Friend Turned Enemy: Understanding Your Limited Options When You’ve Been Misunderstood

You do something with positive intentions and someone who you thought you were on good terms with takes royal offense and suddenly they are attacking you, shunning you, and perhaps trying to get a bunch of other people to do the same. Being misunderstood is one of the most painful experiences humans can have in this world, so you’re not being a wimp to find your current situation heartbreaking. It takes time to recover from these experiences, and they tend to leave you a bit gun shy for a while. But is there anything practical you can do to try to mend fences?

Understanding Private Dictionaries

To understand why everything erupted on you so unexpectedly, you need to understand a psychological principle that I call private dictionaries. Suppose you want to know what a word means. You hop online, pull up a dictionary, and type the word in. The dictionary provides you with a list of common ways that your word is being used today. One hundred years ago, that same word was probably used quite differently, if at all. Human languages are in a constant state of flux–always revising and changing to keep up with shifts in human behavior, beliefs, and priorities.

Now the dictionaries posted online give you definitions that are generally accepted by large groups of humans. For example, when I look up the word father, an online dictionary supplies me with this definition: a man in relation to his child or children. That definition might sound technically correct, but it doesn’t begin to capture how you personally define the term father.

Every human is walking about with their own private dictionary–a massive database managed by the subconscious part of their minds that provides them with the meanings of various words and behaviors. The definitions stored in your private dictionary are all based on your personal experience of life. Perhaps in your private dictionary, the term father means the domineering and abusive head of a family who is impossible to succeed with. Or perhaps you define the term positively, believing a father to be a kind and loving mentor in life who can be relied on for support and wisdom. Your personal experience (or lack of experience) with real life father figures has shaped your current definition of what a father is. If you have new experiences with fathers in the future, your mind will automatically revise its definition of that word to align with your new experiences.

As far as you are concerned, your private dictionary is far more accurate, detailed, and useful than the dictionaries you can get online or in public libraries. When you come across a new word, online dictionaries give you something to start with, but you’ll then automatically enhance that definition as you collect experiences related to that word.

While online dictionaries are helpful for single word entries, your private dictionary is a far superior database, because it contains detailed guidance not just on how to interpret single words, but also on how to interpret facial expressions, physical gestures, group behaviors, and vocal tones.

You ask your wife what’s wrong and she says in a depressed tone “I’m fine.” Well, what does that mean? Online dictionaries are useless guides once you need to go beyond a very basic definition. In this situation, you would very much like to avoid dealing with a woman in a funk for the next four hours. You would like to swiftly and wisely respond to your wife, but to do this you must rely on your own private dictionary. According to that massive database, your wife’s choice of words combined with her downward tone indicates that you should assume she is lying when she claims to be fine and instead press her for details about what’s troubling her. This is the wise strategy, but it’s not at all obvious. Thank goodness you have your own internal database of hard won guidance to help you out in these sticky situations.

From the perspective of your mind, your personal experience trumps all of the claims that other people make. At your church’s women’s prayer meeting, Jenna claims that she can be trusted not to blab about whatever is troubling you. But the last three women who made that claim turned out to be liars, so your mind isn’t going to give Jenna a chance and you refuse to open up. Your personal experience always feels far more accurate and trustworthy than the claims that other people make.

Different Definitions

It is guaranteed that any human you attempt to communicate with has a private dictionary that is vastly different from your own. To Mike, commenting on a woman’s outfit is guaranteed to start trouble so he doesn’t say a word when his girlfriend shows up in an attractive new dress. To Maria, a man’s lack of comment on a new outfit automatically means he hates it so when Mike doesn’t comment on her dress, she instantly feels crushed and humiliated. Such misunderstandings are extremely common, yet they often go uncorrected because each person assumes they are interpreting the situation accurately. The only way to fix these things is to pile on still more words. The problem is that when you use more words, you run the risk of bumping into more differences in definitions. Let’s see what happens as Mike and Maria try to get their date launched.

MIKE: So where do you want to eat?

MARIA (feeling very depressed): Wherever. I don’t care.

Mike’s mind runs a quick analysis and supplies him with the following guidance: She’s likely depressed about work because you haven’t done anything wrong. Help her get over it by distracting her with fun. Don’t ask her about it or it will be the focus of the evening.

MIKE (cheerfully): Okay, then let’s go to that Italian place we’ve been talking about.

Maria’s mind runs a quick analysis and supplies her with the following interpretation: He can clearly see that you’re upset yet he doesn’t ask you what’s wrong. Obviously he doesn’t care. He’s all about himself and doesn’t care about your feelings. This is a rotten boyfriend. Kill the date. You don’t want to relive the hell you went through with that other jerk.

MARIA (feeling angry): You know what? Forget it. I don’t feel well and I’m going home.

Mike’s mind cues him that this is a phony excuse. Maria is obviously lying to him, and women who lie are bad news.

MIKE (feeling angry): Okay, fine. I don’t need the attitude. Whatever your problem is, you can take it on the road.

MARIA (on the verge of tears): How am I supposed to feel good on a date with a man who thinks I’m ugly?!

MIKE (baffled): What??

MARIA: You haven’t even commented on my dress!

MIKE: Why would I comment on your dress? I’m not an idiot! Women are so touchy about their appearance!

MARIA (insulted): Oh, so you think I’m vain!

MIKE (annoyed): I didn’t say that!

MARIA: Yes you did! You just said I’m vain about my appearance and that I’m obsessed with how I look because I’m a shallow twit!

