When You Don T Like Someone
“I don’t like people.” That was a statement my grandfather made many times when I was growing up. And it’s not just that he believed this; he acted on his beliefs to some degree. He didn’t have any children of his own, but instead had adopted two young boys from Russia in order to give them a better life than what they could provide for themselves. They now live with him and are about as close as brothers could be. My grandmother once said that she would rather have ten grandchildren living at home than one grandchild away because of all the time spent traveling. She did take me to visit her new son-in-law and daughter in Moscow though.
My grandfather was an immigrant himself from Lithuania, where his parents were slaughtered by Cossacks during the Russian Revolution. His first wife died shortly after their marriage, probably due to alcoholism. He remarried several years later, and even though we’d visited our grandparents’ farm many times when I was younger, he never mentioned anything about his past to us. When Grandma passed away, he only told us that “she went to sleep early tonight,” which seemed odd given how much she enjoyed talking about her family.
He worked as a carpenter, and although he wasn’t particularly well off financially, he always took care of others before taking care of himself. After work, there was often food left over in the communal kitchen, so whoever wanted something would get whatever was left. If you needed money, your job was to find somebody who would pay you for doing nothing. But if you were feeling charitable, you could help out a neighbor or friend by making a few things for free. This was an example of his true altruism. It didn’t matter whether he liked you or not – he helped everyone else regardless.
This generosity got him into trouble once. While helping out a neighbor build a house, my grandfather happened upon the construction site while it was still dark outside. The man he was assisting asked him to go inside and see if everything was okay, since the owner hadn’t arrived yet. Once inside, my grandfather noticed that the building materials weren’t stacked properly and began rearranging them. The owner soon came down from upstairs and saw the mess, but thought nothing of it since my grandfather had already done a great job. Then suddenly, without warning, the man grabbed a hammer and hit my grandfather square in the head. Apparently, it wasn’t supposed to be light until noon!
After the incident, my grandfather couldn’t stand having anyone approach him again. All the kind gestures he performed for strangers ended abruptly whenever someone looked him directly in the eye. He stopped going out to dinner parties and social gatherings. Instead, he stayed home and lived alone. He rarely spoke to other people, except when necessary, and avoided being around people wherever possible. For years, I wondered why he felt this way. Was it because of the Cossack massacre? Hadn’t he suffered enough? Or maybe he was afraid of getting sick? Whatever his reason, it was clear that he held very strong opinions against humans in general.
In fact, most people can identify with my grandfather’s experience at least somewhat. We’ve all been guilty of holding back information or acting evasively towards certain individuals because we’re uncomfortable around them. Some of us also tend to avoid large crowds where we know we’ll run into people we don’t want to deal with. These behaviors may seem harmless, but they cause unnecessary suffering for both ourselves and those around us.
On a deeper level, however, these tendencies stem from more fundamental fears. Our discomfort isn’t born out of malice, but rather fear of rejection, shame, humiliation, vulnerability, abandonment, loss, disconnection, and death. What causes these emotions varies from person to person, and depends partly on our childhood environment and upbringing. However, no matter what the source, our emotional reactions toward others reveal important aspects of ourselves. By examining them, we gain insight into our innermost fears and begin processing them on a subconscious level through various ways. One common method is therapy.
But sometimes, change comes naturally through self-discovery and reflection. As with my grandfather, many people develop negative attitudes towards others simply because of a traumatic event or difficult relationship. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make us feel better. In fact, it makes things worse. Holding onto anger, resentment, and bitterness towards others only prolongs the pain, prevents us from moving forward, and keeps us stuck in the past.
If this sounds familiar, here are three tips to help you overcome your misanthropy.
1) Recognize your reaction. Are you angry or upset when someone cuts you off in traffic or talks behind your back? Do you become anxious or fearful when attending social events? Is your heart pounding when you meet someone new? Does your body automatically tense up whenever an attractive member of the opposite sex approaches you? Are you filled with dread when meeting someone new? Do you avoid social situations altogether? Do you feel overwhelmed by anxiety and stress?
These are all signs that you may be experiencing a phobia. Phobias are irrational fears based on real danger signals in the environment. Although they aren’t dangerous per se, they do pose serious threats to our mental health. For instance, if you suffer from claustrophobia (a fear of enclosed spaces), then you will likely avoid elevators and escalators. There are many different types of phobias, including agoraphobia (fear of open places), acrophobia (fear of heights), claustrophobia (fear of closed places), xenophobia (fear of foreigners), and omphalophobia (fear of umbrellas). Most phobias start in childhood, usually as a result of a frightening experience. Fortunately, there are effective treatment methods available. If you think you might have a phobia, consult a therapist or psychologist for diagnosis and advice.
2) Understand your core fears. Take some time to reflect on your recent interactions with friends, acquaintances, and strangers. Think about the thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses you experienced when dealing with each situation. Write down what occurred to you throughout the interaction. Were you angry, ashamed, disappointed, happy, excited, nervous, etc.? How did you react? Did you blame the other person for causing you distress? Why? Did you try to talk yourself out of your worries? What did you say to convince yourself otherwise? Did you become defensive? Why? Did you tell yourself that you shouldn’t worry? Why? Did you ask for reassurance? Why? Did you apologize to the other person? Why? Did you argue with them? Why? Did you cry? Why?
Now compare your answers between positive experiences and negative ones. Which type of responses do you typically attribute to negative circumstances? Are you able to recognize patterns? Can you learn from them? Now write down your expectations and assumptions regarding future encounters. Examine your predictions and conclusions. Do your assumptions match reality? Where does your negativity come from? Do other people trigger it? Are you projecting your fears onto others? What can you do to prevent it? Do you need to confront someone? Should you seek professional help?
3) Develop healthy boundaries. Many of our fears revolve around boundaries. For example, we may hold back information, withhold compliments, put others down, or isolate ourselves from others. These actions protect us from potential harm, but may also cause us to miss out on opportunities and good fortune. To break free from our comfort zone, we must gradually expand our circle of influence beyond our immediate surroundings. We should reach out to others and practice interacting with them to see how they behave. Eventually, we will learn to trust others and enjoy the company of new people.
As for my grandfather, despite his strong initial resistance towards strangers, eventually he chose to leave his isolation behind and reconnect with society. Today, he has a beautiful granddaughter whom he loves dearly. And although he’s still wary of others, he’s learned to accept them and treat them fairly. Perhaps someday he’ll allow me to come visit him. Who knows? At least he’s no longer sitting alone in front of the television every night watching reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
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