Mikes Blog

Understanding Other People

Our feelings and behaviors toward other people are strongly influenced by our thoughts and perceptions of them. It is not the actions of another person in and of itself that determines what we may feel about them, but the way we give meaning to their behavior. How do you view, or perceive other people?

We cannot completely know and get into the mind of other people; so we observe them-sometimes very closely and sometimes casually. We listen, study their behavior, examine their actions and reactions and remember things about them. We develop a set of summary conclusions and derive patterns about them so that we get a “psychological portrait” of people called schemas.[1] We can take hundreds of these traits, patterns, conclusions and experiences of a person and organize them into categories which we label our “schema” of that person; a description of their personal qualities and behaviors. Some of our portraits of people are positive; but negative labels that we hold on to about people can have huge power and taint our view or perception of them. These negative conclusions, portraits, and patterns can become our only reality. We can let these become distorted to the point where “what you believe to be true is the only truth you can ever have.”[2] Why do we think the way that we do?

We have “levels” of thinking. Part of our brain focuses on text or information resulting in reasoning or deliberating, while another part may be having quick, evaluative thoughts called automatic thoughts. Automatic thoughts are words or images that go through our mind, are situation specific and are the shallowest thoughts we have. These spring up automatically and are usually rapid and brief. Generally, we are more aware of the emotions associated with the automatic thought than the thought itself. Where do automatic thoughts come from? Why do people interpret one person’s actions differently from someone else? Why might our perceptions of a person be different at various times? Beliefs!

Our most central beliefs are Core Beliefs. These understandings are fundamental and so deep to us that we rarely articulate them-even to ourselves. These ideas are regarded as “absolute truths” or “just the way things are.” They are global, rigid, and usually over generalized.[3] Judith Beck says our core beliefs are created because as we develop from childhood we are continually trying to make sense of our environment- things we see, hear, experience- and we attempt to organize these into a coherent way. We do the same with other people. The schemas you use to explain and interpret what someone does, such as your partner, are the labels that describe and fix their identity for you, and influence every dimension of the relationship. What you feel, what you give, what you ask for, and how you communicate are tremendously affected by how you’ve labeled another person.[4]

We form schemas about personality traits (she’s cold, he’s lazy, they’re a manipulator), a person’s motivations and intentions (he is only nice when he wants something, she said that to make me look bad), feelings about you (she doesn’t like me, he is really just angry with me) and even judgments about ourselves (he thinks I’m incompetent, she thinks I’m uneducated). These are usually shaped and maintained by mind reading, assumptions and false interpretations. As time goes on and these lines of thinking develop more and more, the schema becomes believable and a truth; they can become built on conjecture and fantasies that are not real. Some theories indicate these perceptions are more than just interpretations, but also can change relationships themselves as in this example: “The person who fears being rejected becomes detached and withdrawn, and soon her few friends do the same: they withdraw from her because they are put off by her interpersonal aloofness. Her belief has contributed to the rejection she fears.” [5] our own perceptions, labels and beliefs can actually become a “self fulfilling prophecy.”

When we have developed a pattern or portrait of someone that is negative, it is easily perpetuated. One way is called confirmatory bias (Meichenbaum 1988). This is the tendency to pay attention only to behaviors or communications that support the negative schema; we ignore and filter out anything that doesn’t fit with the preconceived conclusions or patterns we have developed; favorable facts don’t fit and are not remembered as clearly as the negative ones. Mental grooving (McKay & Fanning 1991) is another reason we perpetuate negative patterns of others. Many times our mind rolls the same thoughts over and over like a CD on repeat. We do this over and over when thinking of another person searching for memories or assumptions that will help us understand and respond. But our negative schemas are the assumptions we end up using to understand the other person which is full of assumptions and interpretations that are not completely true.

How do we think rightly and perceive others in the best possible light? We can remember our natural inclination toward developing negative patterns about others and guard against it. Look for alternative understandings for our perceptions-ask “Am I basing my perception on a feeling or a fact?” Is there other evidence that supports my belief about this person”? Give others the benefit of the doubt. Try to picture yourself in their shoes; show and exercise empathy. Communicate your thoughts and feelings to them in order to get clarification of their intentions and motives. Try to accept others as fallible human beings, who do make mistakes, but do not always act with malicious intent. Believe the best for and about others and be careful in judging others. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the [very] same things.” -Romans 2:1



[1] “Couple Skills” 1994 by McKay, Fanning, Paleg

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Cognitive Therapy” by Judith Beck, 1995

[4] “Couple Skills” 1994 by Mckay, Fanning, Paleg

[5] “Integrated Psychotherapy” by McMinn & Campbell 2007

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