It’s Nothing Personal

Many people, including myself, waste a lot of energy worrying about what other people think.  The worry then influences choices we make every day, from what to wear, to whether or not we should speak to a stranger, to whether we try something new.  After all, if the only person I’m trying to please is myself, it hardly matters what I put on, or if I can’t do a pose in yoga class.  But someone else might think I look foolish, and for some reason, I allow myself to be controlled by that fear.

But, as I read recently, what other people think of me is none of my business.  So why am I giving it so much importance?  After all, I am on my own path, and everyone I meet is on their own.  My thoughts have grown out of my experience.  The things I see are colored by my thoughts.  When I interact with someone, I bring my whole life prior to this moment to the table.  Your thoughts, your past, these will always be mostly a mystery to me.  I will make assumptions about you based on my path, and you will do the same for me.  Therefore, my opinion of you says much more about me than it does about you.  I have to assume the reverse is also true.

The book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz explains this so well.  The second agreement is “Don’t take anything personally.”  When I follow this tenet, I am released from worry about the opinions of others, because what they think of me comes from their path.  But how I react to it comes from mine.  When someone cuts me off in traffic, or doesn’t like my haircut or my latest blog post, it’s my choice to become angry or upset. But the reality is, it’s not personal.

Imagine a life lived with this attitude.  I wouldn’t require the praise of others to feel good about myself, and their slings and arrows would have no power to bring me down.  I could also release a lot of “shoulds” from my mind, because most of what I think I should do is really about trying to please someone else.  But because I’ve lived my life worrying about what other people think, it takes monitoring and practice to recognize when I’ve started to become self-centered, believing everything is about me.  I have to remind myself again and again that I have no control over someone else’s opinion, only my own.  Then I can refuse to accept their judgment, and I don’t absorb their negative energy.  I continue on my path, and allow them to go down their own, knowing their choice has nothing to do with me.

Nurture Resilience

Life is often known to throw curveballs.  Unexpected challenges come up every day, and how we cope with them affects our emotions and our level of stress.  Some people are naturally more resilient than others.  They handle problems as they arise, without becoming too overwhelmed, and without any lasting negative impact.  That’s great if you were born that way, but the rest of us have to learn how to cope, and recover once we’ve faced down a problem.

The good news is, studies have shown that we can increase our level of resilience.  One way is to start acting like a person with good coping skills.  Resilient people have been shown to have a more optimistic attitude.  They are hopeful that things will get better, and they can recognize a challenge as an opportunity for growth.  If our thoughts don’t naturally see the positive, we have to cultivate it.  This means monitoring our thoughts for negative, self-destructive talk, and replacing it with something more encouraging.  This is really hard at first, but your optimist muscles will strengthen the more you work at it.  Incidentally, that’s another quality of resilient people: they persevere.  Remind yourself to stick to your goals, it’s another opportunity to work on being hopeful.

Naturally resilient people don’t weather every storm on their own.  They recognize the need for good support, and use it.  So we can emulate them by building our own support network.  This implies that we recognize when we need help, and then go ask for it.  This is also a skill that may need developing, or we may find we need to cultivate more personal relationships.  Adult friendships tend to get pushed to the back-burner, as family and work take priority.  It can create a sense of vulnerability to try to make new friends, or strengthen bonds we’ve already created.  But resilient people take risks, and see challenges as an opportunity for growth.  Remind yourself of the good that will come from surrounding yourself with supportive people.

The last thing I’ll mention about resilient people, is that they use a toolbox full of coping skills.  This includes things like taking care of themselves physically, getting enough rest and eating well.  Resilient folks know they can’t keep up with life if they are unhealthy.  Coping skills also include ways to relax when stress and anxiety arise.  Meditation, exercise, breathing techniques, these are all tools to help us keep going when things get tough.

Consider making a toolbox for yourself, if you’re trying to build your resiliency.  Include phone numbers of supportive friends or family to remind you to ask for help when needed.  Sign up for some positive or spiritual emails, like Tiny Buddha, or Notes from the Universe, to remind you to look on the bright side.  Fill your home screen on your computer or phone with beautiful images or quotes, and consider using an alarm to remind you to take a break and breathe.  Resiliency can be nurtured with these techniques.  If just one of life’s challenges feels easier because of the skills you’ve developed, it will all be worth it.

Worry-Free

Sometimes I think there must be a worry epidemic.  I see so many people who are stressed, overwhelmed, and constantly on the lookout for what could go wrong.  But many people feel their worry is at least somewhat helpful.  After all, it helps us plan ahead and prepare for challenges.  But that is only true of some types of worry.  Most of it is a waste of energy that only increases anxiety and pulls us farther away from the present.  So why do we keep doing it?  Because in most cases, we do have the power to stop worry from taking over our thoughts.

First, we must distinguish productive worry from the unproductive kind.  When you start to worry, analyze the thought.  Look for two things:  is it realistic, and is it solvable.  Realistic worries are about things that have a high likelihood of happening, such as worrying about a tornado coming on a stormy night when you hear the warning sirens start to blare.  However, if there are no clouds in the sky, a tornado is an unrealistic worry.  Set those aside for now, we’ll deal with them in a minute.  Now, decide if your worry is solvable.  If the warning sirens are blaring, I know I can take cover and protect myself and my family.  Realistic, solvable worries require that we take action. We can brainstorm possible solutions, research answers and take care of the problem. Once that occurs, the worry can be released.  On the other hand, unsolvable worries are usually imagination run wild, such as the worry that I might someday get into a car accident.  If I’m not in my car right this second, this is clearly not a solvable problem.

