I have many people coming into my practice who aren’t happy with their decision making skills. “I am way to easily influenced” they will say. “Whatever my wife/father/boss/girlfriend says, I will take it to heart.” They want to be more autonomous, more determined and less swayed by others in the way they think about the world and themselves.
While it certainly is problematic if your whole personality is taken over by other people’s will, it is a fact of life that we tend to adjust to what our environment is communicating to us. In his book “Situations Matter – How Context Transforms Your World,” Sam Sommers, professor of psychology at Tufts University, explains how much the people around us matter – whether it’s the family, our colleagues, our culture or even the geographical surroundings we live in.
It’s particularly hard for Americans to accept that we are social animals like that, because our culture stresses values like independence and individualism so much. We expect to be able to have it our way at all times, because group thinking is not what we grow up with.
At the same time, we feel drawn to personalities who seem to have a certain determination about them. We look up to them as stable and consistent decision makers, when they are in fact just as vulnerable to outside influences as the rest of us. So if they change their mind, we feel betrayed and let down and blame them for being weak, when in reality it’s us who feel the need to hold on to someone else and refuse to take responsibility for ourselves.
What I am trying to say is that we all share this tendency to let other people have a say in how we think, and while it’s not always easy to deal with this kind of unpredictability, we are all equally responsible for ourselves. It’s easy to point the finger at others, but hard to try to be understanding when they fail us. We like to jump to conclusions because it makes the world more predictable. Nobody likes uncertainty. It’s the hardest thing to accept.
Sommers suggests that we should be more forgiving when others disappoint us, but at the same time encourages us to try and break out of this tendency to adapt mindlessly when the stakes are high. We all have read about the passive bystanders, when someone is in need of help. The crowd becomes this anonymous mass of accomplices. No one wants to take the first step, and everyone reinforces the other with their passivity until one courageous person takes the initiative and inspires others to follow.
Next time you need the help of a good Samaritan, don’t just cry for help, says Sommers. Pick out a random figure and yell, “hey, you in the blue jacket, give me a hand!” By addressing someone directly, we appeal to the individual’s responsibility, and thereby give them permission to act – even if the outcome is less than perfect.
In that moment, it’s not just victim and helper any more. You are making a joint effort. And this is what makes it possible for others to join in as well.