We humans make and seek patterns in everything we do. Sometimes we’re conscious of these patterns, and often we’re not. Discerning patterns is an evolutionary advantage that’s helped us survive, as the complex web of life is filled with them. A rudimentary example is patterns of color on reptiles, plants, fish and insects warning of toxicity.
We organize and sort patterns into objective taxonomies and hierarchies as we learn and strive to make sense of our world, and we label them.
I’ve been thinking about labels for years, and I’ve written about them previously. Our tendency to create labels and slap them on others has become more vicious and hysterical than ever before, and I’m concerned about this entirely divisive trend.
Language is an agreed-upon set of symbols. Nouns describe specific objects or ideas. Nouns are, by their nature, exclusive. That’s why they exist. A pencil is not a door. A tree is not a river. Labels are nouns, too, but they can be sloppy and imprecise, and they’re weighted with a lot of subjectivity and emotion. If we talk about a pencil in mixed company, we’re not likely to cause a scene. If we talk about being a Republican, or a feminist, or an anti-vaxxer, we’re asking for trouble.
Many people create and use labels as social weapons in order to convey hatred and contempt rather than specific objective meaning.
The complex system we call life on earth is infinitely complicated, and we, as parts of that system, are also complicated.
Subjective labels are superficial, a mere glimmer on the surface of a deep well. They’re all about one-stop shopping and contain the emotional maturity of name calling. They often originate with individuals or groups who seek power over others. Anyone, regardless of education, experience, or expertise, can label anyone else, and frequently do, ruining credibility, reputations, and careers. Labels are limiting and confining. They concentrate a personal attack on one perceived aspect of a human being and ignore all the rest.
Patterns are deeply embedded, often invisible at first glance, but powerful and complicated. The ability to discern and learn about patterns requires critical thinking and a careful process of objective inquiry. We need precise language to describe the many dimensions of patterns. Discerning patterns is not a personal attack, but an observation of behavior and other characteristics (our own as well as that of others) that helps us survive.
Understanding and recognizing patterns gives us the power to manage them usefully and effectively.
Many of us are aware of uncomfortable patterns in our lives. Some are caught in a loop of patterns resulting in health consequences such as obesity, pain, and addiction. Others are unable to find the right job, the right place to live, or the right partner. Many of us spend a significant amount of time making the same choices, over and over, and getting the same unsatisfactory results, because we don’t know what else to do.
As we are social beings, our relationships are important, and destructive patterns involving our connections with others can be devastating. Fortunately, there are smart, observant, thoughtful people in the world who recognize behavioral patterns, create tools and use their experience and education to support and teach others how to discern and effectively manage problematic patterns.
One such person is Bill Eddy, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Certified Family Law Specialist who has more than 32 years of experience providing therapy, mediation, and representation for clients in family court. Eddy co-founded the High Conflict Institute and has become an international resource for managing high-conflict behaviors. He’s written several books, all of which I highly recommend. In fact, his book, BIFF, is an essential handbook for life as a member of the human race.
What I like best about Eddy is he’s not a labeler. He uses precise scientific language to describe some personality types as context and background, but the thrust of his work is not in diagnosing or labeling, and he actively encourages students and readers to refrain from doing so. His goal is to help us recognize problematic patterns of behavior and teach us how to handle them effectively, kindly, and compassionately while maintaining our own dignity and healthy boundaries.
Power-with and win-win, in other words.
Nowhere in his work have I seen Eddy suggest we self-apply his methods, but I have my own less-than-useful patterns and character traits, and his strategies help me manage those as well as the behavior of people around me.
In Eddy’s language, high-conflict behavior patterns include consistent:
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Unmanaged emotions
- Extreme behavior
- Preoccupation with blaming others
–(BIFF: Quick Responses to High-Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Email and Social Media Meltdowns by Bill Eddy, LCSW, ESQ.)
The beauty of Eddy’s tools is simplicity. Anyone who’s ever been hooked into an angry, defensive, escalating, and totally useless high-conflict interaction (and who hasn’t?) knows how exhausting, disheartening, and disempowering such interactions can be. Eddy’s approach is entirely different and much simpler, but it requires us to give up several juicy things.
In order to manage this behavior pattern effectively, we have to give up on winning and being right. We have to give up on taking things personally; trying to change, “help,” or control someone else; the satisfaction of personal attacks; and trying to please. We must learn to manage our own emotions, because two people, neither of whom can deal effectively with their feelings, will get nowhere. We must decide if we want to contribute to conflict or resolve it.
In short, if we want to reclaim our personal power and manage difficult behavior patterns more effectively, we have to start with ourselves and our own behavior, feelings, and impulses.
Responsibility strikes again.
If we are stuck in a destructive relationship at work, at home, or in the community with a high-conflict personality and we feel helpless and hopeless, the first step in finding a better way is an honest assessment of what we want. If we want to continue to be a victim; if we want revenge or to freely express our frustration, rage, or contempt (as in throwing around labels); if we want to be validated or approved of; if we want to force others to see it our way, apologize, or be just, Bill Eddy has nothing to offer us.
If we’re stuck and committed to finding a better way, accepting that the person we’re dealing with has an observable, consistent pattern of high-conflict behavior and may not be interested in the same outcomes we are, and accepting responsibility for our own behavior, Eddy can show us the way back to our power and sanity.
Dealing effectively with high-conflict behavior patterns does not mean we have to be disrespectful, intolerant, or uncaring. It doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice our own integrity or boundaries. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving people. Best of all, recognizing problematic behavior doesn’t mean we give up on the whole person. Many valuable employees and community members exhibit high-conflict behavior patterns.
In fact, Eddy’s tools apply to any human interaction, as they involve brief, informative, firm and friendly scripts appropriate and effective in all contexts, whether consistently high-conflict, potentially high-conflict, or entirely friendly.
Labels create and escalate conflict rather than resolving it. Recognizing patterns and learning how to work with them can help us resolve conflict.