“It was out of character”

Why do we feel the need to use the phrase ‘it was out of character’? And what are we actually saying when we use it?

Lee Westwood, the top international golfer, found himself having to apologise to sponsors and fans this week following an outburst on Twitter. Fed up with all the criticism of his struggles to turn his undoubted talent into success at the top four ‘major’ golfing tournaments, he took on his detractors with a series of fiery tweets. In his apology—also on Twitter—he said his behaviour was, “out of order and out of character.”

This got me wondering: why, when we do something we later regret, do so many of us use that phrase, ‘it was out of character’? Why do we feel the need to tell people we were ‘off brand’ (to borrow Hugo Schwyzer’s description of his behaviour following an affair)?

It is almost always a matter of self-preservation. When our behaviour results in others having a negative perception of us, we instinctively look to protect ourselves; we try and convince people that the unhealthy behaviour wasn’t a reflection of who we really are—that it was an aberration.

“When our behaviour results in others having a negative perception of us, we instinctively look to protect ourselves.”

But when we ‘lose it’ like Westwood appears to have done in this instance, the reality isn’t that we’ve behaved out of character, but rather that our true character has come bursting out. In all likelihood, anger and frustration had been boiling on the inside of Westwood for some time and, unable to manage those emotions, they came rising to the surface. In other words, the inner reality—anger and frustration—became the outer reality; he’d simply been keeping it all hidden until now.

When it comes to character, everything starts on the inside. Any outward expression of character is always an outworking of who we are inside. Every action is preceded by a thought. That’s not to say that every thought has to become an action, however. And it’s worth emphasising that strength of character undoubtedly includes the ability to manage unhealthy thoughts, feelings and emotions—which we can’t always stop entering our minds—by not allowing them to manifest in any outward behaviour.

But while stopping unhealthy thoughts and feelings manifesting outwardly in inappropriate behaviour is clearly a good—and vitally important—thing, the greater challenge is to not let those unhealthy thoughts and feelings take root in our minds at all. Though we can’t always choose what thoughts enter our minds, we can choose what we then do with them. We are free to embrace thoughts or to reject them. It’s not easy, but the more discriminating we are about the thoughts we choose to own, the healthier we’ll be.

“The more discriminating we are about the thoughts we choose to own, the healthier we’ll be.”

Anger, lust, bitterness…these are thoughts that can slowly destroy us. Even if we manage to keep a lid on them, they’ll eat away at us on the inside. And the more freedom we allow those thoughts, the greater the risk that, like Westwood, they’ll suddenly come bursting out in inappropriate behaviour, leading to all kinds of unwanted consequences.

For us to deal with the inner, unhealthy thoughts that infiltrate all of our minds at different times, we have to start by admitting they’re there. The problem with our ‘it was out of character’ defence is that we put ourselves in a position of denial. The truthful response from Lee Westwood would, probably, have been something like this: “It was out of order. I allowed anger and frustration to get the better of me.” That would have owned the problem—and opened the door to dealing with it in the future. In saying, “it was out of character,” he’s run the risk of denying that something needs to change—and, as a result, there’s an increased chance it will happen again.

The path to freedom is truth and confession. What we deny can never be dealt with. When we acknowledge that our mis-behaviour is ‘in character’, we are finally in a place to try and change our character.

“The path to freedom is truth and confession. What we deny can never be dealt with.”

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