Everyone has opinions. Everyone has thoughts about what is okay or not okay. Even if you disagree with this, you are entertaining an opinion.
Each day, many times a day, I meet with people in my office. It took me a while to realize that there are as many opinions of me as there are people I meet each day. It took a little longer to realize that what other people think of me doesn’t define me. Their thoughts, opinions and feelings belong to them and are not mine to try and control. I don’t have to take those thoughts personally. Those opinions, thoughts and feelings belong to them.
It may happen that one of my patients might come in and start to tell me what a great doctor I am. They might say that I helped them turn their life around. They sing my praises to their family and friends. Wow! Who doesn’t like being complimented? I may get absorbed with the praise and approval. Good feelings course through me. Good for me!
The next patient might come in and tell me that I am not helping at all. All of my suggestions and recommendations have not been helpful. In fact, things might be worse. They cross their arms and look at me with a sour expression. They don’t say it, but the subtext is that I am a failing doctor. I may begin to notice a sinking feeling pulling me down. I might feel the discomfort of defensiveness or the rising of resistance flooding my mind and body. Who likes being criticized or demeaned? I might then start to worry that someone has finally found out that I am not that good at what I do! Bad for me!
Other people make me feel they way I do…or do they?
What a surprise it can be to start to see that only you can cause you to feel the way you do. The way you feel is a function of whatever kind of thinking is in your mind at that moment. No more, no less.
You can easily prove this to yourself. Start thinking some angry thoughts for a few minutes…go ahead…really get into the way that the world has been cruel towards you, how people have been disrespectful or mean, or how undervalued or disrespected you are from people whose approval you wanted. Now, notice how you are feeling. It’s pretty hard to feel okay when we are really focusing on and connected to difficult thoughts, isn’t it?
It’s hard to be upset if we are connecting to wonderful thoughts (in the form or memories or images, for example) Try it for yourself. Take a moment to remember some people you really love and care about. Allow yourself to really get into some of the beauty, and awesomeness of your life. It might be a memory of being in nature with an incredible sunset, or looking into the vastness of space and getting a sense of what infinity might be. Remember some of the experiences you have had that were a highpoint in your life. Nice. Now notice how you are feeling. It would be pretty hard to feel upset right now, wouldn’t it?
It is common in the world we live in to hear or say, “You made me angry,” or “that situation really stressed me out.” As proof, we review the seemingly logical pathway, “I was feeling okay and then you came along and started talking at me and now I am feeling angry. Thus, you definitely made me feel angry.” Or, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and started feeling really stressed out. This workplace is what is making me feel stressed me out.”
But what is really going on here? A more reality-based account would look something like this: “I was feeling okay, and then you came along and started talking, and then I started having some difficult thoughts about you, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”
Similarly, “I was feeling fine, but then I came into work and I started having a lot stressful thoughts about what was going on or about what might happen, and that is what is causing me to feel the way I do.”
Seen this way, we come to understand that other people are just being the way they are being. Other situations are just as they are. They don’t have the power to cause us to feel the way we do, but rather it is our evaluation (or thinking in the moment) about the person or the situation that is the direct cause of what we are feeling.
Our old friend Epictetus, the Stoic, reminded us, “it is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but the way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble. We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany, survived against all odds, having been stripped of everything and brutally treated in ways that most of us could not even begin to imagine. Listen to what he has to say, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What a helpful reminder we are given from Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior with your consent.” When we begin to see that we are not mandated to go along with a difficult thought, we experience the freedom of being.
We can start to understand that who we are and what we are thinking/feeling are two different things. We have thoughts and feelings, but we are not our thoughts and feelings.
I can sit in my office during the day and listen to someone extol my virtues, and while that is nice, it is not going to change the way I go about doing what I do in support of them, because what I do is based on freely chosen values about what I want to stand for and how I want to behave in my life in all its various domains.
Likewise, if someone comes in full of invective and negativity, I can notice that, and I can recognize that what they are saying doesn’t define me at all. It might define them as someone who is carrying around a lot of difficult thoughts and feelings.
This is not an invitation for me to become reactive, angry or stressed out, but rather an opportunity to extend compassion and understanding. Have I not also gotten caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings in the past? Sure I have. Seen in this way, it is something that we have in common, something that connects us. It’s called the human condition.
Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.
As you go through your day today, with all its demands and obligations, see if you can hold onto the awareness that what you are feeling in the moment is a function of what thinking you are attaching to in the moment. It is not a result of what other people are thinking, saying or doing And then, practice detaching from those difficult thoughts. Notice what happens next…
See if you can spot the judgements and evaluations that you are innocently and unwittingly connecting to, based on years and years of habitual thought patterns, beliefs, attitudes and perceptions that you have carried around with you whole life. Some of it learned, some of it modeled around you during your childhood and carried through into adulthood, some of it culturally ingrained.
It really doesn’t matter where it came from. It is enough to see that the thoughts and feelings that arrive in any given situation are not facts, and not truth, but just thoughts and feelings.
When we detach from the thoughts and feelings, we have our own personal experience of realizing that who I am and what I’m thinking/feeling are two different things.
The lungs breathe. The heart beats. The brain thinks. No one has ever been able to stop the brain from filling the mind with thoughts.
You have lungs, but you are not your lungs. You have a heart, but you are not your heart. You have a brain, but you are not your brain.
When we see for ourselves the value of looking at our thoughts rather than through them, we give ourselves the gift of freedom. When we notice that we are having the experience of a feeling and are not that feeling, we create some space to go through the world with more psychological flexibility.
We begin to realize that we are never at the mercy of other people’s opinions as the cause of why we feel the way we do.
Only you can cause you to feel the way you do.
How might you see this working in your life? What have you noticed as you begin to make a distinction between who you are and what thoughts and feelings are filling the screen of your awareness?
How might you share this with someone to help them live a better quality experience of life?
Feel free to leave your thoughts, reactions or observations in the comments below! Thanks for reading!