A few weeks ago, on my way out the door, I stopped by my wife’s desk to tell her that I was heading to the gym. When she turned towards me, I was taken aback by her attitude. She wasn’t happy to see me, had kind of a scowl on her face, and just seemed really angry. I started to feel hurt and to take it personally, but before I could act on that feeling in any way, she said “I hate this project I’m working on. I hate it!”
I don’t know about you, but when someone says something to me, looks at me with anything other than a smile, or does anything that impacts my relationship with them, it’s really easy for me to assume that they’re doing it intentionally. Further, it’s easy to assume that they’re doing it because of me, or to me.
When my wife told me that she hated the project, it wasn’t a surprise. She’d mentioned it to me multiple times over the preceding few weeks. She’d asked me for suggestions on how to deal with it. She’d talked to me about how to talk to her boss about it. But, even though I knew this was a thing that was going on in her life, the first place that my head went was to assume that her attitude was about me.
In the past, I might have pursued this line of thinking even further, and responded to her with some sort of rejection or anger. This would have just made things worse, because what she really wanted and needed at that moment was just for someone to listen to her vent for a few minutes about the project. By not acting on the feeling of taking it personally, I was able to avoid doing that damage, and was instead able to be there for her in the way that she needed at the time.
This also happens to me sometimes in response to my expectations of you. For example, if I want to talk to you about something, I may expect you to stop what you’re doing to listen. If you don’t, my head will often go to assuming that it’s because of me. If you’re not acting towards me in the way that I want, of course it’s because of something I did, or something you feel about me (or so the thinking goes).
But, over the course of my recovery journey, I’ve learned something shocking that I’d like to share with you. Are you sitting down? You should probably be sitting down for this. I’ll wait.
So, one of the most shocking things I’ve learned on my journey is:
Sometimes, other people do things for reasons that have nothing to do with me.
I know, right?!? Who knew? Why didn’t someone tell me this years ago? 😊
But, underlying the thinking here is a naïve self-centeredness that doesn’t serve me well. I’m really not the most important thing in anyone else’s life — no matter how much I might want to assume that I am. Even when I am important in someone’s life, they still spend huge amounts of time thinking about things other than me. They still have a life outside of their relationship with me. They have a job, or are going to school, or are looking for or thinking about those things. They have a family, or the absence of one. They have friends and relationships other than me. And, of course, they have thoughts and feelings about those parts of their life too. (And, if they don’t, that’s a major red flag, not a good thing.)
Now, of course there are times when my actions have an effect on other people. And, of course there are times when their actions towards me are about me. But, one of the primary tenets of healthy communication is to communicate those things directly. If it is about me, it’s the other person’s responsibility to tell me that it’s about me — it’s not up to me to read their mind, which is good, because I suck at mind-reading. So, if the other person isn’t doing that, the best thing that I can do is to not assume that it’s about me, but to either ask them directly or to just wait for them to talk about it on their schedule.
Like basically everything that I talk about here, the point is not that I know all this. The point is that I’ve learned to remind myself of this in my self-talk, in the moment when things are happening. (Not perfectly, of course. But often enough.)
By reminding myself in the moment, in my self-talk, that it’s not about me, I get a bunch of benefits. I can allow other people to do their thing. I can allow them to have their own feelings and their own experience. I can allow them to not meet my expectations. And, if I remind myself in my self-talk that it’s not about me, none of those things are as big a deal to me as they used to be.