How we interpret the behavior of others

I have a covid patient in my life, and a nurse told her: “you may be OK now but you can get worse and die at any moment”. In that vulnerable situation, this was understandably experienced as unnecessary and frightening by the patient.

How do we interpret the nurse’s behavior? Do we assume the nurse scared the patient intentionally? And if so, that she is cruel, sadistic, stupid, or something else?

Or do we acknowledge that we don’t know? We don’t know much about her or her intention. Nor do we know much about her life or the situation she is in. She may have had the best of intentions and not realized how it could be received. It may be that she is frightened and stressed, and said it in a way she wouldn’t if she was in a different situation and state. Even if this is a pattern for her behavior, it’s very likely a response to her own fear, stress, frightening stories, and perhaps trauma.

Whenever we are drawn to judging someone, it’s good to remember that we know very little about the person and their situation and history. It’s good to remember that situations often play a bigger role in people’s behavior than “who they are” as a person. (If we broaden the definition of “situation” to their history, culture, biology, evolution, and so on, it explains most or all of our behavior.) And it’s good to remember that even what many would judge as heartless or cruel is people’s reaction to their own pain, fear, and trauma.

The more we get to know ourselves and how we respond to our pain fear, stress, and trauma, the more we find empathy and understanding for others and how they behave. We relate to others as we relate to ourselves.

Of course, none of this is an excuse for inappropriate, unprofessional, or unkind behavior. It’s important to point it out when this behavior happens and take steps to make it less likely to happen in the future. But if we keep this in mind, we can do it with a little more kindness and perhaps wisdom.

And if we can’t find that empathy and understanding in the moment, that’s a reason for finding empathy with ourselves. We may be caught up in our reactions to our own fear and pain.

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