Recently, a friend of mine was very good to remind me that several matters about which I was concerned were/are beyond my control, an observation for which I am grateful. I’ve been realizing lately just how many of my fears center around matters I can’t control.
If this is the case, then why do I waste energy worrying about them?
For most or all of my life, I’ve felt responsible for the emotions and comfort of others, for others’ perceptions of me, and for my inability to accomplish or learn more in one sitting than my body or brain will permit.
As a result, I’ve assigned myself a ton of blame, shed truckloads of tears, and resorted to other self-destructive actions, in the hope that I could somehow correct or “atone” for my lack of omnipotence, forgetting – or perhaps never actually quite realizing/acknowledging – that I’m human, and it is not normal for humans to expect themselves or others to have the capabilities and power of God.
Over the years, I’ve many times allowed my soul to be pulverized over friends’/family’s/crushes’ perceptions of me. Unrequited love (or the perception of it) has left me shattered and an emotional wreck more than once. (And don’t get me wrong, I think it’s healthier to release our emotions [through constructive, safe outlets] than to bottle them up or stuff them, and it can be very therapeutic to express our pain through tears. Emotional crying (vs. lubricating or reflex tears) actually releases stress hormones from the body. Near the beginning of this month, I was having a rough time, and cried quite a bit for a couple days. But at the end of it all, I actually felt more peaceful, energetic, and refreshed.)
Only in recent years have I been waking up and essentially telling myself, “Kate, some people are just going to hate your guts, no matter how much energy and effort you invest in preventing this. Some people are going to feel uncomfortable around you – or simply uncomfortable in general – no matter how hard you try to accommodate their needs or care for them. And all you can do in life is give things your best. And leave the outcomes to be what they may.”
As children, we often catch the message/belief that it is our fault if someone is mad at us. This mentality may even be learned from our parents. Sometimes, we see them get hurt if others disapprove of them or of the way they raise their children, or of their children’s shortcomings and “problems”. And so we quickly learn to live for the approval of others – for the sake of our own image and our parents’ image – inviting others to be the judge of the beauty, worth, effectiveness, or meaning of our lives. We feel we must prove to be excellent students and obedient children (and not just obedient, but having the appearance of being so to onlookers). We learn that it is shameful to be quiet because we will seem “shy”. We learn that we must modify our behavior in an effort to control the perceptions others have of us.
And if we grow up in a “religious” community, often additional expectations come with that. We must appear to be righteous, and to be fitting in with whatever additional practically cultic dogma is added on to the original heart/message/core of that “religion” or belief system. We work extra hard to keep our noses clean – and not only that – but make sure that others know we’re doing this, in the hopes that doing so will allow us to earn and control their acceptance of us.
And sadly, these efforts often work. In some cultures, if we just check off all the appropriate boxes, then we are rewarded with acceptance and “respect”. This experience then reinforces in our heads the message that if we simply try hard enough and bend far enough, we can control others’ perceptions of us. And so we continue to devote all our energy to seeking the Holy Grail of human approval and acceptance. But sooner or later, we get frustrated when our efforts don’t seem to be consistently working, because they’ve “worked before”.
To make matters worse, when in such communities we ever dare to deviate from expectations, norms, or rules, we are punished harshly, whether with ostracization, “sanctions” of sorts, or correction/scolding (perhaps even publicly).
If this happens in a religious community, the psychological effects can be doubly painful and disorienting. If you desire to please God, and you consider others to be wiser than you, then you may assign the blame to yourself for being “rebellious” or unknowledgeable about the “ways of God”, if and when you are “corrected” or shunned by them, even if this treatment is utterly undeserved. You trust others’ judgment more than your own, and assume you deserved this harsh scolding/reprimand/shunning.
In such situations, we learn to associate discomfort and the disapproval of others with disobedience and sin. If we are accepted by others, then we must not be “sinning”, and if we upset them, then we deserve blame.
Some “blame” and reproof may be merited, and it is good to be sensitive to this and to learn from our mistakes. But the disapproval or opposition of others is not necessarily a good indicator of whether we have messed up and need to change or not.
Often, I’ve fallen into the trap of blaming myself for the appearance of things. Having yucky skin, despite my efforts to care for it (it looks – and used to more – like I don’t/didn’t care). Being late (even if I had a truly “legitimate” reason, and gave friends/employers notice if possible), which not only inconveniences others (which is bad enough), but also looks bad.
