One of my favorite stories to tell is about how two villains ruined my life. How they lured me in with sweet words and then dashed my hopes, sending my life into a tailspin. When this happened, I careened way beyond annoyed. There’s LIVID. IRATE. ENRAGED! HATEFUL! INCENSED! INFURIATED!”
It is an amazing, energizing story! I loved telling the story because I got a charge out of it. People love hearing about a villain, and I would get wonderfully supportive comments. Folks were WITH me! They wanted to know what happened next, how I lived through it, and then I’d tell the story of three heroes who changed my harrowing tale.
But this about villains, not heroes. BWHAHAHAHAHAHA.
We love villains. They make stories so much fun. Their presence elicits sympathy.
Which of these villains shows up in your story?
- That person who is a thorn in your side.
- The one who just won’t do what they ought to do. They know better.
- Someone who willfully uses people for their own gains? UGH.
- The control freak? Or that person who makes snide comments about you, as if you don’t have the right to do what you want with your time, energy, and money!
- The driver you were following on the road this morning?
- That a** who seems determined to ruin what you’ve worked so hard to build up from nothing?
- That one bad boss
- The person who dressed you down in public!
- The moron running for political office, who willruin everything and for some reason actually has followers!
Wow. Even as I type this I can feel tension all over my body. Arms, legs, face, fists–I’m so ready for a fight! Man, I wanna get in there! I’ll teach you!
calming breaths… calming breaths…
One thing’s clear: a villain in your life takes an emotional toll.
We have different mental systems for processing our thoughts about friends, and about enemies. (We process thoughts about ourselves using the “friend” system usually.) Categorizing people into “friend” or “foe” groups helps us to quickly determine what they are doing. Without this process, our brains would take too much time and energy analyzing every action for trustworthiness. When the heat is on, we need an easy way of knowing whether to go along or to resist. By sorting people into “friend” or “foe” groups, we quickly know where to build alliances and who gets our fight-or-flight responses.
One result is that we give “friends” the benefit of the doubt unless some egregious behavior is perceived. We see the actions of our “foes” in the worst light possible unless some significant experience makes us realize that we were completely wrong about them. And most of us have had experiences of having to resort someone we thought belonged in one category, and then they proved otherwise.
One of the heroes in the story I referred to at the top of this post is someone whom I originally categorized as ‘villain’ only because of her physical resemblance to a bad boss I’d experienced just a couple of years before. If I’d stayed committed to seeing her as a villain (as a poor, misguided friend kept advising me to do), I would have lost so much.
The choice to trust that someone has acted out of positive intentions can open up possibilities for creative solutions that stay hidden when we are acting out of a need to protect ourselves. We are better able to influence and persuade rather than try to coerce compliance. We’re better able to handle the situation with perspective and options.
It can be important to periodically question our categorization of the foes in our lives. The more we move people from ‘foe’ to ‘friend’, the more allies we have, the lower our stress reactions (tension, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and other psychosomatic symptoms), and the greater our creativity. If we can accomplish the switch, we actually have more opportunities for connection, empathy, and belonging.
How could you determine if someone has been miscast as a villain? Consider:
- What evidence do you have that this person is dangerous? If you still have strong angry feelings associated with your memories, you may have trouble questioning their categorization as foe. However, if you “just have a feeling” about them and have a hard time pinpointing why, or if you can admit your sorting of them was based on a trivial judgment, it might be time to consider giving them a second chance.
- If you do have evidence that they’re a threatening presence, take a closer look at that evidence. We usually interpret others’ behavior so quickly that we don’t even realize it’s happened. Try teasing apart your observations (What actions could be picked up by a video camera? What words would have been recorded by a tape recorder?) from your interpretations (what you believe they meant). This can be a rich area for discovering places where we’ve miscategorized a person because we’ve misjudged their behavior.
- What other possible explanations can you uncover for the behavior you observed? It can help to ask someone else for ideas to gain some distance from the situation. Or, imagine someone with a different background and life experience interpreting the actions you observed?
- Practice awareness of common humanity. This one has been most important for me of late. Humans have fundamentally similar needs, so it can help just to repeat a phrase like this one with your villain in mind: “This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.” Notice any judgments that might come up, such as “If that’s true, then they should…!” Notice it, and let it go. “Should” thoughts just fuel the anger, and distort our understanding of reality.
When we question our casting of someone as “villain,” it gives us power to change the story to stop being the victim and start being the hero. No longer are “they” to blame for our experience. If we can begin to see and empathize with their common humanity and the needs that drive their actions we regain mental balance, and we can handle the situation with perspective and more creative options.
Start by noticing how you feel, physically, when you’re telling a story about someone who drives you crazy. What is all of that tension doing to you in the long run? What if you could let it go?
Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders who want to ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in their teams.
Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.