Is what you do who you are?

How many times have you called your­self and oth­ers pathetic, stu­pid? “Not good enough” are the three words that would cover all the things that are “wrong” with you and oth­ers. Maybe you have noticed that this often func­tions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. After repeat­ing to your­self that you are stu­pid, you really start doing more and more stu­pid things. Why? Because you are “stu­pid”, of course! What else can you do? That’s how things are. Only stu­pid peo­ple do stu­pid things. Right? That’s who you are, you become con­vinced. When you think that some­one is __________ (fill in the blank) you relate to him/her as who she/he “is”, in appro­pri­ate fashion.

This prac­tice becomes even more promi­nent with your (ex)partner when your rela­tion­ship is not work­ing out the way you’d want it to work.

In the case of the rela­tion­ship brake up, in order to alle­vi­ate our suf­fer­ing we engage in a blame game, e.g. name-calling. It makes no dif­fer­ence whom we blame for the sit­u­a­tion as long as it is “some­one.” This, of course, includes our very selves. We first blame oth­ers, our part­ner and all the peo­ple he/she knows, and our friends and fam­ily for all sorts of dif­fer­ent rea­sons, from not warn­ing us to not agree­ing with our side of the story.  In order to absolve our­selves from any respon­si­bil­ity of a wrong judg­ment the com­plaint is not only focused on what peo­ple did, but who they ARE (thus name-calling), because of their deeds or the lack of. Of course, he lied to me, he IS a liar. Now, here lies the most dan­ger­ous and far-reaching mis­take. Peo­ple do all sorts of things, but that’s not nec­es­sar­ily who they are. If you lie once, are you a liar? If you fall in love with some­one else, are you a cheat, not faith­ful etc.? If you say some­thing rude do you become a rude per­son for­ever and exclu­sively. If you do a stu­pid thing it does not mean that you ARE stu­pid. You just did a stu­pid thing, and … by whose judg­ment your deed was stu­pid? Many “stu­pid” things we do turn out not to be so stu­pid after all. If some­one does not love you any more it does not mean that you are not lov­able, or not good enough as a person.

Although we judge peo­ple by their behav­ior, do not for­get that we judge our­selves by our inten­tions, and so do they. Step­ping into another person’s shoes and find­ing out what his/her inten­tions are is an act of grace, love and com­pas­sion. Also, you must under­stand that other peo­ple judge you by your behav­ior and that they are not obliged to know what your inten­tions are. They may not be inter­ested in your inten­tions. Your behav­ior speaks for itself. You have no right to expect peo­ple to be lov­ing, gra­cious and com­pas­sion­ate. You can­not make them wrong for it. All that has noth­ing to do with you, any­way. You need to be respon­si­ble for your own behav­ior and how you come across for oth­ers. At the same time it does not mean that you should asso­ciate at any cost with peo­ple who exhibit per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders in their habit­ual behav­ior. Ego­cen­tric, obsessive-compulsive, depres­sive, passive-aggressive, socio­pathic, bor­der­line, nar­cis­sis­tic, histri­onic etc. are just some exam­ples of the char­ac­ters to be avoided, not to men­tion abusers and addicts.

In the case of the well-balanced men­tally healthy peo­ple, the maxim that you should “treat oth­ers the way you want to be treated” is not very help­ful. There are too many oppor­tu­ni­ties to screw up. The bet­ter one would be

“Treat oth­ers the way they want to be treated”

To do this requires a large dose of the uncon­di­tional love and trust. (Accept the fact that not every­one who is offi­cially an adult will act as one all the time.) Peo­ple do make mis­takes, but mis­takes are part of life. The prob­lem is that we con­sider mis­takes to be “bad.” Mis­takes are just that, mis­takes, and an error in judg­ment. No one has ever escaped from mak­ing mis­takes. Why we are then, so harsh in blam­ing oth­ers (and our­selves) for mak­ing mis­takes. Being more for­giv­ing of oth­ers and our own actions is a cer­tain road to hap­pi­ness and self-growth.



Peo­ple are very open-minded about new things…

as long as they’re exactly like the old ones!

—Charles Ket­ter­ing


Open-mindedness is the will­ing­ness to search actively for evi­dence against one’s favored beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evi­dence fairly when it is available.

Being open-minded does not imply that one is inde­ci­sive, wishy-washy, or inca­pable of think­ing for one’s self. After con­sid­er­ing var­i­ous alter­na­tives, an open-minded per­son can take a firm stand on a posi­tion and act accordingly.

The oppo­site of open-mindedness is what is called the myside bias which refers to the per­va­sive ten­dency to search for evi­dence and eval­u­ate evi­dence in a way that favors your ini­tial beliefs. Most peo­ple show myside bias, but some are more biased than others.

