Tiny Buddha, 2016
By Meg Hartley
“When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself.” – Paulo Coelho
Sometimes it’s easy to define ourselves by our roles and relationships.
We can look at ourselves as a daughter, or someone’s employee, or so in so’s husband. These things mean a lot to us, and we often subconsciously use a variety of behaviors and mental constructs to protect these roles and relationships.
It can take form in innocuous ways, like buying clothes you don’t really want or feigning interests in order to fit in. (Go sports team!) But it also affects more serious things, like how we view ourselves, what we think we’re capable of, and what goals we pursue.
A common theme in movies is the mid-lifer who suddenly realizes they’ve made all of their decisions in life to please other people. It’s reflected in the zeitgeist so often for a reason—because it’s a common occurrence, and an easy trap to fall into.
My realization that I was doing this started taking shape with several ah-ha moments over the last several years, but it became palpable during an entrepreneurial workshop almost a year ago.
We all were assigned a personality test to take at home before returning the next morning. Mine said something like: You think with your heart and are excellent at building thriving relationships.
I thought that was a lovely-sounding result, but the next morning I got a bit of a jolt from the woman putting on this portion of the workshop.
“Ah, you’re a blue! You constantly think about yourself in relation to everyone else.”
“I do not,” I replied, embarrassed.
“But you do. What are you thinking about when you fall asleep at night? Your relationships. You wonder if everyone’s okay. You wonder how you affect others. You wonder what they think of you.”
I must have been nodding, because she said, “See? That’s thinking about yourself in relation to everyone else. Their approval means a lot to you, and that’s how it manifests in your mind.”
That irritated me in a huge way.
I ignored her for the rest of the day, fuming about how someone could say something so mean—and because of a silly little test that didn’t say anything about wanting approval! I was still thinking about it when I got home, all riled up with indignance.
Then it hit me. I’m a fan of Jungian psychology. I’m not an expert or anything, but I like the way that dude thinks.
He espouses the philosophy that our irritations and overreactions point to key truths about ourselves; when something or somebody really gets to us, it could be because it’s pointing to a truth about ourselves that we don’t want to see.
I had noted people-pleasing tendencies before, and I had made great strides! I no longer fake-laughed at things that I didn’t find funny.
I no longer thought of others, or their judgments, when making personal style decisions. And I no longer cared about being as thin as others, after struggling with eating disorders for years.
These things were a big deal to me, and it took focused effort to make these changes. I thought I was done! Then some random person goes pointing out the other-focused thought constructs in my brain like she can see them? What the what, man? Pssssch.
I tried to ignore it. Tried to pretend that it wasn’t there. But once something like that is pointed out, life tends to keep pointing it out to you.
I eventually leaned in and decided to do something about it. I’m a lover of meditation and mindfulness in all forms, so invented a mindfulness game of it.
I started watching my mind for other-oriented thoughts, and then I imagined shooting them down with the gun from the 80’s Nintendo game, Duck Hunt. Pew! Pew! I shoot them thoughts right down:
Imagining an argument with a family member: Pew! Pew!
Comparing myself to someone else: Pew! Pew!
Wondering how I’d explain myself for doing something: Pew! Pew!
Overanalyzing lack of reactions to my Facebook post: Pew! Pew!
(A few things that don’t count: non-judgmental relationship reflection, hoping people are happy, and forgiving others and myself.)
It might sound silly, and maybe for you it would be, but for me, it’s worked wonders.
It’s helped me find my center. I feel like my whole life I’ve been off, getting tossed about in the storm of others’ wishes, real or imagined; flung around in subtle manipulations, others’ or mine; and thrashed into the ground by judgments, spoken or merely assumed.
The benefits of cultivating a centered perspective like this are immense. For one thing, it leaves us free to cultivate inner-direction—to focus on the things that really matter to us, the things that we love to spend time on, the things that make us sparkle.
I’ve discovered that we can adopt a centered-perspective as homebase. It had been there the whole time, this calm and peaceful mind, this quiet in the eye of the storm.
I had frequently visited it, usually while meditating, or by way of painting, or even via chore lists done in a zen-like fashion; but we can learn to operate from this place all the time.
My mind still swerves into the storm, but less and less. It’s noticeable, and feels odd, far from being a filter for life or a perspective to see it from, like it was before.
And once we spot mental constructs in this way, we stop identifying with them, and they can’t sweep us up like they used to. They lose power as new neural pathways are created, bringing with them new ways of thinking and of approaching life.
Try to spot your other-focused mental constructs going forward. Recognize when you’re dwelling on arguments, comparing yourself to others, or looking for their approval, and shift your focus back to yourself. Find your center.
Know that you’re more than how you affect the people around you. You’re more than what other people think of you. If you can focus a little less on who you are in relation to everyone else, like me, you might find yourself less stressed and far more fulfilled.