I also worry about (and feel responsible for) accidentally violating others’ boundaries. This is likely because I’m so used to allowing my own boundaries to be violated, and assume that others must often do the same. As a young child, I would often do things I was told (by practically anyone but a total stranger), and would allow others to do things to me that I disliked. I basically assumed that I was an idiot and they (even other peers) were sages. The most idiotic part of it all was me believing that. 😛 Yet, they seemed so confident and certain, and I lacked confidence and certainty. I was still learning so much, and felt sort of “behind” in terms of social and general knowledge, and consequently trusted others’ commands/judgment more than my own. I suppressed the voices of discomfort, hesitance, and questioning inside my head, believing that others must know best, because I knew nothing.
And so now, I worry about being the one offending, hurting, using, or scaring others by stepping all over them. Because I used to let people walk over me all the time.
But I must remember that it is their choice to be stepped on or pushed into something that makes them uncomfortable, and must also remember that it is never my intent to do so, and therefore, it’s unlikely that anyone would feel particularly strongly that they were being coerced by me into a particular action or choice. However, if they do, it is their responsibility to think for themselves, honor their boundaries, and say “no”. I should not accept or assign myself responsibility for their boundaries.
And then, I’ve blamed myself for my chronic illness. Why do I have to seem (and sometimes be) so unproductive? I’m just reinforcing millennial stereotypes. Why, when I have so many goals and desires and matters which concern me, do I have to be bound up in this prison?
It must be my fault, I reason.
Yet once again, my body lies outside my control. I make considerable efforts to care for it and protect it, and yet, I cannot control the outcome of those efforts, or the maladies that may befall my frame despite my most earnest efforts to prevent them.
My body may be thrown into a prison, but my mind will with less ease and greater resistance suffer the same fate. (Granted, I have many times fallen into the grip of some pretty crippling depression or anxiety, and haven’t always known how to get out of it. Perhaps sometimes, things just have to run their course.)
But generally speaking, my mind is a place that lies within my domain of influence and control.
Others may insult me, but taking offense is my choice.
My body may be a wreck at times, but blaming myself for this is my decision.
Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them. – Epictetus
And even if your past decisions made you who you are today – less fit, more sick, less “desirable” or “attractive” or “respectable” – those past decisions also now lie outside of your control, and therefore, there is no use blaming yourself for them. Only in learning from those choices and moving forward with the resolve to make wiser choices in these areas in the future.
Could I have made some healthier dietary choices earlier in my life? Sure. (Honestly, I’d probably still be about as sick as I am now, as even “healthy” foods can make me unwell, and there were many other non-food factors which contributed to my illness, but maybe it would have taken me a bit longer to reach the point that I did.)
There is no use blaming myself for my carelessness (or ignorance – I knew a lot less about my body’s dietary needs then).
Therefore, whenever we are hindered or troubled or distressed, let us not blame others, but ourselves, that is, our own judgments. The uneducated person blames others for their failures; those who have just begun to be instructed blame themselves; those whose learning is complete blame neither others nor themselves. – Epictetus
Lies We Must Stop Believing
If someone’s angry at me, it’s my problem.
It’s quite possible that you did something that could incite anger in others. However, that does not necessarily mean that the thing you said or did was “bad”. People respond with anger to truth and lies alike, to justice and injustice, to kindness and cruelty. It is good to examine our actions and words for anything we must change or could improve. However, regardless of the nature (good, bad, neutral) of our actions and words, others’ reactions are their choice.
If someone is uncomfortable, it’s my responsibility to change that.
For sanity’s sake, let them grow up a little. They can handle it.
It is good to be mindful of others’ needs for space, and of the boundaries they have indicated or expressed to us. But we are not responsible for the suffering (or lack thereof) of humanity. And it is not our job to baby others.
This doesn’t mean we should never attempt to ameliorate others’ conditions, problems, or suffering. But we must realize that ultimately, we cannot control whether or not they suffer.
If somebody thinks I’m stupid/unlikable, then I must be.
They are entitled to their own opinion, certainly. But remember, they’ll never see you from the angle from which you see yourself, or the angles from which others see you.
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” – Marcus Aurelius
In a season where many of us are painfully sensitive to rejection or aware of our “undesirability”, it’s vital to remember that others’ perceptions of us lie outside of our control (and are not necessarily accurate). Therefore, they do not merit our attention, our worry, or our energy. Easier said than done, for sure. This is definitely something I struggle with.
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