Frames of Reference or “I would never do that”

“When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” – anonymous

Our “frame of reference”, or way of looking at the world, is colored by our experience. Very often we know one way, or a limited number of ways, to react to people, places and situations. Many times people say to me, “I could never do [fill in what x did].” That is because it is outside your “operating agreement” with the world. You believe that people should (and do) behave a certain way and you call on the way you behave as “reference.” So you frame the world according to your reference (yourself) and expect them to be a certain way (like you).

It is said that liars don’t believe anyone and cheaters think everyone else is cheating them. People who are not doing right by anyone, believe that others are out to get them. and the list goes on. If you’re honest, you approach situations and others as if everyone is being honest. You don’t see the dishonesty in people until they hit you over the head with it. My clients know that when they say, “I would never do that…” I usually say, “And that’s a GOOD thing…”

The problem is that not everyone has that set of values, morals and frames of reference. They have other “operating agreements” with the world and it doesn’t include being honest, taking care of anyone’s feelings or being good, kind, upstanding and moral.

Sometimes we are like children who have their innocence taken away by something terrible happening. We know that the child will never look at the world with wide-eyed innocence again…and neither will we. The first time someone cheats or lies or leaves without notice, we are never the same. We have lost our belief that all people are good and those who say they love us will not hurt us.

WHO does that???” is another question that people ask many times. The answer is “Someone who is not you.” Be GLAD you don’t understand it. Be GLAD you couldn’t do that to someone. Take pride in that.

But instead of being completely gobsmacked about the whole thing, learn to observe the world with a more skeptical eye. Start to think that anyone is capable of anything at anytime. The expression “ripped from the headlines” should help guide you. Think about how many crimes are reported each day. You hear about horrible and awful things every day. You hear about murders, rampages, alcohol related accidents, overdoses, etc. etc. When you hear about a murder, you think about the victim and their family. You sometimes might, but most times don’t, wonder, “Who could murder someone else?” You’re used to the fact that murderers exist.

You don’t question how people can break into someone’s home when you lock your doors at night or how someone can steal a car when you lock it. Yet, these gestures are acknowledgments that not everyone is honest. These gestures say, “There are people out there who wish to do me or my belongings harm. I must make it more difficult for them to do that.” Lock, click, beep.

You don’t lock your door and think to yourself, “Who breaks into houses? What is wrong with them? Why do I have to lock my house? I’m a good person. I would never break into someone’s house. Why do I have to worry about someone breaking into mine? That’s not fair or okay. I shouldn’t have to worry about this. I should be able to go and not lock my door or make sure I have the house key. This isn’t the way I want to live my life – worrying about someone taking my things!”

Yet, it’s the same thing. We lock our doors, we don’t stroll down dark alleyways, we stay close to others when it’s late and we’re in a dangerous part of town. We become aware of those who wish to harm us or we at least acknowledge that fact that bad people do exist and we have to (unfortunately) take measures against them.

We have to understand, in relationships, that people can and will do bad things that we are incapable of. Many times the signs, or red flags, are there before we get completely drawn in, but — due to our belief in good — we ignore them and forge ahead. Even if someone tells us they cheated in their last relationship, we think, “Well they’re being honest, they wouldn’t do that to me. I’m different.”

It’s like waiting around for someone we just met at a party who asked about our job, our family, our relationship to the person giving the party and asked, nonchalantly, “So where do you live?” and we might have said what town and they said, “Oh I know that town! What street?” and you tell them and they say, “I know that street. Are you the brown house on the left? (chances are there is brown house on the left). You say, “No I’m the white house about 3 houses from the corner, the house with the (descriptive, unique feature).” The person says, “Oh okay, I don’t have that good of a memory, but I’ll look next time I’m there.” Then you segue into other topics and chat about a few other subjects before circling back to what you do and how you feel about it. They ask questions about your job before telling you, “Sometimes when I’m at a party, I start chatting someone up and find out where they live. I go to the bathroom and dial a cohort to go break in their house while they’re gone and then come back to return to the conversation and keep the person busy while their house is being ransacked and when I get the signal, my phone vibrates so I know the burglary is completed. Then I excuse myself and go meet my co-conspirator and we divvy up the “take.” Excuse me, but I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back and want to hear more about your job.”

And you stand there waiting for them to come back, anxious to tell them more about your job.

Right now you are shaking your head thinking, “I would NEVER be that stupid! I would panic, go home, and call the police and tell them what I was told!” or “I would tell the host about the conversation and ask more about this person – maybe they weren’t even invited – maybe they were brought by someone else and the host doesn’t know a career criminal is in their house!” or something similar. But what you would not do is stand there and wait to tell more about your job.

Yet, we do that when we are in relationships. We are, many times, given the data that our house is being burglarized while we speak to someone and we stand there waiting for the person to come back so we can talk about superficial nonsense while their crony is dumping our silver into a bag.

Instead of being alarmed and taking action, we rationalize that such a person wouldn’t be at this party full of nice, law-abiding people. The host would not be friends with a criminal. This person seems charming and friendly and wouldn’t do something so terrible, and even if they did it to someone else, they would not do this to me. They seem so nice and friendly!

