One of the toughest messages I have ever wrapped my mind around is just this:
It’s not about me.
It doesn’t matter what “it” is, it’s almost never as much about me as it feels. Of course being human means (to some extent) taking things and internalising them, working out how they are relevant to you, making sense of them in some kind of personal way. But often the best thing to do is to step back and say “That’s not about me. It’s nothing to do with me. It’s Somebody Else’s Problem.”
I’m not very good at that. One of nature’s dictators, I want to fix everything, and tend to take responsibility for everything within a 10km radius (and sometimes a lot further – curse you, Internet!). And I am a big believer in the immortal words of Dr Seuss:
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not!”
We all need to take responsibility for the state of the world, for the health and wellbeing of the people around us. For the suffering that we could alleviate if only we could be bothered.
But it’s important to stop short of taking responsibility for the behaviour of others. You might be able to mitigate the consequences, but you are not responsible for the words that come out of anyone else’s mouth, nor the actions of their flailing limbs (ok, unless you stuck your foot out and tripped me, in which case really, why would you bother? I am self tripping!).
This morning I came across a post by Heather B Armstrong that took my breath away. In it she explains to her daughter why someone being mean to her was not about her. It was all about the person being mean and something going on in that person’s life. Heather expressed it so beautifully that I took that post and showed it to my 9 year old. It’s a great theory – something I have known for a long time – but an idea that’s incredibly difficult to hold onto when someone is screaming in your face, or sending abusive emails about you to a wide audience, or saying things that are finely calculated to carve your heart up into tiny pieces, each one a perfect replica of your deepest fears.
This is the thing I most want my daughters to know – some 30 years before I fully worked it out – that other people’s meanness is not about them. That they are not bad people because someone chooses to pick on them. That they are not natural targets, or somehow less worthy than anyone else because the school bully has decided to make them the focus of an inexplicable urge to hurt people. Or even that their best friend choosing to hang out with someone else doesn’t mean that they are not friends worth having.
Years ago a friend of mine who I had been very close to, Ted, invited us to his birthday. The day before the party Ted told me he had cancelled it, saying that so many people couldn’t make it he had decided to try for another time. A couple of days later I found out that the party had gone ahead – that my husband and I were the only ones “uninvited” in this way.
Ted, of course, tells the story entirely differently. There were, indeed, friends who couldn’t come. He decided to cancel the party and have just a small dinner. It just so happened that we were the only ones he had to tell. He was mystified by my reaction.
That wasn’t about me, but my goodness it felt like it. It was the final straw in a long line of unpleasantness, and it hurt so much that I eventually ended the friendship. What bothers me most about that incident was how badly it affected me. True, there was other stuff going on in my life at the time that lowered my resilience drastically, but it felt like a complete rejection of me personally. It took me a long time to get to the point where I could shrug it off and label it as about him, not about me.
I have a strong suspicion that this is the foundation of self-confidence, resilience and tranquillity. Being able to watch the barbs fly and see them bounce off rather than penetrate. I still don’t know how to do it – I hope that understanding it earlier might help my daughters work it out better than I have. Knowing the truth is only half the battle – feeling it is a whole different ballgame.
Blaming or judging myself for other people’s behaviour is a losing game, and puts me at the mercy of everyone with an axe to grind or a bat to swing. I suspect it also means I take less responsibility for my own behaviour, because I feel free to blame it on others. There is no cry more disempowering than “she made me do it!”
So this is my aim: that the only behaviour I will take personally is my own, and that I will teach my daughters to do the same. And when the barbs penetrate regardless of my best intentions, I will forgive myself, take a deep breath, and remember that it’s not about me.