I used to want to punch people like me. I never trusted vegetarians, and vegans–people who don’t eat meat, fish, eggs or dairy–were obviously idiots. Even driving by a vegetarian restaurant I’d feel a little superior. I might have my own issues in life, but at least I knew enough to enjoy steak and ice cream.
Fast forward to six years ago, when I became a vegan and haven’t looked back since. But don’t worry–this isn’t about veganism. What comes out of your mouth is probably more important than what goes into it, so I’m not telling you how to eat. What I am saying is this: pay very close attention to the things you find irritating or crazy-making, especially those that don’t rationally seem like a big deal. It’s not like vegetarians were barging through my front door and nabbing all the bacon and lunch-meat from my fridge. So why not eat and let eat?
One of the bizarre things about being a human is our capacity to fool ourselves. We often try to convince ourselves we do/do not like something, even though our natural impulse is in the exact opposite direction. Suppose you move across the country for a job. Your first day at the office, you meet your new boss, who initially strikes you as a complete jerk. This is a real problem. You quit your old job, broke up with your fiancé to pursue this career opportunity, now what? You’ve already invested so much in this move, you decide to “double down.” You try to convince yourself that your boss is okay. You work on it, and eventually you realize: Your boss isn’t just okay–he’s a really great guy! Problem solved.
We call this a reaction formation. When you find yourself wanting something you’re not “supposed” to want, or when you don’t like something you’re “supposed” to like, you react–sometimes quite strongly, and often in the opposite direction! When you discover yourself at happy hour with your co-workers, discussing what a great guy your jerk boss is, something probably feels off. You can say all the right words, but you can’t hustle your nervous system that easily. It’s relatively easy to lie with your mouth–not so easy to lie with your entire body. How does your gut feel when you’re singing the praises of your obnoxious employer?
So how do you recognize reaction formations in your life? Start by considering the things you feel most passionately about. Then ask yourself which of these you tend to talk about the most, tend to heatedly lecture others about when given half a chance. When you’re insecure about something–a life choice, a belief–do you try to convince others as a way of better convincing yourself? If a vegetarian stops you on the street to tell you all about the evils of eating meat, I’d guess that vegetarian may secretly want a big juicy hamburger.
About the Author: James Robbins is a licensed professional counselor, published author and co-owner of Dallas Whole Life Counseling. He has over 15 years of experience helping people in various life stages that come from a wide variety of cultural, economic and family backgrounds. Learn more about his background by clicking here.