Published on:

21st Mar 2022

Why Bother To Understand People At All?

We’ve talked about analyzing and predicting behavior based on people’s emotions and values, but what about motivation? It turns out there are a few prominent and fairly universal models of motivation that can give you a helpful framework to understand people with. When you can pinpoint what people are motivated by, you can see how everything leads back to it either directly or indirectly.

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If you think back to any situation in which you were desperately trying to get a read on someone, it might have been because you were very invested in how they would act—or else, trying to understand why they had already acted as they did.

To understand why people behave as they do, we need to examine the causes and drivers of that behavior: their motivations. Everyone (including you) is driven to act for some reason or other. You may not always see or understand that reason, but there is one. Only insanity has a person acting for no reason at all! So, to get a grip on any behavior, to understand it, predict it, or even influence it somehow, you need to understand what is fueling it, i.e., you need to understand what motivates a person.

Why did you pick up this book? Why did you get up this morning? Why have you done any of the no doubt hundreds of things you’ve already done today?

You had your reasons, conscious or unconscious, and another person might gain considerable insight into who you are by knowing what those motivations were.

In this chapter, we’re going to look at everything that inspires human beings to act: desire, hate, like and dislike, pleasure and pain, fear, obligation, habit, force, and so on. Once you know what motivates someone, you can start to see their behavior as a natural and logical extension of who they are as a person. You can work backward from their actions to their motivations, and finally to them and who they are as individuals.

People are motivated by psychological, social, financial, even biological and evolutionary factors, all of which could interact with one another in interesting ways. What do people care about? Asking about interests, values, goals, and fears is more or less asking about motivations. Once you know where a person is coming from in this sense, you can start to understand them and their world in their own terms.

In this chapter, we’ll explore the many different motivators behind human behavior. Think of these as explanatory models through which you can observe the behavior of others and use to understand what you’re seeing, on a deep level. Let’s start with the deepest level of all: the unconscious.

Motivation as an Expression of the Shadow

It’s an old cliché: a bald and overweight middle-aged man zooms by in an expensive, noisy red sports car, and people on the sidewalk remark, “Gee, I wonder what he’s compensating for?” It’s just a coarse joke, but it speaks to a common understanding of the fact that sometimes people are driven by unconscious, inner forces that they may not necessarily see themselves.

You may be familiar with Swiss psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow. To put it very simply, the shadow contains all those aspects of our nature that we have disowned, ignored, or turned away from. These are the parts of our being we hide from others—and even from ourselves. Our pettiness, our fear, our rage, our vanity.

The idea is that when we integrate our shadow, we cultivate a deeper feeling of wholeness and can live as authentic, complete human beings. You see, Jung didn’t care about “positivity” and self-improvement in the sense that’s popular today. He thought that psychological health and wellness came from acknowledging and accepting yourself—all of yourself—rather than in pushing the unwanted parts of yourself further and further away.

It can be enormously gratifying to do “shadow work,” i.e., to consciously attempt to reclaim those disinherited parts of yourself. But how can we use this concept to help us better understand those around us, who also possess shadows?

The thing about the shadow is that even though it’s pressed out of conscious awareness, it still very much exists. In fact, it may make itself known in more subtle ways, manifesting itself in behavior, thoughts, and feelings, or appearing in dreams or unguarded moments. If we can observe and understand these outward signs in others, we can gain a deep insight into their character.

We live in a world of duality—dark exists because of light, we only understand up because of down, and what is high energy must eventually slow and stop. Simply understanding this principle can help us understand people, too. We are all a blend of complementary, connected, and interdependent forces. Like the yin yang, each gives rise to and balances the other.

Imagine someone who was raised in a strict household and pushed to do well academically. No late nights, no drinking, no friends over, only study all day every day. You could look at such a person and notice how profoundly unbalanced or polarized their being is. Their conscious mind is focused on only one aspect of their being. But what happens to their impulse to be free, to rebel, to play, to be a bit wild? Where does it go?

You probably know a few people who lived childhoods exactly like this. And the way the story goes may seem very familiar: in early adulthood, such a person finally succumbs to the long-repressed and hidden needs for freedom, expression, and rebelliousness, and “goes wild,” abandoning their studies and living it up almost as though they were making up for lost time.

We can understand this phenomenon by using the principle of the shadow. Even if we encounter a perfectly well-behaved and disciplined student, we know that their shadow contains everything that is unacceptable to them, to others, and to their environment. In the same way that it takes energy to constantly keep a beach ball submerged underwater, it takes energy to deny the shadow. But eventually, the ball pops up.

Living with a shadow that is unknown to us can cause us psychological discomfort. The mind, body, and spirit seeks to be whole, and if this wholeness is only achieved through an explosion of repressed material to the surface of conscious awareness, then so be it. By using Jung’s theory of the shadow, you can achieve a few key insights when it comes to understanding people.

First, you can develop a deeper understanding of why they are as they are, and this inevitably leads to heightened feelings of compassion. If you know that the bully at school learned in childhood to suppress out of awareness all his own feelings of inferiority, weakness and fear, you can see his behavior with a measure of understanding. You are able to engage with him beyond a superficial level—you are dealing with all of him and not just the carefully curated conscious self that he is portraying on the surface.

Second, by using the shadow model, you allow yourself to reach out to and communicate with people far more effectively. Although every one of us is a divided being, there is nevertheless an impulse toward wholeness and authenticity. If you can speak directly to those unacknowledged parts of a person’s psyche, you are able to communicate more deeply.

