I’ve been trying to finish this post for weeks. And I’ll warn you, it’s lengthy. That’s what happens when I wait 6 weeks or so to post…
But maybe it’s good that it’s taken so long, because several events have occurred that reminded me of this topic, which gave me more examples and more insight. Things happened to me, or to those close to me, that led us to feel various unpleasant ways, from furious to grumbly to hurt to vaguely discontented and annoyed. But each time, once we stop to think about the problem, the root of it is (or at least a large part) that we’re taking things personally.
Remember the Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz)? Just in case, here they are again:
1) Be impeccable with your word.
2) Don’t take anything personally.
3) Don’t make assumptions.
4) Always do your best.
Now, being me, I like to try to reword things to the positive when I can, so sometimes rather than using the don’ts, I say : It’s not personal, or Make no assumptions, or something like that. Semantics, reallly.
The issue is this: when we care about other people, we will get hurt. That’s just a fact of life. Sometimes people are going to let us down. They’re not going to do what we want. They’re going to say mean or hurtful or thoughtless things. They’re going to do things that hurt us emotionally. Sometimes that will even be on purpose, because they are hurting and they want someone else to pay for it.
Pain is part of the deal we make when we choose to care, and that’s okay. Sounds weird, maybe. But (here’s a little more ACT for you) suppose I gave you a choice:
Option A: you have all your feelings and care deeply about other people. This means you get all the good feelings, and it also means that sometimes, you’ll be in a lot of pain because someone you love or care about is hurting, or is doing things you don’t want them to do. Sometimes you’ll even be upset about things happening to people you don’t even know.
Option B: I take away all your feelings. No pain, no anger, no frustration, no jealousy or loneliness. But here’s the kicker – nothing good either. No love, no affection or fondness, no passion or joy. No enthusiasm or curiousity. Nothing really matters, because you don’t feel anything.
Of course this is a theoretical experiment – you can’t really remove ALL your feelings, even if you try to by numbing yourself with distractions or drinks or drugs or food or work. So we may as well accept that feeling anything means feeling everything. Because there’s no middle ground. There’s no “I’ll just feel the things I want to feel – the good stuff.” We know that.
Which do you choose? Most people, despite knowing that caring will sometimes lead to pain, choose option A. So we know that overall, we’re going to have some rough patches, because other people mean something to us.
But sometimes, we take on excess pain, which is then properly classified as suffering, when we care too much about what others think of us or what they do to us. Don Miguel says that what others say and do is much more about them than it is about us. Not that we have no effect on others, but taking your co-worker’s curt hello or a spouse’s distraction personally leads us into a spiral of self-doubt, hurt feelings, rumination, emotional discomfort, you name it! And if you could magically crawl inside their heads, you might be surprised to find that the movie in their head stars them, not you.
This can be comforting. When working with clients who have anxiety, therapists can remind them of this truism: most people are much more concerned with themselves than they are with you – many times, no one will even notice if you are a little anxious. (Or if they do, they will probably feel sympathetic toward you rather than mocking.)
It’s not a nasty thing to say about someone. It makes sense to put your own interests high on the priority list if you want to be mentally and physically able to be there for all the people you love, and to do all the things you are put on this Earth to do. It’s not selfish to care about yourself or what you want or need, unless you’re some kind of sociopath with no true feelings for others, in which case I’ll venture a guess you’re not reading this blog anyhow.
Anyhow, don Miguel calls it “eating emotional poison” when we let other’s words or actions hurt us unnecessarily. When other people use their words or actions to be insensitive or thoughtless or unkind, we can either choose to take that in and let it affect us, or…not. Easier said than done! It does get more automatic, the more you practice it. Realizing that we are each on our own path or journey, with our own struggles, challenges, and triumphs, means that no one is experiencing the world exactly as you are. Each one of us is creating and watching the movie of our lives, starring us.
We can connect with each other very strongly, and know one another incredibly well, but if we really think about it, we never do understand someone else’s viewpoint 100%, even when we think we do. That’s making assumptions – another no-no.
But is that so bad? Do we need to fuse with one another to enjoy life together? Nah. Khalil Gibran said “Let there be space in your togetherness”. We can travel alongside one another, enjoying the view in our unique ways, helping each other when we hit a rough patch – precisely BECAUSE we are different. Someone else can see something you do not, and that can be just what you need, when your own viewpoint is limited and can’t see a way out.
So don’t eat the poison! We don’t have to let other people’s issues, which lead them to act in ways we don’t particularly care for, cloud and ruin our days. We can care about the person without letting his or her behavior tell us how we need to feel about ourselves. This is not an “I don’t care what she says” kind of attitude – it’s a kinder, more loving sort of mild detachment. I don’t ever want to stop feeling things for other people. What a joyless, crappy life that would be! But my feelings for others don’t have to mean that I allow myself to be jerked about by their whims and reactions like a marionette.
This doesn’t mean you should not take accountability for yourself and your actions. If you make a mistake, own up to it. Apologize and do your best not to repeat it. But a lot of times, when someone else has a negative reaction, we feel we’ve done something wrong when we haven’t. We perseverate and second-guess and fret and fuss. We get angry or sad or whatever, and tell other people about this horrible thing someone did. (Anyone who will listen, typically!) We rally others to our side, gaining support and feeling justified in our indignation. But for what? That’s just more negativity. That’s giving the power and control of our emotional barometer over to someone else. If we think about it like that, it’s pretty unappealing.
You can step back and look at the situation differently. Maybe it’s time to drop that struggle.To care without letting it consume you if the other person isn’t behaving how you think he or she should.
What poison have you been eating?