Notice what just happened here. Maria just shared her interpretation of what Mike said. Notice how much she added to it–all of those insulting conclusions and inferences. Of course she’s upset if that’s what she heard. But Mike is also upset because that is not what he said. This is what happens when private dictionaries clash. People draw all kinds of conclusions about what you did or said, and they genuinely feel like their interpretation of you is absolutely correct. If Maria and Mike storm away from each other, they will never correct the wrong assumptions that they are both making about each other. The only way to resolve these things is to continue talking, and continue pushing through the new misunderstandings that will pop up as you keep trying to fix the first ones. Is it draining? Yes, but it’s also the only way to form close relationships. You must put in the effort to identify and correct differences in definitions. In doing so, you will learn quite a bit about your relationship partner’s private dictionary.

Being Realistic

Painful experiences in life have a massive impact on private dictionaries. When pain is processed correctly, people end up with some fabulous internal dictionaries which allow them to swiftly identify when dictionaries are clashing. But when pain is not processed, private dictionaries become filled with dark entries and people start aggressively looking for evidence that you’re being a treacherous crumb.

In cases where there is a lot of unprocessed pain, it is often impossible to resolve major misunderstandings, because the hurting person panics and flies to the defensive. Hurting people are very afraid of being hurt still more, because they are afraid of getting so overwhelmed by pain that they can no longer function in their own lives. Once they decide that you are a threat, they are likely to shut down on you and drive you out of their lives. Many will also assume that your sincere efforts to reconcile are just sneaky attempts to trick them into being hurt still more.

While reconciliation is often impossible in these situations, your best chance at clearing up the misunderstanding is to try and figure out how the other person is interpreting you. A very common mistake humans make in conflict situations is to focus only on their own interpretation and intentions, while refusing to treat the other person’s views with equal respect. All humans misinterpret each other, and you really have no basis for claiming that your experiences are more valid than someone else’s. It is quite reasonable for humans to use their personal experiences to help them interpret life, and when someone’s experiences have been awful, then of course they are going to see life through a dark lens.

Accusing someone of being unreasonable or invalidating their perspective will only make the problem worse. Trying to get the other person to explain how they are viewing you is your best hope of directly addressing their concerns. Try saying something like “It seems I have offended/upset you somehow, which I genuinely did not mean to do. Can you help me understand what I’ve done wrong so that I can try to fix it?” You’re not groveling here, nor are you invalidating your own view of the situation. You are simply asking them to help you understand how they are seeing things. If they respond, you need to be prepared for their view of you to be shockingly false, dark, and rather insulting. But you also need to remember that their interpretation of you has far more to do with their own life experiences than with what you actually did. Instead of letting your emotions carry you away and ranting about how offended you are by their insulting view of you, you’ll be better off trying to sympathize with how upsetting it would be to really believe what they believe and trying to gently correct their view of you.

When Joe reaches out to brush lint off of his coworker’s uniform, she goes ballistic on him, accusing him of trying to grope her. Joe finds such an accusation horribly insulting because he would never think of assaulting a woman like that. If Joe focuses on how he feels in this moment, he’s going to escalate the situation. But if he understands the concept of private dictionaries, he will realize that his coworker’s reaction says far more about her personal experiences in life than it does about him. He can then calmly address her specific fears by saying something like, “Claire, you had lint on your uniform and I was trying to brush it off for you. I would never in a million years want to hurt you or any other woman. I really respect women, and I’m very sorry I upset you just now. I can imagine it would be terrifying to feel that unsafe at work, and I certainly don’t want you to feel like that way around me. I’d be the first one to come to your aid if any man mistreated you like that.” This kind of response has a good chance of calming Claire down because it is directly addressing her core fear while showing respect for her point of view. It also helps that this is a work situation and Claire needs her job, therefore she wants to find a positive solution to this problem. But in situations where someone doesn’t feel they have to keep working with you, it can be much more tempting for them to take the easy way out by just booting you from their life.

Often people with very dark private dictionaries are challenging to socialize with at all times, not just when there is a major crisis. They tend to be very touchy and quick to get on your case when you use certain words or tones. Trying to forge functional relationships with people who are acting this way is often not possible, so there is a limit to how much you should chase them when they suddenly turn against you.

At the same time, the fact that someone has been through some brutal experiences doesn’t mean they can’t be reasonable. Some very wounded people are trying very hard to make relationships work, and that means they will try to help you understand their perspective when you ask. So you don’t want to write someone off just because they have a lot of sensitive triggers. As long as they are willing to do their share of the work in trying to resolve misunderstandings, there is hope for the relationship to progress. But when someone isn’t willing to even try to hear your point of view or help you understand what’s going on in their minds, then you’re going to be better off cutting ties.

When someone bans you and gets many other mutual associations to do the same, it’s natural to feel very hurt. But let’s be honest: how reasonable are those other people being to just believe one person’s biased view of you? When people band together socially to shun you, it’s because they are trying to stay on the group leader’s good side, even if that means throwing you under the bus. Before you start groveling, take an honest assessment of how fickle these folks are being. Their behavior tells you that they will gladly knife you again in the future to save their own hides, so why are you trying to get them to like you?

Mature people are going to respond to you based on their direct experience of you, not let someone else’s beef with you control their behavior. People who are constantly taking offense over every little thing are demonstrating that they are simply not in a good place to handle the friction that comes with every relationship. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to appease unstable people because it’s a thankless job that will only drag you down into bitter burnout. While you want to respect the effect pain has on people, don’t make it your job to fix everyone. Healing from the past is a complex process which requires a certain amount of internal resources, and certain types of personal choices–neither of which are things you can control for someone else. Yes, it is totally frustrating when one hurting person ends up slamming doors of opportunity in your face. But as long as they are in a position of power, that opportunity was probably just an illusion. Instead of obsessing over what might have been, you’re better off accepting the closed door and going on the hunt for new opportunities. There are always new opportunities. Your next one might take a bit to show itself, but it will, and when it does, you want to be ready to make the most of it by not being focused on the past.

This post was written in response to a request.

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