"People observe the symmetrical nature, often including asymmetrical balance, of social interactions in a variety of contexts. These include assessments of reciprocity, empathy, apology, dialog, respect, justice, and revenge. Symmetrical interactions send the message "we are all the same" while asymmetrical interactions send the message "I am special; better than you."
"Peer relationships are based on symmetry, power relationships are based on asymmetry." ~Wikipedia Link
Many of us have been learning about What Makes a Narcissist Tick, but we’re also learning What Makes Us Tick. We may discover that underneath relational conflict was an inherent desire for symmetry, fairness, and equality, in essence: peace & harmony. If we’re peacekeepers who value symmetry, we must pay attention to people do not have similar intentions or values as ourselves. We get ourselves in trouble when we're unaware that some relationships are based on power---not equality and fair exchange.
One of the first psychologists teaching me about asymmetrical relationships was Patricia Evans in her book, Verbal Abuse. She defined two relational styles as Power Over versus Mutual Reciprocity. She alerted me to the fact that not everyone views life through a lens of reciprocity. Some people feel superior to others; others perceive themselves to be victims--relational positions sustained by power differentials. If we know we’re the type of person who takes responsibility for our mistakes, we can better manage automatic reactions to those who are quick to blame others, hopefully avoiding an asymmetrical power-based relationship.
Symmetry demands mutual responsibility and trust between equals.
Beware of blamers: people who refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes; who automatically assume the fault is yours because it could never be theirs; who are innocent until proven guilty while you are guilty ‘til proven innocent. Blamers are not peacekeepers. And peace must be the intention of both people in order to build trust and good will. If you’re a person who keeps the peace (at all costs to your dignity sometimes!), you may be prone to accepting guilt that isn’t yours to process. Taking on other people's responsibility may help you avoid uncomfortable confrontations, but it isn’t truth. It isn’t justice. It isn’t symmetry.
Be conscious of your intentions. Get to know yourself. The minute you’re being blamed for something outside your control, notice how the relationship has shifted from ‘peers’ to an unequal relationship. In an effort to restore balance and peace, we might become TOO apologetic, TOO at fault, or TOO remorseful. It’s as if we’re attempting to make up for the deficit when the other person doesn’t take responsibility for themselves.
Stepping on the Scales
Last week, one of my sisters chauffeured the three of us to Weight Watchers. We pulled into a parking space between several empty spaces but continued chatting after turning off the car. I opened my door from the back seat at the same time another woman pulled into the parking space next to ours. My sister was driving one of those 4WD bulldozers we all love to hate and the other woman was in a little tin cup, I think it’s called a Honda.
“You hit her car!” my sister said. “I did??” Must have been a heckuva conversation because I didn’t even notice the collision.
Evidently, my door had hit the other woman's car before she came to a full stop. I got out of my car to see if there was any damage, hoping for a constructive conversation between parking lot peers. I expected each of us to say, “I’m sorry!” I expected each of us to complain about parking lot hazards. I expected each of us to promise to be more careful in the future. Now that is what I expected. It’s not what I got.
“Look what you did to my car!” She spit on her fingers and wiped off the black streak. Then she pushed her forefinger into a small dent near her window. Her demonstration made me feel terrible, just terrible.
“I’m soooooooo sorry,” I apologized. At this point, my brain was playing tag with random bits of information. She didn’t apologize. I’ve been in fender benders before. Usually each person is concerned about the damage they caused to someone else’s car, even to the exclusion of their own. Each person starts the dialogue by apologizing. I did, she didn't, the imbalance was obvious.
I said, “Are you sure your car wasn’t dented when you left home this morning? My car door doesn’t even reach the dent you’re pointing to.”
“No!” she complained. “I’d have noticed a dent this big. You were not paying attention when you opened your door! You’re the one that hit my car because of your negligence. This dent is going to bother me. It will bother me a lot.”
At this point, my brain was ticking along at warp speed, struggling to put random pieces together. I was not reluctant to take responsibility for my fault in the accident but what caught my attention is that she didn’t reciprocate mutual responsibility. She focused on blaming me.
“I’ll need to file an insurance claim.” she said. “This will cost at least $500 to fix.” (No paint was scraped off her car; we’re talking about a grocery cart door ding). She looks at me long and hard. I wanted to say “It’s not my car so file all the claims you want” but didn’t figure that would be a loving thing to do to my sister.
I replied, “My other sister waiting in the car is an insurance agent. She can tell you how insurance will handle this.” I hoped a few facts about liability would settle the conflict.
“Please shut your door,” my sister shouted through the car window to the woman, “I’d like to get out.”