Now that we’ve taken care of the realistic, solvable worries, it’s time to address their more problematic counterparts.  What do we do with unrealistic, imaginary and, let’s be honest, usually repetitive worries?  These are tougher, because ignoring them is like telling yourself not to think about zebras…  What are you thinking about now?   The simple act of sorting worries into those we can address and those we can’t allows us to recognize when we’re engaging in unproductive worry.  Then, we can consciously choose to release it.  If that isn’t enough, keep a worry journal handy so you can jot down the thoughts when they come up.  Then set it aside.  Again, the simple act of recognizing and acknowledging the worry may release it.  If not, choose a later time to allow your worries to present themselves.  This dedicated “Worry Time” should be scheduled, and limited.  My worries get their 15 minutes of head space at 3:00 pm before the kids get home.  I get out my journal and address each one.  Maybe postponing the worry has had the benefit of shortening my list, either the problem is solved, or it no longer seems important.  Otherwise, I give each item its moment, and then close the book on worries for the day.  Any others that arise in the evening get the same treatment.

Worry is often about the future, or the past.  So another way to release worry is to stay present.  Mindfulness brings us back to this moment.  If there is a real problem in this moment, I address it and move on.  The past and the future have no place here, so worries can’t exist.  A quick way to recapture the present is to focus on the breath.  Inhale deeply through the nose, then release the exhale as slowly as is comfortable, focusing only on the sensation of the air moving through your nostrils.  Release thinking and focus on feeling, since you can’t do both at the same time.  Body sensations are grounded in the present, join them here.  Practices like yoga and meditation increase mindfulness over time.  If worry is a recurring issue for you, consider beginning a regular practice of either one.

Hopefully these techniques will provide more tools to deal with worry.  But sometimes worry is excessive, and causes serious problems in life, such as mood swings, lack of focus, fatigue and insomnia.  In severe cases, it can lead to panic attacks.  These types of serious worry and anxiety may signal the need for more intensive therapy with a professional counselor, or even medications.  Please consult with a mental health professional if you are concerned your worry or anxiety may be of a serious nature.

What’s the Message?

How are you feeling?  Right now.  Tune into your body and mind and see what’s there today…  We spend a lot of time trying to ignore what we’re feeling, or stuffing it down and burying it.  Feelings and emotions can be challenging, inconvenient, and difficult.  So why do we have to have them at all?

Let’s look at the case for feelings.  I will use that term to mean body sensations, such as hot or cold, or pain and comfort.  Feelings are a direct product of sensory stimulation.  We touch a hot stove, the heat and pain receptors in our hands send signals to the brain, which responds by sending signals down the motor nerves to move that hand.  In this case, the feelings of heat and pain were a clear message that something was wrong: if the hand doesn’t move, I’m going to get burned!  While every feeling may not be so clear-cut, we can still start to look for the message in it.  The rumbling in my stomach says grab something to eat, the ache in my knees says you need to slow down on the work outs, and the headache means I’m stressed and need to relax.  Each messenger is looking for a response from us.  We choose to ignore them at our own peril.

We can think about emotions in a similar way: as a signal telling us something about our situation.  Now would you ever put a label on a signal, calling it “bad” or “good”?  Doesn’t really fit, does it?  It’s just a message directing us to take action.  But, we tend to label our emotions: bad = anger, sadness, grief; good = happiness, joy, peace.  The good ones we want more of, and try to reclaim all the time.  The bad ones are ignored or suppressed and avoided if at all possible.  But what if these emotions are all just messengers, showing us things we need to do, change or let go of in our lives?  If messages are ignored, they will try harder to be heard.  Like a small child saying “Mommy!”, they will get louder and more persistent until they are acknowledged and have gotten what they want.

Anger is a tough emotion for a lot of us.  It has a very bad rap.  We are taught that nice people arent’ supposed to get angry, and they certainly shouldn’t show it if they do.  So anger is at the top of the ignore and stuff list of emotions.  But is anger really the problem?  If we reframe it as a messenger, we remove the negative connotation and can simply ask “What does anger need to tell me?”  Maybe it’s that I’m stressed, or I’m not being treated fairly.  Maybe that I need to change jobs or end a relationship or let go of something from my past that isn’t useful anymore.  Whatever it is, I owe it to myself to listen.  Realistically, I may need to listen really hard, with the help of journalling, iRest or other forms of meditation, or a good therapist.  The tougher messages may be harder to interpret, but it’s worth it to do the work!

We don’t need to fear feelings and emotions, they aren’t here to harm us.  They arrive to tell us something about life.  Information that will help decide what needs to happen next.  Instead of ignoring, try welcoming these messengers.  The energy freed up from suppressing or denying them can be channelled into real and positive changes instead!

This post is based on principles of Integrative Restoration, or iRest.  This meditation practice helps us learn to welcome every feeling, emotion, thought and belief as a messenger so we can come to a place where every situation is paired with its perfect response.  Please see the iRest tab on my website, or www.irest.us for more information about this powerful form of meditation.