Ben­e­fits of Open-Mindedness

Research sug­gests the fol­low­ing ben­e­fits of open-mindedness:

  • Open-minded, cog­ni­tively com­plex indi­vid­u­als are less swayed by sin­gu­lar events and are more resis­tant to sug­ges­tion and manipulation.
  • Open-minded indi­vid­u­als are bet­ter able to pre­dict how oth­ers will behave and are less prone to projection.
  • Open-minded indi­vid­u­als tend to score bet­ter on tests of gen­eral cog­ni­tive abil­ity like the SAT or an IQ test. (Of course we don’t know whether being open-minded makes one smarter or vice versa.)

Open-Mindedness as a “Cor­rec­tive Virtue”

Social and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have noted wide­spread errors in judgment/thinking to which we are all vul­ner­a­ble. In order to be open-minded, we have to work against these basic ten­den­cies, lead­ing virtue ethi­cists to call open-mindedness a cor­rec­tive virtue.

In addi­tion to the myside bias described above, here are three other cog­ni­tive ten­den­cies that work against open-minded thinking:

1) Selec­tive Exposure

We main­tain our beliefs by selec­tively expos­ing our­selves to infor­ma­tion that we already know is likely to sup­port those beliefs. Lib­er­als tend to read lib­eral news­pa­pers, and Con­ser­v­a­tives tend to read con­ser­v­a­tive newspapers.

2) Pri­macy Effects

The evi­dence that comes first mat­ters more than evi­dence pre­sented later. Trial lawyers are very aware of this phe­nom­e­non. Once jurors form a belief, that belief becomes resis­tant to counterevidence.

3) Polar­iza­tion

We tend to be less crit­i­cal of evi­dence that sup­ports our beliefs than evi­dence that runs counter to our beliefs. In an inter­est­ing exper­i­ment that demon­strates this phe­nom­e­non, researchers pre­sented indi­vid­u­als with mixed evi­dence on the effec­tive­ness of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment on reduc­ing crime. Even though the evi­dence on both sides of the issue was per­fectly bal­anced, indi­vid­u­als became stronger in their ini­tial posi­tion for or against cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. They rated evi­dence that sup­ported their ini­tial belief as more con­vinc­ing, and they found flaws more eas­ily in the evi­dence that coun­tered their ini­tial beliefs.

What Encour­ages Open-Mindedness?

Research sug­gests that peo­ple are more likely to be open-minded when they are not under time pres­sure. (Our gut reac­tions aren’t always the most accurate.)

Indi­vid­u­als are more likely to be open-minded when they believe they are mak­ing an impor­tant deci­sion. (This is when we start mak­ing lists of pros and cons, seek­ing the per­spec­tives of oth­ers, etc.)

Some research sug­gests that the way in which an idea is pre­sented can affect how open-minded some­one is when con­sid­er­ing it. For exam­ple, a typ­i­cal method of assess­ing open-mindedness in the lab­o­ra­tory is to ask a par­tic­i­pant to list argu­ments on both sides of a com­pli­cated issue (e.g., the death penalty, abor­tion, ani­mal test­ing). What typ­i­cally hap­pens is that indi­vid­u­als are able to list far more argu­ments on their favored side. How­ever, if the researcher then encour­ages the par­tic­i­pant to come up with more argu­ments on the oppos­ing side, most peo­ple are able to do so with­out too much dif­fi­culty. It seems that indi­vid­u­als have these counter-arguments stored in mem­ory but they don’t draw on them when first asked.

Exer­cises to Build Open-Mindedness

In my read­ings, I did not uncover any open-mindedness inter­ven­tions. But in the spirit of creativity/originality I con­sulted Cather­ine Freemire, LCSW [Cather­ine Freemire, LCSW, Bal­anced Life Coach­ing, ], a clin­i­cal ther­a­pist and pro­fes­sional coach renowned for her cre­ative think­ing. She came up with three exer­cises for build­ing open-mindedness which I think are def­i­nitely worth trying:

Select an emo­tion­ally charged, debat­able topic (e.g., abor­tion, prayer in school, health­care reform, the cur­rent war in Iraq) and take the oppo­site side from your own. Write five valid rea­sons to sup­port this view. (While typ­ing Catherine’s idea, I had a related one of my own: If you are con­ser­v­a­tive in your polit­i­cal beliefs, lis­ten to Al Frankin’s radio show; if you are lib­eral, lis­ten to Rush Lim­baugh! While you are lis­ten­ing, try to avoid the cog­ni­tive error of polar­iza­tion described above.)

1. Remem­ber a time when you were wronged by some­one in the past. Gen­er­ate three plau­si­ble rea­sons why this per­son inad­ver­tently or inten­tion­ally wronged you.

2. This one is for par­ents: Think of a topic that you con­sis­tently argue about with your teen or grown child. Now, take their posi­tion and think of 3 sub­stan­tial rea­sons why their point of view is valid. (This could also be done with spouses or any fam­ily mem­bers for that matter!)

© 2004 Authen­tic Hap­pi­ness Coach­ing. All rights reserved.



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