by Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.
“Humans are hard-wired for social connection,” is a quote we hear often, especially these days. Yet, most people struggle to maintain meaningful relationships in their lives. I believe that in our culture even the best of us have been gradually influenced by the zeitgeist of self-centeredness and entitlement that has almost come to define US culture in some circles; therefore making meaningful connection with others more challenging due to our intolerance of human shortcomings and irregularities.
I am growing weary of seeing Facebook posts advising me to avoid “toxic people” or anyone who does not lift me up. What hubris. The joy that I have been given in my life was meant to lift and heal others who are struggling (they often appear “toxic”).
This article is an attempt to increase understanding and acceptance of everyone’s variations on “normal” behavior. We can all enjoy more close connections with people through a little more understanding and acceptance of our differences in perception.
Most people have some hidden characteristics, usually related to their individual brain functioning, which make them a mystery. Sometimes their mysterious ways are very frustrating. This article seeks to bring some understanding of how and why people function in mysterious, often frustrating ways.
There are numerous ways in which brains function differently. One is the fact that each person’s brain has strengths and weaknesses. One brain area functions stronger or weaker than another.
We tend to focus on IQ, or how “smart” a person is in an academic sense; but intelligence comes in varied forms. One form is emotional intelligence. Some people are highly aware of subtle emotional cues given off by others, and almost intuitively know how to respond to others emotionally. However, most people really don’t have high emotional intelligence. The emotional center of the brain (nucleus accumbens) regulates how intensely we feel our emotions, how much we pay attention to them, and the degree to which we can accurately interpret our own and other people’s emotions. So if it is well-developed and balanced with the reasoning part of our brain (frontal cortex) we can regulate and respond to emotional stimulation appropriately. If not, we might under-react or over-react to emotional stimulation.
How well a person’s frontal lobe is developed can determine how well they make logical judgements. This part of our brains can be under-developed well into our 20’s, making us vulnerable to poor choices in life. Alcohol and other drugs also cause at least temporary impairment of the frontal lobe.
Intuition is another individual difference in brain functioning. Intuition is the ability to combine very subtle cues from our environment to make proper judgements about what is happening around us. People who are more intuitive have a larger corpus callosum, a nerve bundle that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Sometimes this ability is interpreted as “psychic” because intuitive people often seem to know what is going to happen in the future. This is actually just highly informed predictions based on subtle environmental cues combined with judgement. Most people ignore intuition, so might seem clueless, and make bad choices for their future.
Another extremely puzzling difference in some people’s brain functioning is an extreme inability to properly interpret, respond to, and process emotional cues from others and even within oneself. When combined with an inability to communicate effectively, people are displaying a syndrome know as autism. The syndrome’s effects range from very mild to extreme. In it’s very mild form (formerly known as Aspergers syndrome) people usually go undiagnosed, therefore very misunderstood. While they function well in jobs and get by fairly well in some relationships these people are often seen as aloof, difficult, passive-aggressive, clueless, uncaring, or at least highly frustrating. Mild autism is far more common than anyone knows. It can be difficult to diagnose unless the individual is observed closely for weeks in a row. So, typically only friends, family, and domestic partners are impacted by the person’s autistic symptoms. Attempting an intimate relationship with mildly autistic people can be an exercise in frustration, and usually leaves both partners/spouses feeling profoundly lonely and misunderstood at times. The key to making a relationship with a mildly autistic person successful is to be patient, be yourself, calmly set boundaries in the relationship, respectfully ask for what you need in the relationship, and see and affirm their positive qualities. These people do have profoundly positive qualities. Many are literally geniuses in specific ways. Appreciate them and let them know it. They might not respond outwardly; but remember that they do have deep sensitive feelings, and need a lot of affirmation. Their feelings are usually locked inside, and they indeed report feeling somewhat imprisoned and helpless when they can’t express themselves. They can make wonderful kind, loyal friends. They often make modest progress in learning to feel and express emotions.
There are even more intense brain disorders that people might not display openly, and yet which affect their functioning in dynamic ways. These days, with proper medication, even schizophrenia can be hidden for a few people.
People who have experienced trauma, especially early in life, have difficulty in most any relationship. Their brains interpret many things as potential traumas. They might have anxiety and/or depression lurking just below the surface at all times. Some people can mask anxiety and depression masterfully. All of us have a tendency to learn to wear a mask of our choosing, depending on what we think is expected or will get us the best results in our lives. The perkiest people you know might be suffering under the surface (not to say that there are not some genuinely joyful people). That is why people are often so completely baffled when someone with whom they think they are familiar commits suicide. It is best to just remember that many people are suffering silently, and to treat them accordingly (i.e. be patient). Be as joyful as you can be around everyone; even the most difficult people. And, take advantage of every opportunity people give you to patiently, empathically listen to them without openly trying to “cheer them up” or give them advice.
There are many reasons why people might end up with a defensive stance in life. Remember that they are defending against some pain inside of themselves. They might have arrived at a defensive place due to real reasons to be defensive. Be kind.
Numerous chemical imbalances are common. A chemical imbalance of any type can cause behavioral problems. Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine are often imbalanced and can cause perceptual and behavioral abnormalities. Metabolic imbalances are common. Simple blood sugar imbalances can cause abnormal behaviors.
The bottom line is, we never really know what is going on in a person’s life in their physiology, their background, or in their environment. It brings to mind that advice so often heard: “Never take anything personally.” And, it also bears repeating: Be patient; be kind; be caring, no matter what. It will make you a lot happier and fulfilled. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain.
Christopher Knippers, Ph.D. October 8, 2020