(s) of defensiveness and justification. If you’re not lucky, calling out someone’s abusive, intrusive, manipulative, and downright insulting behavior can backfire in ways that are hard to predict. They may (remember this for later):
- double down on their abuse towards their victim
- make you a target of their abuse as well, or make others who defend you a target of their abuse so you stop asking for help
- attack you into backing down
- gaslight you into believing that you’re the one who is the problem
- manipulate others who don’t have the whole story into taking their side
- “tap in” others like them as reinforcements
- wage a social and economic campaign to discredit you
- stop the behavior, and then start back up again when your shields are down
- employ a different maladaptive behavior, challenging you to address it separately.
Do you recognize this person? Are you dealing with them right now and don’t know what to do? If you are, first of all, I’m sorry. We live in a world that makes you responsible for being wary about these kinds of people, looking out for the red flags, and picking up the pieces after the abuse.
There is an infinite amount of literature and unsolicited advice out there for victims. Resources? Ehhhh… not so much. Social and financial support? Ehhhh… maybe if you’re lucky. And I wholeheartedly believe that it’s designed that way, which is why I’m not talking to the victims in this piece. I’m talking to the abusers.
- Do you recognize yourself as this person?
- Are you getting defensive?
- Do you think maybe I should mind my own business?
- Or maybe that I don’t know jack shit, and I should just shut the fuck up?
Hi. I’m Andrea. Let’s talk.
Seriously, Why Are You Like This?
Here’s the thing: to varying degrees, we are all this person. I am this person if you catch me on the wrong day, or if you wake me up before my alarm… Or wake me up ever. In psychology, adopting maladative behaviors is the consequence of not learning healthy coping skills. For example, in his stages of psychosocial development, Erikson makes the case that individuals are faced with certain psychosocial crises in the process of personality development, and that, “Failure to successfully complete a stage can result in a reduced ability to complete further stages and therefore a more unhealthy personality and sense of self.”
|If you never learn||You’re at risk of learning||At the cost of|
|ego identity||role confusion||fidelity|
Sounds simple enough, right? If you never learn the right way of doing things, you use the wrong ways.
But here’s the snag: maladaptive behaviors are inherent to our survival as a species, because they are actually tools of war in the grand scheme of things. It’s just a matter of perspective. Consider the below:
- doubling down on abuse or standing your ground
- attacking allies so you stop asking for help or identifying the enemy
- attack you into backing down or adapting an offensive strategy
- gaslighting or using psychological warfare
- manipulate outsiders to take their side or recruitment of troops
- tapping others like them or calling in seasoned reinforcements
- waging a socioeconomic campaign to discredit you or spreading propaganda
- stopping and starting back up again or instituting a temporary reprieve
- employ a different maladaptive behavior or switching strategies
What is the majority of our human history full of? War.
Who got to establish the rules or our societies and write our history? The winners. i.e. white men.
And what are the current systems of power? Capitalism and patriarchy.
The current systems of power are designed to benefit white men, and white passing men first. So as a group, men are encouraged to engage in behaviors to establish dominance among their peers or within their relationships. The current systems of power also encourage little introspection in these men, because
1. while they benefit men as a group, they hurt men as individuals, and
2. these systems make for pliable, malleable little soldiers ready for the picking.
The second group that benefits from these systems of power are white women and white passing women. It’s why we, women of color and intersectional feminists, have such a problem with white women continuously making political decisions against their own interests. Because they’re betting on their white privilege to protect them.
Meanwhile men and women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and other socially disenfranchised groups that are not passing, are encouraged to engage in the same maladative behaviors to compete against each other for employment, safety, or simply for the attention and approval of men within the current power structure.
The problem is, no matter how much we in-fight, betray each other, bargain with patriarchy, and sell our souls to capitalism, we will never have the same power as white men. And if you refuse to play the game? You will be rejected, disenfranchised, abused, and/or excommunicated.
The problem is that the current systems of power hurt all of us, and are dependent on our complacency, stubbornness, and naivete. As long as we are fighting each other over a slice of the pie, disenfranchising others or finding solace in the idea that at least we’re not as bad off as those other people, we are not paying attention to the fact that those in power, real power, ran off with the whole fucking pie.
As long as you refuse to look within, you’re less likely to face the fact that every authority figure in your life lied to you.
