Many of us probably heard an admonition from our childhood caregivers that went something like, “Don’t be selfish!” or “You have to share!” and took this to heart. In many cases, this is indeed a good principle to apply in our lives. But there is at least one thing that we should be selfish with: The responsibility for our own emotions.
I have had multiple conversations with multiple people in the past month that each began with a person saying something to me like, “Can you believe what Smith did to me?? He is SO rude and inconsiderate! I can’t believe he gets away with treating people this way!” This is the way that many people have learned to deal with the emotions that arise from an unpleasant encounter with another person. (This is, of course, assuming that the interaction has not been an abusive one, but simply one in which one person feels unhappy or uncomfortable with the exchange.) We begin to complain and place blame on the other person for behaving inappropriately in the situation. But when we do this, we set up several belief and behavior patterns that have a negative impact on ourselves and on others.
We tell ourselves that we are victims. Victimhood is a popular place for people to live. Comfort with victimhood has often been created over years and years of receiving positive reinforcement from others in the form of attention and sympathy, which can make people feel as if they are connected to others through our negative emotions. The problem with this approach is that the sense of community that is based on victimhood tends to keep its members stuck in a pattern of belief about themselves that tells them that others have control over them; that they are just waiting for the next person to come into their lives and mistreat them. This belief is not one that promotes a healthy sense of self-worth, and is one that tends to bring about repeated experiences of victimhood.
We create relationships that tend to perpetuate our weakness. People who chronically complain about how the actions of other people hurt them also naturally attract people into their lives who are the ones who listen to and console them as they complain. We’ll call this person the conspirator. The conspirator gets her sense of value in the relationship from offering her support and condolences to the complainer. Hence, the majority of the positive reinforcement in the relationship between the complainer and the conspirator comes from the complainer being in a weak and mistreated state of mind, rather than being in a strong and capable state of mind. Trying to break free from this type of relationship can be challenging at best when the previous relationship has been based upon the conspirator’s dependence upon the complainer and vice versa.
We give up our power to another person. When we perpetually tell ourselves that we feel a certain way because of something that someone else did to us or said about us, we give away our own sense of self-determination for our lives. We tell ourselves that our entire day, entire week, entire LIFE even, rests in the control of other people who are given the power to decide for us how we will feel on any given day. In this way, we can begin over time to slowly lose the sense of being capable of deciding for ourselves how we WANT to feel on any given day. And I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to feel joyful and fulfilled. Yet if we have given away this power to decide for ourselves how we want to feel, we don’t believe that we have power to feel joyful and fulfilled unless others create that environment for us.
We give up the power to heal our own “issues” by denying that they exist. Let’s go back to the example of the complainer. Each time she repeats this story of how she was harmed by another person because the other person did something wrong, she ignores an opportunity to ask herself, “Why was I so angry about what Smith said?” She misses out on a chance to explore her own beliefs and thoughts about herself. Perhaps Smith said something that would only be offensive to a person who felt poorly about herself. By immediately resorting to blaming Smith for her feelings, the complainer misses her opportunity to think selfishly about the negative beliefs that she has about herself that creates her negative perspective about the conversation. And by passing up the opportunity to heal the emotions, the complainer is ultimately only causing herself to repeat the same experiences over and over, rather than working through the negative emotions and moving forward to bigger and better life experiences.
So how can we be selfish with our responsibility for our emotions? The next time we find ourselves ready to complain to another person about how we were treated, stop and ask a few questions.
Am I living in victimhood right now? How could I feel like a strong and capable person in my thoughts about this situation? Can I find any good light in which to reframe this situation?
Do I have relationships whose foundations are built on my need to complain and another person’s need to offer me consolation? If so, is it possible for me to shift the focus of this relationship to more positive and healthy interactions without losing the relationship?
How could I feel more positive power in this situation? How could I choose to feel or act in a way that doesn’t result in me using my power against another person, but allows me to feel my own sense of power over myself, my emotions, and my actions?
What do I need to heal in this situation? What feelings can I take responsibility for that could be healed for my own benefit? What stories am I telling myself that cause me to be offended by the things that were said or done to me? Are my own feelings of not being good enough or not being valued creating my response? And if so, what can I do to reinforce my feelings of being good enough and being valued?
My hope is that the questions you ask yourself will lead to some revelations as well as some higher thoughts in the days to come.