“I am not an angel,” I asserted; “and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself.” Jane Eyre
I am many good things: I am fun and funny, I am generous and kind, I am thoughtful and loyal. I can also be mean and spiteful, needy and angry, I lash out at myself and others. All of these things are entirely in character.
When someone is described as behaving ‘out of character’, unless it’s a portent to a medical calamity it is usually used to describe the less pleasant aspects of their personality. I wrote at length earlier this year about a period of my own poor behaviour. Until this morning I hadn’t revisited it since writing it. It was hard to write, hard to post and while still experiencing the aftershocks of that chapter I had no desire to reread my analysis of it. I only read it again just now because I thought to myself “I wonder if I used the words out of character in that post?”
The result of that ‘get it off your chest then put it on a high shelf’ purge means I had blanked out much of what I written. Until now I hadn’t appreciated how tangibly I’d described my behaviour, the examples I had given or how much thought I had put into articulating why it happened and how we can stop it happening again. I am belatedly very proud of how well I wrote in the face of adversity!
And I was pleased to see that I hadn’t used the words ‘out of character’. Because I don’t think we behave out of character. We can’t behave out of character because our character is hardwired into us. I learnt this week that the word comes from the Greek work kharakter, an engraved mark, symbol or imprint indelibly stamped on coins. Our character is indelible.
The sides of our character we typically celebrate are the attractive aspects that make our loved ones relish our company. But the other bits are equally valid and rather than brush them off as ‘out of character’ I think our job is to understand what triggers them. In the same way we understand what brings out the best in us we must understand what brings out the worst.
I watched a talk the other evening where the speaker said: “We assume that if we have characterised someone as good they can’t be bad and vice versa but if we see character as behaviour on a continuum then when people act in ways that surprise us maybe it is not that surprising.”
For the sake of our own mental health and the health of all our relationships – familial, professional and personal – we need to understand our own continuum and take responsibility for it. That responsibility is to help others to understand how their behaviours create an emotional response and activates the different facets of our personality.
In affairs of the heart, if I feel threatened or usurped I will lash out and speak cruelly about the person who I believe to be a threat. But I shouldn’t just lash out, I should explain why I am feeling vulnerable and help my partners to understand that I need complete honesty and I need reassurance. They may not like that part of me as much as the part that’s independent and ballsy and generous, but there you go!
If a member of my family shares different political beliefs then I need to be explicit that teasing me needlessly and endlessly about Brexit is deeply upsetting. I didn’t help my Dad understand that and the pressure built and built until the valve exploded. I was angry and I said terrible things that hurt him. He called my response immature. He was right. The damage has been fixed now (although I need to work on his declaration last summer that “if this is what politics does I am never voting again”) but had I just had the difficult conversation to start with, months of family distress could have been averted.
Like everyone, I evolve with every experience and I am a work in progress but I like learning about myself and I like to understand my emotional responses and what triggers them. I like learning how to manage myself so I am as best as I can be. I enjoy enhancing the bits of me that make me fun to be around and quelling as best I can the parts of myself that can make me difficult.