You’re so vain,
you probably think this song is about you
One of the hardest, yet most valuable lessons I’ve learnt is that it’s rarely about me. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. Even when someone is shouting right in my face, or in the case of my 4 year old right in my knee, it’s still not about me. Sometimes it’s about blood sugar, sunshine (or lack thereof), or the phase of the moon. Sometimes it’s about lack of sleep. Sometimes it’s just about life.
As toddlers, we rule the universe (or at least we think we do). Everything revolves around us, and we lack the cognitive ability to see things from someone else’s perspective. As we grow, in theory, we become more able to empathise and to recognise that there are other ostensibly valid points of view. A toddler is as proudly self centred as a gyroscope, and while adults are generally slightly more subtle about it, we often remain fundamentally gyroscopic.
You’re so vain
I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you?
(You’re So Vain – Carly Simon)
It is incredibly difficult not to take life personally. A wise friend recently explained to me that meanness is potent “because it taps into that little voice in our heads that tells us we deserve it.” It’s difficult to shrug off nastiness, because deep down we believe that it is about us. We (and only we) deserved the tirade, or caused the problem, or should have done better. And then we become deeply invested in the battle.
Yet when we make things all about us, we make our lives unnecessarily difficult. We try to fix the unfixable, accept blame for the unavoidable, and take everything far too much to heart. We all need more SEP fields. The SEP field was first described by Douglas Adams – it stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. In his Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series, Adams used the SEP field to power a device that effectively made things invisible – because if it’s somebody else’s problem, nobody can see it.
An SEP field is an exceptionally useful concept for those of us who take things personally. Especially when someone is grumpy, or downright mean in your general direction. Today my 8 year old was upset because a teacher was looking grumpy. He was at least 20 metres away, and not looking at her, but because he had told her off 15 minutes ago, she just knew that he was still cross with her. What else could it possibly be? Sadly, the girl who has SEP fields down to a fine art when it comes to messes around the house, really doesn’t get the SEP as it applies to relationships. A healthy, but balanced application of the SEP is vital to a peaceful life, and it’s a tough lesson to learn.
The interesting thing is that an understanding of the ‘relationship SEP’ gives you the ability to lose, in order to win. That may sound a little bizarre – the trick is that if it’s not about you, then you have no investment in winning battles. You can throw the battle in order to win the war. If it’s not about you, then it’s also not about your self esteem. And it’s self-esteem (or the search for it) that drives us to save face, prove our point, and above all WIN. If it’s not about you, then you can be calm, and objective, and work on finding a way to make everyone happy, instead of trying to come out on top.
It can be incredibly difficult to maintain an appropriate SEP field when someone is pushing your buttons. Indeed, I have failed to achieve it quite a few times recently. But even invoked after the fact, the SEP can still be a powerful tool. Say it with me: It’s Somebody Else’s Problem. Look! It’s gone.