Like fools, we stand there, drink in hand, unwilling to believe we are about to be victimized even though we’ve been told how this person victimizes and has victimized others.

You are most likely reading this and saying to yourself, “I would never be that stupid.” But you have been…and can be. You listen to what you want to hear You ignore the signs, even if they are giant billboards…even if the person says, “I don’t think that cheating is wrong…” or belittles you to the extent that you are crying. Or some other thing.

Or maybe they have cheated, lied or done something else reprehensible to you. You somehow excuse it away.



You play mind games with yourself that allows you to continue the relationship. You accept apologies for things that should never be forgiven. You believe, “This time everything will be different.” You feel sorry for someone who has hurt you deeply. Think about that for a moment – how many times have you felt pity or empathy for someone who has hurt you? How many times have you blamed their childhood, their job, their ex for what they are doing to YOU? How many times has “feeling sorry” or “trying to be understanding” caused you emotional pain.

Ask yourself how many times has “being a person who only wants to believe all people are good” bitten you in the hindquarters? How many times are you going to accept the unacceptable based on some ridiculous justification you just made up or someone tried to feed you?

The only way to keep yourself safe in relationships is knowing that sometimes you need to lock the door and avoid the alleyways. If you get a bad feeling, listen to it, don’t ignore it and justify that you’re just paranoid. Don’t worry that someone will think unkind thoughts if you protect yourself. Do you worry about what the thieves will think if they try to break in and find locks and/or an alarm system? Do you lock your door and worry that their feelings will be hurt? No. So don’t worry that a cheater or a liar will be upset if you take issue with cheating or lying.

Would you worry that your friends will feel insulted if they try to come in and the door is locked? No. You expect that your friends lock their door and that they understand your precautions when they try to open your door and find it locked. But, basically, you don’t worry about it. The thought, “Oh my goodness! What will my friends think if I lock the door and they can’t get in?!?! I need to apologize for being so rash and hurting their feelings!”

Of course we don’t think these ludicrous thoughts. Of course we don’t worry about what our friends will think if we lock our doors. Sane people who want to stay safe and not experience the trauma of having been robbed lock their doors. Some install alarm systems. Some get big dogs. Some get guns. Some put many other things in place to avoid being victimized.

You must change the way you are in relationships and approaching relationship to a way that removes you as a victim. You must learn to lock the doors, call the police, avert the robbery that the guy in the bathroom is planning even if the guy in the bathroom doesn’t seem like a criminal. He just told you he was. Flat out. No mistake. He just discussed his MO with you and told you how it’s done as he did it to you. Don’t stand there idly waiting while your home is being broken into. Take action. Call the police, alert the host, and go home and wait for the police to get there before entering the premises.

You don’t hear that someone might be in your home taking things and go barging in on them. They could be armed or very big and hurt you or kill you if you spring yourself on them. No, it’s best to wait for the police before entering. This is something you should instinctually know although not everyone does.

In the 80s, most of New York City was a pretty scary place to be. A friend of mine who grew up in the Bronx invited me and a friend from Rhode Island to stay at her grandmother’s house in the Bronx and go out to a few clubs in Manhattan. I brought my friend and the 3 of us went to her grandmother’s in the Bronx. Then we proceeded to get ready for the evening. My friend from the Bronx and I did what all people with street smarts did. We got dressed for clubbing but put raggedy clothes over it for the walk to the subway and for the subway ride into Manhattan. When we arrived at Grand Central, we’d take off our outer layer, apply some makeup and hail a cab for our destination.

However, my friend from Rhode Island grew up in a very ritzy, upscale neighborhood and was dressed to the nines and accessorized with stunningly beautiful jewelry such as diamonds and sapphires. She had platinum blonde hair and resembled Marilyn Monroe. She definitely stood out anywhere she went, but I truly doubted we would get from my friend’s grandmother’s building to the subway, a block away, without being mugged. In most places, her appearance and accessories would be testimony to her beauty and taste, but the Bronx and the NYC subway system in the 80s would see it as “Gullible lady who deserves to be mugged.”

We explained to her that she couldn’t wear that outfit and all those jewels walking down the streets of the Bronx nor could she wear them on the subway. She was indignant. What was wrong with people that required HER to change how she dressed and what jewelry she could wear? How dare someone try to take what belonged to her! This was not fair or okay. It was completely incomprehensible to her that someone else would think they had the right to do this to her. I couldn’t explain socio-economic issues in the inner city to her right then and there. I said, “Look, this is the hood. You don’t want to flaunt what you have and they don’t, because they will take it from you.” She railed against the very thought that she would need to do that. Some of us who grew up in the South Bronx had empathy and others had hatred but none of us thought, “How dare you!” Because we understood, only too well, what “nothing left to lose” looks and feels like. Girls from Barrington Rhode Island with a million dollar house on the bay who grow up golfing and watching America’s Cup racing, do not get it. You can explain until the cows come home. No comprehension at all.