For example, an arrogant, narcissistic person may have a shadow filled with self-hate. In that shadow is everything they cannot bear to acknowledge about themselves, so much so that they deny that it’s even a part of them. The common reaction to narcissistic people is to want to tear them down, to laugh at them, or to resist their claims of grandiosity. But this only strengthens the feelings of shame that created the split in the first place. If you can see a person’s grandiosity as essentially a defense, you can adjust your communication accordingly.

Granted, you cannot get someone else to acknowledge parts of their own shadow simply because you think they should, but it can certainly give you an insight into how to deal with them in the future. A final way of using this theory to understand others is to see how the shadow is projected to the outside world.

The shadow is filled with painful, uncomfortable feelings. We relieve this pain and discomfort by ignoring or denying the feelings, and what better way to disown them than to claim they belong to someone else entirely? Shadow projection is when a person unconsciously attributes his own shadow traits to another person. For example, someone who feels intellectually inferior may find themselves calling everyone and everything “stupid” or haughtily criticizing the efforts of others.

Though on the surface they may have styled themselves an intellectual, you can see what’s really going on: the mask of cleverness is there to protect real feelings of inferiority. If you happen to be called stupid by such a person, you know that it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

You could use this understanding to be very persuasive or even manipulative—for example, complimenting the person’s intelligence when you want to flatter them.

You could also use your insight to generate deep, compassionate understanding. For example, you could try communicating to this person that there is nothing shameful about being “stupid” and that you accept and love them whether they’re intelligent or not. This helps integrate the shadow—if the repressed material is not felt as shameful and uncomfortable, there’s no need to push it away anymore. It’s like relaxing the pressure on the beach ball and allowing it to float gently to the surface.

None of this is to say that we need to go into intense psychotherapist mode every time we meet someone new. Integrating the shadow is long, difficult work that cannot be done on anyone else’s behalf. The best thing we can do for ourselves is work hard on our own shadows while we use it to help us acknowledge and understand the workings of other people’s shadows.

You might even start to look at your own culture a little differently—groups can have their own collective shadow. What are the things that your family, community, or even nation refuse to acknowledge as a group about themselves? And how does this help you understand their resulting behavior a little more?

In the Jungian spirit, the most helpful and healing attitude to adopt when it comes to the shadow is one of love and acceptance. Be curious but be kind. Your goal in identifying someone’s (possible) shadow is not to catch them out, to get a one up on them, or to figure out a button you can push for your own gain.

Instead, it’s about seeing wholes in a world that is often split, broken, divided, and unconscious. If you can see the shadow in operation in someone else, it’s also an invitation to look honestly inside ourselves.

Once we can look at another person’s shame, fear, doubt, and rage with acceptance and understanding, we can do the same for ourselves. Not only will we become more astute students of human nature, we’ll become more sensitive and emotionally intelligent friends, partners, or parents.

In fact, the things we each push into our respective shadows are often not so different. None of us want to admit that we sometimes feel small and weak, unlovable, confused, lazy, selfish, lustful, jealous, mean, or cowardly. A great way to consider yours and the other person’s shadow is to watch what feelings their behavior triggers in you.

For example, you might be having a conversation with the boastful intellectual from the earlier example. You share an idea that they laugh at and quickly denounce as “stupid.” What’s your response? If you’re like most people, you may prickle with anger, embarrassment, or shame, and suddenly feel the need to defend yourself. Maybe you retort with something you think sounds extra intelligent to prove him wrong . . . or you simply laugh back and insult him directly.

What’s happened is that his shadow has triggered yours. To have this reaction, somewhere inside you was the unwanted feeling of being stupid and inferior. If you have the presence of mind to remain conscious in such an interaction, however, you could pause and notice your own response and become curious about it. This person, in insulting you this way, has told you something very important about themselves, if you know how to listen.

Very astute and observant people know that what a person insults you with is often nothing more than the label they can’t acknowledge they actually give themselves. If you realize this, you can keep your cool in such a conversation. If not, you may get hooked into a mutual ego-defense session—i.e., an argument—with the person, unknowingly accepting their invitation to play a particular shadow game with them.

The shadow expresses itself in people’s motivations. The middle-aged man in the stereotypical story has suppressed out of consciousness his grief at the loss of his youth and sexual vigor. But it’s out there for all to see in the form of his sexy new sports car. The next time you meet someone, quickly run through the following questions to help you see them on a deeper level:

• What is this person actively and consciously portraying to me right now?

• What might this person be unwilling to acknowledge about themselves?

• How might this unacknowledged part of themselves be unconsciously driving the behavior I see on the surface?

• How is this person making me feel right now? Do I feel like they are projecting onto me or triggering my own shadow?

• How can I communicate compassion and understanding for what’s in their shadow, right now?

When you speak to someone, the shadow model helps you to speak to all of them, even the parts they don’t show. It’s a way of “reading between the lines” where people are concerned!

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About the Podcast

Social Skills Coaching
Become More Likable, Productive, and Charismatic
While everyone wants to make themselves and their lives better, it has been hard to find specific, actionable steps to accomplish that. Until now...

Patrick King is a Social Interaction Specialist, in other words, a dating, online dating, image, and communication, and social skills coach based in San Francisco, California. He’s also a #1 Amazon best-selling dating and relationships author with the most popular online dating book on the market and writes frequently on dating, love, sex, and relationships.

He focuses on using his emotional intelligence and understanding of human interaction to break down emotional barriers, instill confidence, and equip people with the tools they need for success. No pickup artistry and no gimmicks, simply a thorough mastery of human psychology delivered with a dose of real talk.

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Russell Newton