I’m writing this post partially so I can refer back to it for future writings. Because I know I’ll need it. In any case, here we go…
Whenever I think about people and how to work with them, or how to give context to politics or headlines, or how to make a decision about how to deal with someone or something, I refer to what I know about how people work, psychologically. And one thing I deeply believe is that all behavior is communication– our actions are the outcome of our psychology and emotion. It’s possible to have many feelings and thoughts about a thing, even intentions, but what it comes down to is how we act on those things. Behavior is pretty damn indicative of what we’re really about.
I tend to fall in love with behaviors. Because behavior is the truth. We only use our bodies – our behavior and actions – to do what we most want to, what we most care about, or most believe we are capable of. So, behavior indicates so much more than words.
If we back up, though, here are things I take into consideration when I look at behavior. Because behavior comes from many places, and we need to consider those things if we want to know what is being communicated, what behavior means.
We know that male and female brains have some differences. They may not be as disparate as we have been lead to believe, but as someone who had a more testosterone-based brain for five years, there is a difference in brain chemistry based on sex hormones and this difference definitely influences behavior. When I was juiced on testosterone I had more focus, ambition, sexual thoughts, and lowered inhibitions than ever in my life. Hormone-based brain function is not an excuse for shitty behaviors, we are all capable of every human emotion and choice, but it can be explanatory and help us find meaning in behavior.
Brains mature at different ages. Males tend to mature later than females, and so I take that into consideration when I look at behavior. Did a bunch of 18 year-old guys do something stupid? Their brains may not have been mature enough to make a better decision. Again, this doesn’t excuse poor behavior, but it can explain choices and help us to develop education and tools to avoid poor behavior in the future.
Also, after the age of 18, unless you have organic brain disorders, I believe you are responsible for every choice you make and the ensuing outcomes. You’re big enough to drive a car and vote, you’re big enough to be responsible for your shit. Even if you’ve had difficulties, you have the choice to get help and tackle the effect of those difficulties in your life (for instance, co-dependency, trauma, or abuse).
The ages 0-5 are the years in which ‘normal’ is set for the psyche. This means that what happens during those years is what will feel ‘normal’ or ‘right’ for us for a long time, perhaps our whole life. And if something difficult or horrible happens during these years, that can also feel ‘normal’ – and be problematic. For people who spent ages 0-5 with arguing parents or in abusive homes (or any other awful thing) this feels ‘normal’ to them, and they may seek to perpetuate it in adulthood, even if they know it’s not healthy, good, or right for them.
The impact of images and feelings upon the psyche is especially important in these years because they are the only internal guidance we have- words are almost non-existent for the first 2 years of life, even though we are having significant development experiences. I have watched friends and acquaintances work through abandonment issues, which occurred when they were 8 months old. Traumatic events in the early years have deep, lasting impact, and they have to be accounted for when we look at people’s behavior and what that behavior means.
Trauma is when an experience is so emotionally overwhelming that we shut off. The emotional point at which trauma occurs is different for each person. For some, a car accident may be unpleasant, but it can be overcome relatively easily. For others, a car accident may mean lasting physical or psychological pain- which may take years to heal.
Trauma informs behavior in so many ways I can’t possibly mention them all here. But what trauma mostly does is make people feel confused, frustrated, and doubt themselves (often because they know they want to do something, but can’t seem to do it). Of course, trauma can also lead to stress and anxiety and unhealthy coping behaviors. Traumatic behaviors can also feel like sub-conscious behaviors, a la “I don’t know why I do that, I just do.”
Highly Sensitive People
Perhaps due to trauma, but also sometimes just to physiologic factors, some people are more highly sensitive than others. Their physiologic and sensual systems get overwhelmed with small amounts of data. They can be highly attuned to the energy of places and people, and many HSPs notice lots of details as their system tries to process the environment and make sense of it. This can influence their behavior to turn inwards, ‘hate people,’ or feel anxious (and behave accordingly).
I do believe that humans have stages of development, growth hurdles they must overcome in order to be fully developed (and often, these tasks aren’t fun and produce complicated, difficult feelings). I’m not sure that Erikson has the whole picture, because every human is unique, but his theory is a good place to start.
Knowing that people may be dealing with a particular stage of growth can tell us something about their choices and ensuing behaviors. If someone is trying to know who they are as an adult, we can gain some insight into their behaviors (i.e. hanging out with different groups, trying on different clothing styles, etc). As well, if people skip a particular growth hurdle, they may need to go back and finish it, which can result in behaviors that look immature for a particular age.
I also believe there is something to the idea of personality typing such as Myers-Briggs or even astrological symbols. Maybe we shouldn’t take these too seriously, but I think they are good templates from which to learn about people and be able to make some foundational assessments as to whether we can connect or not.
Mental Health Issues
Of course any mental health issue is going to influence behavior. Whether we are talking about depression or schizophrenia, how our brain works is probably the most important factor in our behavior. And if our brain isn’t working along the continuum of ‘normal’ (which is also highly questionable label), behavior may range from confusing to outside the shared reality we currently inhabit. (Which is to say: I’m not entirely sure that people with schizophrenia aren’t just inhabiting a reality the rest of us can’t see, but a reality that also remains completely valid.) It’s always good to know if someone has a mental health issue they are dealing with when we try to figure out what their behavior is trying to communicate.
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Behavior falls into two categories, generally. Conscious and sub-conscious behavior. Conscious behavior is the things we do and know we are doing them, the actions we take on purpose. Sub-conscious behavior is the things we don’t notice we’re doing or the things we do ‘just because’ or ‘I don’t know why.’ Sometimes we don’t want to acknowledge our conscious behaviors (‘no, I didn’t do that’) because it goes against our sense of ourselves or our greater motives or we suspect we’ll be punished for our choice. Sometimes we’re just straight up lying about what our behavior means, to ourselves and others. But, of course, that is just another form of communication through behavior, isn’t it?
All of this is to say that these are the things I am wondering about when I look at people’s behavior. But, more importantly, I am also looking at behavior as communication of many of these factors- the communication goes both ways. Behavior is also as an indicator of what you really are, what you truly believe in, and what you most want. Everything you are doing, everything I am doing, is an attempt to communicate something, even if we don’t know what we’re doing, even if we don’t know that we’re doing it. The trick in this life is know as much as we can about ourselves, heal ourselves, and be as conscious as we can – in both our words and our actions.