The Behavior vs. The Person

It is important to separate a person’s behavior from their identity and avoid making blanket statements about someone just because of something they may have done once. For example, a decent husband and father who has too many cocktails on New Years’ Eve may have gotten drunk, but it wouldn’t be accurate to call him a drunk. Likewise, if a teenager makes an unwise decision to go to the home of a young man she doesn’t really know, we can say that she didn’t fully consider the consequences of her behavior, but it’s not fair to say that she is stupid, reckless, or totally lacks common sense. One bad behavior does not make a statement about a person’s entire character.

However, as bad behavior starts to accumulate, how can people help but make those assumptions? If a teen is continually at Jim’s house when she says she’s at Sarah’s house, when can we call her a liar? If mother hides Vodka all over the house and begins sipping at 3:00 pm every day, when can we call her a lush? When a 30-year-old teacher makes passes at his 16-year-old students, at what point can we call him a creep?

The question to ask yourself is how useful is it to label people with global, all-encompassing labels? Is it helpful to call momma a lush? Does she respond well to being called an alcoholic? Does she wise up and change her ways when you tell your friends that your mom is a booze hound? No, it does not. To give someone a global label, based on a collection of bad behavior, is generally of little utility. Instead, it is good to focus on the strengths they have, the good qualities they have, and try to get them focused on the good they have within themselves as well. It is not suggested that you ignore the bad behavior or that you pretend it doesn’t exist. The bad behavior still has consequences and the consequences need to stay in place, but we don’t need to entirely define a person by a single behavior or a collection of similar behaviors in order to facilitate behavior change.

Let’s consider the teacher, hitting on his underage students. Wouldn’t it be best to just call him a creep so that everyone would just avoid him? Not necessarily. However, like I said before, the bad behavior is not to be condoned or ignored, so it should be reported humanely to the appropriate authorities. That fellow may need to have mental health treatment or he may even need to be incarcerated, but that doesn’t mean that he still doesn’t have other positive characteristics and it isn’t necessary to condemn his entire person by giving the label of “creep.” You can’t recover from being a “creep,” but you can get help for mental conditions and you can pay for your mistakes.

Watch yourself over the next few days and see if you use global labels to describe people when objective descriptions of their actual behavior might be more fitting.

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