Honestly, she was very upset by the lesson we were trying to teach her and the street smarts we were trying to instill in her so that the 3 of us would be safe riding the subway both down and back (we would be riding back pretty late). She wasn’t hearing us until we said, “Wear what you want, but we won’t be sitting with you on the subway.” She finally acquiesced by taking off the jewelry and throwing a tee shirt on over her dress but she was not happy.

I talk to readers and clients about expanding your comfort zone. Comfort zone means what is familiar, not what is necessarily built for comfort. A recliner is comfortable but a raging, crazy dysfunctional family may be your comfort zone. It’s what feels familiar and the word familiar comes from family.

You have to move your comfort zones by journaling, affirmations and positive self-talk. Then abuse and mistreatment become uncomfortable and you won’t stand for it. That is what you are doing with affirmations and positive self-talk. You are changing your comfort zones from ones of dysfunction and desperation to healthy and happy.

So, too, must you change your frame of reference. You must understand not everyone has honest motives. Not everyone has your best interest at heart. Even though you might think it is outrageous to be robbed of your gold chain, that outrage does not protect your gold chain. Moving the gold chain inside your shirt or, better yet, leaving it at home, does.

The workbook goes on for pages and pages about OBSERVATION. Why? Because observation is important if you want to understand what others are doing. Change comes from knowing that not everything is a nail. Change comes from questioning what we are seeing and what, qz, can help us see it differently. Change comes from having an entire tool box and using the right tools for the right situation…it means not just having a hammer and seeing everything as a nail.

If you are a good person, you see other people as inherently good. And no matter how badly your partner (or ex) behaves, you want to believe they are good and they love you or once loved you, and will treat you with respect and that there are good intentions behind their actions. There often is NOT. They are just muggers on the subway and they know you’re an easy target and they will strike.

People tell me, “I felt sorry…” DON’T. It is not for you to feel sorry for someone who hurt you. People tell me, “Well, I’m a good person so I thought…” NO. BULLSHIT. You are a FOOL. Stop giving yourself extra credit for being fooled by the same old same old. When people tell me how fooled they were by someone or continue to be by an ex or a partner, I want to slam my head into the pavement. And when they justify because he or she is “really” a good person, I want to slam someone else’s head into the pavement. Good people are defined by actions. Not mean actions and not pathetic actions. Being pathetic and falling for nonsense does not make you any more a good person than being mean does. Being a good little codependent on a string, dancing like a deranged puppet, does not make you a good person. It makes you an idiot. You’re just as mean to YOU as the person taking advantage of you, of the person who sees your kindness as weakness. Because when you give to others who don’t deserve it, you are not being kind, you are being weak. And stupid.

That is why reading, journaling and talking to others is so important for change. We need to expand our frame of reference a little bit at a time in order to change our responses to outer influences. We need to throw off the cloak of “But I’m just trying to help…” or “I just thought I’d answer this one text.” Blah blah freaking blah. NONSENSE. STOP IT.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten. Therefore, for things to change, WE must change, our reactions and responses must change.

Start this change by not automatically reacting every time you want to. Count to three before saying anything.

Learn to step back and think about what this really looks like, what this really is? Is it REALLY a nail? and do you have to hammer it? Learn that there are different explanations for what you are seeing, hearing, experiencing and that the way you’re about to respond, may not be the right way.

Learn to OBSERVE and to pull back on the “niceness” routine and give to those who deserve it. You don’t drench yourself in diamonds before taking the subway in the South Bronx. You don’t wait for the robber to call his cohort before you finish talking about your job and you don’t give your heart to those who don’t deserve it.

Stop being a fool and move into the realm of understanding that some people suck. And your ex might be one of them. Your current partner might be one of them. Change your frame of reference to include that some people get off on being mean and cruel. ACKNOWLEDGE the bad in others so that you can make better judgments as to who to let in and who to kick out.

Expand your view…expand your toolbox and learn to figure out what you need for this job. Sometimes it’s pack the hell up and GO.

Stop being the fool…get up and GO…and expand your frames of reference.

This entry was posted in breakup, featured. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Frames of Reference or “I would never do that”

  1. USArmyTC says:

    I’ve always told myself, when my ex girlfriend (mother of my little girl) was going off the deep end, cussing me out for things that simply didnt make sense. Accusing me of not providing for our family, even though I was busting my ass at work, and paying for her maturnity leave.. (The list goes on of things I was doing to contribute…) Anyway, I always told myself, that Im glad I didnt understand this irrational/verbally abusive behavior,(even though I tried to make sense of it). Because if I did understand it – then I would be no better than her. And Ive gained peace in that. Knowing that I do not behave that way, shows me that I am not that kind of a person. And I will never be.

    Now paying attention the the red flags when they present themselves, is something I need to work on.

    • Susan J. Elliott says:

      I do believe that there is peace in knowing this. Sometimes it hurts that someone is behaving this way toward you, but your ability to see it and move away from it, knowing you deserve better, is key to your happiness in life.

Comments are closed.