The woman closed her door, my sister stepped out, examined the damage, and matter-of-factly informed us that: 1-parking lots are private property; 2-damage is usually 50-50; and, 3-there’s no need to call the police because the police won’t do anything. She told the distraught woman that she did not have a valid case of fault because we were parked and her vehicle was moving. She would be considered at fault for not paying attention to a parked vehicle.
Lady-in-distress turned to me (maybe because I'm one of those accommodating types) and said, “Your sister is MEAN.”
Now this was tricky for a marshmallow heart whose basic nature is to defend her loved ones should they be attacked. I felt my defenses rush to the rescue, but at the same time, I recognized there were three of us against one of her. Divide and Distract might be her only defense at this point. I refrained from leaping into the Drama Triangle but calmly said, “She’s offering us a reality check about parking lots, door dings and personal liability. I’m sure her intentions are to help.”
Realizing she would not get me to agree with her summation of my sister’s character, she turned to my other sister (the driver) and pleaded, “Will you make your sister stop being MEAN to me? She’s MEAN.”
This turn-of-events startled the Tank-chauffeur, but I was impressed that she managed to avoid triangulating the situation, or letting herself be distracted from the facts of the accident. “I can’t make people be anything other than what they are. Listen to what she's saying and you’ll see she’s not being mean. She’s helping us understand how to deal with this problem.”
“Well, this is not fair.” the woman said. “You guys are not fair.”
Pause. No uptake on her accusations since what wasn't fair was her refusal to apologize or empathize with our point of view.
“I’m taking pictures.” She crawled over her front seat to retrieve her cell phone camera. Then she squatted like an acrobat in front of both cars, snapping wheel angles and vehicle distances from the yellow line. My brain was still unclear about the ‘cause’ to the ‘effect’ though I was making progress connecting the sequence of events. It was bizarre to sense my brain grabbing bits and pieces and organizing them in a probable order. Then I noticed an important clue just as my mean-sister spoke up, “Do you see your car is parked less than one foot away from the yellow line, and our car is almost three feet from the yellow line?”
She raised herself from a crouched position and said, “What you don’t understand is I don’t have any money. This will cost $500 and I don’t have $500. I’m even quitting Weight Watchers because of the weekly fee.”
ARGH…Now I’m feelin’ empathy for a woman in financial distress---a finely tuned empathic awareness of social inequities. I started feeling sorry for her and not so sorry for myself, but then remembered my "Internet Training 101" about people asking for pity.
Before betraying my intention to never get suckered into pity-ploys again, my mean sister said, “That won’t cost $500! For heaven's sakes, call the Dent Doctors. They’ll suction out that divot for fifty bucks. Maybe a hundred at the most.” Then my mean ol' sister walked towards the building, which was my clue this altercation was irrresolvable. It was time to leave.
“I don’t believe anything you say. You’re MEAN!”
Just as I’m making my escape, I was compelled to try one last time to restore the peace. “I'm sorry about our accident.” At least this time I changed pronouns. It wasn't MY accident, it was OURS.
We left the scene and entered the building, only to be followed by a shaken woman who never once asked to see what damage her car had done to ours. Who never offered an apology. Who saw herself as the victim of three talkative sisters who didn’t even notice SHE was there. How dare we be so oblivious?
Only after thirty minutes has passed, were we able to construct a reasonable sequence of events and realize that indeed, I had not hit her door. She had hit mine.
Did she ask to see if she damaged my sister’s car?
Wouldn’t that be a responsible person’s automatic reaction?
I think so.
Did she say she was sorry or that she must not have been paying attention?
Wouldn’t that be a responsible person’s automatic reaction?
I think so.
Would a responsible person expect a stranger to care about their finances?
I don’t think so.
I was not looking for someone to blame but immediately reacted by holding myself accountable. Just like we generally trust people until proven untrustworthy, I think we might also hold ourselves accountable until proven innocent. We automatically question ourselves, “What did I do to cause this to happen”, which may be manipulated by those who project blame whenever they can.
Had this woman not been looking externally for fault, my sense of responsibility would have been equalized by her willingness to reciprocate. But since she was only focused on blaming me and being compensated for what was clearly an error of judgment on her part, our parking lot relationship was at a dead-end.
I wanted to restore harmony in future Weight Watchers meetings, but that meant shouldering her liability along with mine. Still, I questioned whether the end result (peace) would be worth the price (my integrity). Rationalizing my willingness to accept sole responsibility was a tempting and familiar habit. Disharmony makes me terribly uncomfortable---though not nearly as uncomfortable as bearing the burden of projected blame and imbalancing the scales of justice.