05/19/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Jul 19, 2014

For Me? I Don't Think So: Saying No to Unwanted Gifts

Dougal Waters via Getty Images

People want to give us things all the time. Is it out of generosity? Out of the kindness in their hearts? Unfortunately, more often than not, the answer is no. But too often, we think we have to accept their gifts anyway.

What would you do if someone tried to give you a rotten fish? Would you accept it? Probably not. Instead you might say, "Why would I want a smelly fish? I don't want it, you keep it."

These rotten fish are emotions like anger, resentment, blame, envy. People try to offload them onto us because they're miserable, and they want us to be miserable, too. Or they blame us for the fact that they have a smelly fish. Or perhaps they just assume they can dump their smelly fish on us. And what do we do? Too often we say, "Sure I'll accept your rotten fish. I'll take this smelly thing from you." We do this out of guilt, a mistaken sense of duty or perhaps we think we're being compassionate. And what do we get for our trouble? A smelly fish, that's all. Now we stink. Now we feel bad.

There are many stories about Buddha. This one is about an angry old man. His family had decided to follow Buddha's teaching and the man was furious because they were turning their backs on the old ways, the old religion. He approached Buddha like a charging tiger, with murder on his mind.

"Good day to you, friend," Buddha said.
"I will not talk to you," the old man replied, "I know how you work. You'll ask me a question. You'll distract me and then you will change my mind. I will not listen."
"Tell me, friend," Buddha said, "Do people come and visit you at your house?"
"What?" asked the old man, "Yes, of course, we have many visitors."
"And tell me, do they bring presents?"
"What is this? Yes, they bring presents."
"And if they bring you a present you don't want, what do you do with it?"
The old man stopped and stood in front of Buddha, "I tell them I do not want their present."
"So you don't accept their present?"
"No, I do not. I tell them to take it back with them."
"Then that is what I am telling you," Buddha said. "You have come to my house, bearing a present of anger. I do not accept it. It is your present, it stays with you. Take your present with you when you go. It has nothing to do with me. It does not belong to me."
The old man was so impressed with Buddha's words he stayed to learn about meditation and was soon reunited with his family.

So just because you are a good person who practices empathy and compassion doesn't mean you're a doormat. If someone tries to dump their negativity on you remember the problem is not yours unless you choose to accept it. The problem belongs to them and indeed if you keep accepting other people's rotten fish you are doing them a disservice. They're better off learning how to deal with their own negativity. It has nothing to do with you. They have their own path to walk and their own smelly fish to fry.

Mary-Lou Stephens' meditation memoir, Sex, Drugs and Meditation, is the true story of how meditation helped changed her life, save her job and find a husband. You can buy it here.