What To Do When Confronted by Bad Behavior

Everyone is confronted (aka victimized) by bad behavior from time to time. Sometimes it comes at the hands of a boss. Or spouse. Or friend. Or customer service rep. Or fellow driver. Or any number of other people whose paths cross ours.

It was tempting to write bad “people” versus bad “behavior.” But that would be an overreach. I used to think there were bad people. And perhaps there are. But I now try to distinguish people from their behavior, recognizing that all (or at least the vast majority of us) do some bad things at times. Moreover, I’m weary of the demonization of people, which seems to be a national pastime among certain groups. So I’ll focus on behavior.

All of us are imperfect of course. All of us wear gray hats. When we think our hat is pure white, or others’ hats are pure black, we delude ourselves, not in a benign way, but in a toxic way. Unfortunately, it’s a story that sells, particularly in times such as this. But it’s based in something other than reality.

In any case, no matter where people land on the morality and ethics continuum, people are capable of behaviors that can fairly be described as bad — at least from our perspective. Basically, it means it’s hurtful to us. Or disadvantages us or others in a way that seems unfair to us. You’ll know it when you see it, Vera. And when you feel it. And I guarantee you, you will see and feel it in your life. Perhaps many times.

I’m writing about this because I haven’t been very good at dealing with bad behavior, at least not in my personal life. I’m better at it in my professional life, that is, when representing people or organizations as their lawyer. I suppose it’s easier in that context because it’s not personal with me and, therefore, I’m not emotionally invested. In one’s personal life, it’s hard not to react emotionally.

So what have I learned over the years about reacting to bad behavior?

  • It’s usually not personal, that is, it’s usually not about me; rather, it’s almost always about them. Therefore, I should try not to take it personally, which means I should endeavor not to react so emotionally. That’s hard. Really hard. But it’s the only thing over which I have some control. So it’s worth the effort.
  • Don’t expect fairness or justice and, yes, crime does pay. We’re hurt the most when the gap between our expectations and the behavior of others is wide. But it’s our expectations, not theirs. Try not to impose lofty expectations on others. Recognize that most people, most of the time, act in their self-interest, or at least what they believe to be their self-interest. Don’t expect otherwise. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be a force for justice in the world. More on that below. Also, don’t believe that crime doesn’t pay. It does. Not always, but far more than most people care to admit. Non-criminal bad behavior pays too. Accept that fact.
  • Don’t impose your moral and ethical standards on others. They’re your values and standards, not theirs. Don’t get angry or feel hurt when you realize the other person is operating from different standards. As much as you may not like it, that’s his or her right. You can try to do business and interact with people of only high moral and ethical standards, but recognize it’s impossible to get through life in a cocoon — you will have to do business and interact with people who standards may be quite different from your own. Just be careful not to react in ways that end up only hurting yourself.
  • Don’t allow yourself to feel victimized or betrayed. Self-pity serves no useful purpose. Stop it in its tracks. Sounds easy. It isn’t. As your grandmother used to tell your dad and uncle, “Buck up!” Most of us need to hear that message from time to time.
  • Don’t take unnecessary risks. When you operate with unwarranted expectations for other people’s conduct, you leave yourself open. Sometimes, the risks aren’t great and they may be worth it. Other times, the risks are significant and it’s foolish to assume them. Be smart. Look out for your own interests because it’s folly to think anyone else will. Be savvy. Don’t take foolish risks.
  • Be prepared to fight. It’s easy for me to be a fighter in my professional life. It’s hard in my personal life. I attribute it, in part, to my religious upbringing in one of the three historic peace churches (Church of the Brethren). Passivity and deference seemed like worthy values. I was wrong. If I had it to do over, I’d endeavor to be less passive and less deferential. It’s try to embrace a warrior mentality. I hesitate to use that term because it connotes violence. I would not embrace violence. Absolutely not. But I would try to be more willing to be an activist for justice and not merely a supporter of lofty values or admirer of principled people. There’s a difference. Of course it’s risky. You can be wounded. Perhaps worse. But you also get to live a less hypocritical life and, in the process, garner self-respect and a sense of deeper significance. I suppose my bottom line is this: it’s far better to be an agent for justice than a mere spectator who sits in church, applauds the work of others and cuts an occasional check. And if you’re not moved to act in ways that confront injustice and bad behavior, while assuming the risks, then perhaps bad behavior isn’t the big deal you thought it was. Perhaps there’s far more complicity in the world than we want to acknowledge.
  • Focus on the goodness. For me, it’s easier to harbor grudges than savor the goodness. That’s bad. It’s true each of us is “victimized” by much bad behavior in our lives, but it’s also true we encounter an incredible amount of goodness in the world. It’s important to focus on the latter. And to put the former in perspective. As for the former, all I can do is recommend grace. Life can be hard, not only for us but also for everyone else, no matter how reticent we may be to expose our vulnerabilities and struggle to others. Good people do bad things. Grace and forgiveness go a long way. If we’re lucky, others will bestow it on us as well. In the meantime, don’t miss all the goodness that surround us. A little gratitude goes a long way.
  • Focus on the inner self. Finally, I’ve learned it’s much more important, and productive, to focus on the inner self and not to think it’s all about what we do. Americans are doers. Meditation, self-reflection, journaling and spending time alone in retreat don’t come naturally to us. But it’s time well spent.

In closing, Vera, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that I have all of this under control. I don’t. There are people who have wronged me and, in the process, have inflicted deep wounds that may never completely heal. In my worst moments, I wish them ill. But they are my worst moments, not theirs.

Such emotions and feelings engender nothing good; they serve only to undermine my own happiness and well-being. Getting control of my emotions — indeed, letting go and “bucking up” — is the best thing I can do. I know it. But it’s hard to do. That’s my problem. That’s my challenge.

It’s also my challenge not to hurt others by acting in bad ways. I wish I could say I’ve never done anything I regret, but that would be a lie. When you realize that, it makes it a little easier to forgive — both yourself and others.

Bad behavior — our own and that of others — is part of the human condition. But it doesn’t have to define us. Or control us. Sounds easy. It isn’t.


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