Thursday, October 3, 2013

One or the Other

One or the Other

Anyone who has been kind enough in recent years to listen graciously when I am in one of my philosophical moods has heard me declare that people can more or less be sorted into two basic types: perpetrators and accommodators, and while the latter all know who they are, the former rarely do. Just as, if everyone who considered themselves a giving honest easygoing person really was, sales of hard liquor would plummet.

Perpetrators act without thinking. Accommodators think without acting. This isn’t just about the old divisions between extrovert and introvert, for I know plenty of clueless introverts so self-absorbed and aggressively passive that they require a coterie of accommodators to get them through life. I also know plenty of thoughtful extroverts who may be sociable, vocal, assertive and often impulsive, but will take into account the effects of their actions and words on others the way no true perpetrator ever can. The true perpetrator, regardless of personality, has long since learned that there is no benefit to factoring their effect on others into their journey in life. It is always and only about the one. And they are as self-assured on that point as the boulder in the stream around which the water has no choice but to flow. 

We all have perpetrators in our families, circles of friends, workplaces and bedrooms.  They are the ones who barrel along in life unchecked thanks to a combination of the politeness, fear and indifference of others, never getting called out on their bad behavior and attitude, their unique skill at making everything about themselves, everything someone else’s fault. From the sibling who gets all the attention by misbehaving versus the one who quietly takes the role of peacemaker, to the parent who responds to appeals for sympathy as if they were an unreasonable interruption or affront versus the one who explains, adapts and apologizes to keep the household in harmony, these patterns get set so early in life, it seems wherever there’s a perpetrator there have been accommodators from the very beginning enabling their worst habits.

They are the co-worker who does all they can to make sure everyone knows they are there, loud on the phone, physically omnipresent, never satisfied, from the micromanaging boss to the fussy colleague who takes a day off and the entire office breathes a sigh of relief. They aren’t necessarily a bad person, you just feel like whenever they are around all the energy in the room goes to dealing successfully with their quirks, upsets, or impositions. They can be mildly annoying with their complaints and incompetence, or they can be outright bullies whose inappropriate tantrums needlessly undermine everyone else’s well-being.

They are the friend no one cuts off because they are a well-meaning sort and often quite fun to be around, but they have ruined countless social occasions by acting or speaking up in one way or another that requires others to hold their tongues, do damage control and later make rounds of apologies. Whatever the pretext of the gathering, it becomes “that night so and so made a scene.” It seems cruel to avoid them, but one day you realize that whenever you are with them, one way or another, something unfortunate happens and you go home saying “never again.” You have a friend like this. Terminating the friendship feels like more trouble than it’s worth, and yet, you hold your breath whenever you know they are going to be joining the party.

They are the partner whose habits and moods and life goals and choices eventually take precedence over yours because it’s just easier that way, because they would not have the first idea how to anticipate and prioritize your needs even if it occurred to them that this was a necessary and natural part of being in a relationship, being a good person. It is always about them. When you need them most, they can’t be bothered to comfort or console. They tell you they have things to do. They work hard. They struggle in life too! No one ever helped or made sacrifices for them when they were down!  More likely than not, this type of partner had a particularly egregious perpetrator for a parent so in some ways they don’t know any better. But in other ways, we can all overcome the conditioning of our childhood, and even our adulthood. Not knowing better is no excuse. It is never too late to learn how to be a person who thinks of others before they act for themselves.

Being an accommodator may be my biased preference, and birthright, but it is no picnic. You can be the most passionate determined person on the planet when it comes to your own affairs in which no other people are involved, but when anyone else’s needs or feelings are in play, you seek the path of least resistance and most assistance in all things. You gladly cede a point or your place or path not because you are weak or indecisive, but because it seems that very few things are that important that they are worth a pitched battle so someone can be declared a winner. You don’t care who wins, you just want everyone happy. But sometimes a policy of deference, concession and compromise means you lose, not only the argument, but yourself. The urge to help, to fix, to give, no matter how worthy, can be dangerous in a world where only some of the beneficiaries will prove grateful, worthy, responding in kind by either giving back to you or to someone else. And the rest will drain everything they can from you and leave you wishing you could be so blissfully free of conscience and sympathy. Some perpetrators are just accommodators who got tired of being downtrodden and switched sides. Believe me, I’ve considered it. But the mere fact I considered it first, and all the people it would affect, should tell you how that turned out.

Accommodators may be the counselors, volunteers, mediators, caregivers and healers of the world, but the flip side of this coin of service is that the perpetrators are left unchallenged in their mission of absolute self-absorption. Constant awareness of how our choices affect the lives of others is a distraction, yes, but it also leads to ruthless self-examination which eventually leads to self-improvement and the greater good.  To perpetrators, when things go badly it’s the Universe not giving them a break, or how they were brought up, or the conditions they are forced to work within, or other people overreacting. And when everything works out okay in the end, what’s the fuss? Where’s the need for self-scrutiny or change?  They make messes the invisible elves clean up every night, so why learn to clean them up themselves, or think of ways not to make them in the first place?   

Sadly, for every accommodator who walks away from a particular relative, friend, co-worker or lover they are tired of enabling, there is another ready to take their place. The messes continue and the elves never sleep. If they got more sleep, just think of all the good that could be done helping people who actually need and appreciate it.

Just walk away. It's not easy, but I can tell you, it is always for the best.



  1. Ouch. Perpetrators are psychopaths - or perhaps just sociopaths. And whichever end of the spectrum they fall, it is indeed all about them. 'The beautiful people'... regardless of whether they are or just consider themselves that way.
    And yes. Too true. Dammit.
    The walking away is the exercise I most need to take. The exercise I have been putting off for too long.
    Another thought provoking truth presented in elegant considered prose.
    Thank you.

    1. Hey EC, thanks for stopping by and your kind words. You are such a giving person, I am not surprised to hear that you know a thing or two about the perps out there! The most dangerous I've encountered are the ones who come across as perfectly polite and humble and yet always seem to be in one overblown crisis or another that I am happy to mitigate, until I realize it isn't appreciated, just expected, and when I find myself in need of a little comfort myself, suddenly all they can do is suggest I "toughen up!" or "deal with it!" Insidious. I am getting better at walking away. It goes against my nature to be unkind or abandon anyone, but when the choice is them or me, me wins every time - eventually! Wishing you all the best, dear friend. Take care of yourself!