Last week, we took a look at an old concept, Could Your Worst Enemy Be Your Best Teacher? Something about this piece seems to have resonated with quite a few people and the article wound up being tweeted, re-tweeted, and otherwise distributed around the internet.
The comments were unusually positive and I received quite a bit of email from people giving examples of how they had applied the concept in their own lives.
One email in particular stood out as something that would be very useful to explore in more detail. Susanne wrote:
Dear Mr. Bishop,
I happened upon your article at HuffPost after following some links from Glamour magazines' weight loss articles that I'm following. You invited readers to write to you with comments.
I just want to let you know that I have been thinking about exactly this for the past month or so regarding a very specific situation. Frequently, drivers pull out in front of me and then slow down. I don't run into anyone or have accidents. I just find it really annoying. Often, when I'm walking in a crowd, I notice that someone will step in front of me and do the same thing while walking. It seems very rude. For a long time, I thought maybe this was some message to me from the universe to me: Don't rush! Slow down!
But lately, similar to what you wrote on this morning, I've been thinking that this must be something that I'm doing to someone else. I'm not sure. But I have started thinking about my reaction and trying to understand what it is that I'm doing that might be perceived by someone else the way that I see these events.
So, thanks for this thought-provoking article.
Two things strike me about this note from Susanne, both of which might be valuable for those of us inclined to approach our lives in this kind of response-able and accountable fashion.
The first observation has to do with how Susanne has begun thinking about these kinds of episodes in her life. As you can see, she is considering the possibility that she might behave in a similar fashion herself.
My experience working with myself and with thousands of others over the years would lead me to respond: Absolutely! It's not that I have any particular window into Susanne and her behaviors; however, when someone poses a question to themselves or an answer to a question about his or her own life, it's worth considering how he or she arrived at that particular question or response.
Of all the myriad questions or responses Susanne could have chosen, why did it occur to her that perhaps she might be behaving in a way similar to what she finds offensive in others? It could be that when we posit questions or answers of this type, they arise from something inside of our own selves we are trying to bring into our own awareness, something that some part of us considers important, something that would help us improve the quality of our own lives.
It would seem to me that Susanne is on to something, at least for her own self.
The whole idea builds on an even older concept, one often referred to as "the mirror." The mirror concept suggests that when we perceive something in another, or react to something in another, what we are really doing is seeing a reflection of our own selves in the other person's behavior.
In fact, we may not perceive their behavior accurately, especially when it comes to intent. We may be seeing something, interpreting it through our own filters or self-judgments, and then reacting toward or against the other person. What we may truly be trying to do, however, is bring to our own awareness some aspect or quality of our own behavior that detracts from who we truly are, or how we would prefer to represent ourselves in the world.
Perhaps what Susanne is pointing out here, for the benefit of all of us, is that sometimes when we perceive others as insensitive or inconsiderate, what we are really noticing is something about our own tendencies toward insensitivity or lack of consideration for others.
A second, and in some ways more profound observation, has to do with the possibility that we "attract" to us people or situations that will function as a mirror for our own education.
Not unlike Susanne in some ways, I sometimes find myself reacting to other people (in this case, drivers) who cut me off, make sudden changes, or otherwise behave in ways that I don't appreciate. Some part of me rises up in righteous indignation and I often say something unpleasant to them in my mind, or even more embarrassingly, right out loud as I'm driving along.
My wife is fond of pointing out to me that it is equally unpleasant to hear me commenting negatively about the other person. Even more to the point, it is pretty ineffective on my part given that the other person can't even hear me!
Some time ago, she also pointed out something even more significant: as long as I keep reacting to the other person's behavior, I am likely to keep attracting them to me.
Why? Clearly because this is a lesson I need to learn.
Lesson? What lesson? Well, perhaps what I am most trying to teach myself is that my experience of well being, peace, harmony, balance, etc. is not a function of what someone else does, but more about my response to it.
So, what about this attraction business? Am I really "attracting" these kinds of people and behaviors to me?
I doubt that I am actually functioning as some kind of magnet.
However, I am "attracting" the reaction inside of myself by staying focused on their behavior, more than my response. My experience would suggest that no one is being cut off more or less than I am while driving, nor is Susanne.
Instead, both of us may be overly sensitive to the behavior of others, or what we deem their lack of consideration toward us, and wind up in a state of overreaction.
Someone else may experience the same set of behaviors and simply remain calm, adjusting their own behavior, in this case driving, to match the circumstances that are present.
So, here I am, noticing what someone else says or does, and then (over)reacting as though the other person actually has control over my state of well-being.
Hmmm. Maybe I am "attracting" these lessons. Maybe they will keep appearing until I learn to exercise the control that is truly mine and mine alone - the ability to choose my response regardless of their choices, actions or behaviors.
If I truly learn this lesson, perhaps fewer of these instances will take place. More likely, they will continue to occur and I will be less reactive toward them. Some would call this a lesson in acceptance.
Now, I'm sure a couple of readers are going to become exercised when reading this, overextending the context to include someone who physically attacks you or otherwise directly harms you. That's a whole other set of circumstances and choices.
Unless, of course, it's not! In previous posts, I've cited folks like Mitchell and Viktor Frankl and they still warrant referencing. While their choices may suggest something extraordinary about their makeup, they would argue that the lessons they learned were as ordinary as you can get.
So, if you would like to gain greater control over your own life, to move down the path of creating more of what you truly want out of life, it might not be so bad to simply start with your own reactions to situations and circumstances in life.
If you can learn to take greater authority over your reactions, you just might be on the path to taking greater authority over a broader set of life circumstances.
If this kind of approach works for you, then you get to move ahead. If it doesn't, then you can cross if off the list of things to try and move on to the next one.
Just ask yourself if you are willing for things to be different, and, by extension, for you to be different. That could be a very interesting question!
More on this theme to come. In the interim, please do leave a comment here or drop me a note at my email address listed below.
Russell Bishop is an Educational Psychologist, professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California. You can find out more about Russell at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell by email at: Russell (at) lessonsinthekeyoflife.com
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