Change isn’t easy. The process of changing bad habits and behaviors is very similar to living with addiction. With addiction recovery, you have to relearn how to go about your routine without the addiction. With behavior, you have to relearn how to function without falling back on your bad behaviors to get your way.
I think that changing behavior is harder than addiction, because:
- Addiction involves tangible things (cigarettes, drugs, alcohol) while behaviors are intangible.
- Many maladative behaviors are actually very useful in the right setting.
- The people around you may be just as maladjusted as you, or worse, giving little incentive to be better.
- If it’s worked before, what’s the point in changing?
- Maladaptive behaviors are often key to individual survival.
- It’s very difficult for some people to separate their opinions and habits from their sense of self.
Remember this speech from the Pickle Rick episode of Rick and Morty? Bolding mine:
“Rick, the only connection between your unquestionable intelligence and the sickness destroying your family is that everyone in your family, you included, use intelligence to justify sickness.
You seem to alternate between viewing your own mind as an unstoppable force and as an inescapable curse. And I think it’s because the only truly unapproachable concept for you is that it’s your mind within your control. You chose to come here, you chose to talk -to belittle my vocation- just as you chose to become a pickle.
You are the master of your universe, and yet you are dripping with rat blood and feces. Your enormous mind literally vegetating by your own hand.
I have no doubt that you would be bored senseless by therapy, the same way I’m bored when I brush my teeth and wipe my ass. Because the thing about repairing, maintaining, and cleaning is it’s not an adventure. There’s no way to do it so wrong you might die. It’s just work. And the bottom line is, some people are okay going to work, and some people well, some people would rather die. Each of us gets to choose.” – Rick and Morty, Season 3, Episode 3 (I loved this show before it was cool)
Bad habits are not mysterious, uncontrollable compulsions that take over you when you’re at your most vulnerable. They’re learned behaviors, and its very easy to become enamored with your own damage. It’s also why so many people had such a strong negative reaction to the above monologue. No one likes being told that something you thought made you special is actually ordinary and toxic.
The difference is between:
- knowing this about yourself
- not liking this about yourself
- acknowledging and apologizing for the behavior
- actively working to change, and
- recognizing it hurts the very people that care about you
- justifying the behavior
- defending it
- finding incremental ways of getting away with similar behavior
Introspection and real change is downright traumatic. You’re also very likely to face some setback, but it’s also a necessary process.
So, What Now?
In no particular order:
Get a therapist
Seriously, it’s the easiest, most complete step you can take to make a change in your life. Therapists, counselors and licensed processionals are equipped to give you the tools to cope. Please note, they are also people, and you may need to shop around before finding one that works for you.
Reading is also one of the easiest ways to gain perspective outside of your own bubble of experience. Read books set in different points in time or about different cultures. Explore self-help from the right sources, psychology, history and of course, sociology. Read things that you wouldn’t have otherwise checked out and analyze them. Criticize them, and absorb the pieces that ring true, and read some more.
Learn a new skill or hobby
I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the piano, and learn ballet, and write fiction. I’ve realized lately that nothing is stopping me, and I am taking steps to finally immerse myself in the things that make me happy. Do that for yourself too. Go to ComicCon, learn to paint, do all the things that you were once shamed out of loving.
Change your surroundings
Leaving people, places, and communities behind is one of the hardest parts. It’ especially hard when those people, places and communities had a hand in shaping who you are. This includes toxic friends and relationships, but also family members who do more harm than good. Set boundaries, and stick to them. It’s not easy, and the process will be painful and personal. But you will not be able to move forward if you’re surrounded others who want you to stay the same.
Accept that some people may not forgive you
You’ve truly changed or have set real, actionable steps to change. That’s great. But here’s the thing: there’s a chance those you’ve hurt won’t believe you, or won’t care. Some relationships are so damaged that the best thing you can do is walk away, and leave them in peace. Respect that. There are currently 7.5 billion people on this earth. If you’ve really grown up and changed, at least a handful of those people will be excited to get to know the new you.
Keep working on yourself
Once you start identifying your areas of growth, you will realize that there are other ways you can be better. Don’t be discouraged by this! Identifying the ways you can grow is actually a good thing, because you’re seeing your potential instead of despair. Continue to lean in that direction, and you’ll get there. It’s like any workout program says: It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Just get started.