Ouch! I got what I asked for, but strangely didn’t feel any better. Actually, that situation didn’t happen at all. In fact, on the contrary Meg has taught me so much over the years about acceptance. She has endured all the rises and falls of my weight and body shape with equanimity. She says nothing when I put weight on and nothing when I lose weight. I am afflicted with a disease of the ego, a condition that affects many people, whereby my self perception swings like a pendulum. My condition is so delusional that I can convince myself after a single workout that I’ve lost weight, and after missing a single workout that I’ve put weight on.
Because this delusion is so insatiable, I look everywhere to reinforce the belief. While I fish for compliments, Meg just waits for the pendulum to swing back again, hoping that I don’t knock her down with the weight of my needs.
She neither praises me for losing weight, nor criticizes me for gaining weight. This drives my ego crazy as you can imagine. But in my saner moments, I have undying appreciation for her acceptance. If only I could see myself with the same acceptance, my suffering would end.
I’m writing in this series about taking things personally. Life is full of opportunity to take things personally, at both ends of the pendulum. We do this when we make events, comments, praise, criticism, sideways glances, body language and countless gestures etc etc etc mean something about us.
Someone greets you a little less enthusiastically than you would like, and you imagine that it means that they are upset with you. Conversation shifts when you walk in a room, and you imagine that people are gossiping about you. You’re not invited to a gathering, and assume it’s because you aren’t wanted. Your friend forgets to call you, and you take it to mean that they don’t care. Someone is distant, you assume it’s because they are angry with you.
Or conversely, you ARE invited to the cool party, and you make it mean that you are a COOL person. Someone looks in your direction and you assume that it’s because you are so attractive. All eyes turn in your direction when you walk in the room, and you decide that it means you are VERY important.
Either way, the meaning you make from these events is full of assumptions, the desire for approval can never be fulfilled outside of yourself and the way you feel about yourself swings from one extreme to another with little basis and no resting place. The power of not taking things personally is that you force yourself to find inner acceptance, to take responsibility for the meaning you place on situations, and ultimately to find an inner resting place that keeps you centered while all around you, and much of what happens within you, such as emotions and thoughts, rises and falls. (read on for more about taking things personally)
What sort of things do you take personally? Conflict, difference of opinion, silence, different beliefs, humor, politics? This tendency seems to be at the root of so much unnecessary suffering. Why do we do it?
We seem to need drama to validate ourselves or maybe drama makes us feel more alive. Have you ever had a pain in your body, and found yourself flirting with it? You twist your body up into a pretzel shape to see if the pain is still there, almost chasing it, searching for it. We have some unconscious dependence on pain. Even other people’s drama is enticing. An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?” We go out of our way to get involved in other peoples’ dramas.
Maybe we have a need to feel that life is all about us. You think that other people are going out of their way to cause you pain. Most of the time, people are so busy bending themselves into their own pretzel shaped drama, searching for their own pain, that it probably has very little to do with you. People don’t usually cause you pain, but they do remind you of your own pain, intentionally or not. They remind you of pain that may have decades of history behind it, and it’s too painful to really address, so you imagine that this most recent drama has caused the pain. You react out of your own pain and remind another person of their pain, and so the cycle continues.
We had a conversation with our 12 year old son recently. He was being teased by some boys because he doesn’t play football or like guns. It was really getting him down, and he was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with him. I shared with him that when I was his age I DID play football and was even quite good, but I still got teased for being too shy and not exactly fitting the mould of the way a football playing boy is supposed to act. Normal is an endless spectrum and conformity is a moving target. But conformity will always look for a target, and whoever dares to stand out could end up in its crosshairs.
Some kids are just plain mean. They are mean because they are desperately trying to win society’s dog eat dog battle for supremacy, with its inbuilt impossible standards, that are drummed into them from birth. They will find a way to put you down, in order to feel better about themselves, and they will keep doing it until they either destroy you or else heal themselves and feel truly comfortable in their own skin.
As adults, we have subtle (and not so subtle) ways of doing the same thing as we continue to search for peace with ourselves. Even if people are trying hard to make things feel personal, it’s not. It’s all about them. So you might as well be yourself, live a life that gives you joy and give others the space to find their own way. There is ALWAYS more to come, and the bully will one day come face to face with his own pain, and the bullied will one day see his light.
The battle is ultimately won in your own mind as you come head to head, literally, with your own beliefs. Once you win this battle, people can praise you or criticize you, build you up or put you down, belittle you or put you on a pedestal, and at your essence you stay centered because you know how fickle these opinions and games are.
The author Byron Katie put it like this-
You think they think there’s something wrong with you. You think that other people think there’s something wrong with you because you think it. So by gaining their approval, you’ve been trying to stop them from thinking what you’re thinking. The worst that can happen is that they are just like you! It’s their job to think what you’re already thinking, until you question it. When you question what you think, the truth will make you laugh. And when you laugh, they laugh too. Everybody does their job all the time. That’s why meeting your thought system is so much fun!