When Crazy is Normal

I was watching the news the other night and marveling at the extent of what to me is irrational thinking and behavior. Specifically, those people in Texas who believe that President Obama is massing our forces to take over Texas and/or stay in office beyond his proscribed term.

What would make people actually devote time to protesting this seeming absurdity? What would make the Governor of Texas actually buy into this?

As any of my students could tell you, the greatest motivator of human behavior is the need to belong to the group.

People will repress their personal values and override their innate intelligence in order to belong to their group. The result can sometimes be the creation of a positive problem-solving team, a group that affects healthy change, or a disciplined military force that protects our way of life.

The result can also be destructive gangs, mind-deadening cults, mob violence, and just the paranoic flight from rational thinking that distracts people from very real issues.

Examples of this need to belong to the group in spite of overwhelmingly painful or destructive consequences can be found around the world. The people in Africa who engage in female genital mutilation will cite a myriad of reasons, ranging from fear that unmutilated genitals will smell bad to fear that if a baby’s head touches the clitoris during birth the baby will die. The most compelling reason, however, is that any female child who is not mutilated will be exiled from the community and be good for nothing except prostitution. Closer to home are the men and women who serve in law enforcement and will keep silent about a fellow officer who violates that very mandate they all swore to uphold: “Protect and Serve.”

This premise that “Crazy is Normal” comes up on a daily basis in my practice. When I’m working with couples and they are fighting over something seemingly insignificant (yes, crazy), I will discuss this need to belong to the group and then explore with them from where that originated. Let me connect the dots.

In childhood, we take in messages about ourselves in relation to others. We don’t yet have the capacity to distinguish that what is going on externally is not a judgment on our internal identity, and so we develop beliefs such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m unimportant” and then carry those beliefs into our adult lives, often unknowingly. For instance, when a well-meaning parent says “You need to bring that B up to an A, just work harder, I want to see that A next time!” and the child takes in “I’m not good enough to please my father/mother and never will be.”

As we engage in relationships with others, we look for groups that will accept us, in spite of those negative beliefs. I once asked someone in Scientology what was the motivation for being part of an organization that alienated her from her family and cost her a great deal of money and she replied, “They accept me as I am.” Of course, there are many other conditions for acceptance that she had to fulfill, but they continually assured her that she was good enough and important enough to belong with them, which was and is her greatest motivation.

Back to our couples who are fighting over who’s not taking out the garbage or washing the dishes, it comes back to the underlying message in this way: If you don’t do the dishes, it means I’m unimportant, or if I take out the garbage every day and you don’t appreciate me, I’m not good enough.

There is a little more complexity to this (see past article Intimacy by the Numbers) but the distancing created by this need to Connect (be part of the group) and the fear of not being good enough or important enough to be accepted leads to the irrational thoughts and behaviors that we see in our relationships and on the news. If we focus on the “Crazy,” we will miss the underlying motivation and therefore the ability to address it in any meaningful way. If I enter into a right/wrong position about whose job it is to do the dishes, I will perpetuate a fight that only serves to disconnect the couple. Just as when we try to convince someone that the president is not going to invade Texas, that person will just dig in and we are going to butt heads.

Instead, when we can discover the underlying meaning and own it, we can then make different decisions and look more rationally at the situation. We can first decide how much energy we are going to give. We can explore what our real goal is and generate different options for achieving it. We can decide if the group (be it a group of two partners or a group of hundreds or even thousands) is the one to which we want to belong.

People acting crazy is really normal. Through our need to belong to the group, we are all Connected. The trick is to not disconnect while seeking Connection.

Be In Light
Carol Clark

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