If somebody says something mean to you, what is your first reaction? Do you defend yourself? Do you cry and scream? Do you just get hurt? Do you do anything at all?
Your point of control at any time, but particularly in relationship with others, is within yourself. You cannot control what other people are saying or doing, at all, ever. That means that you have to understand how to be in relationships where you don’t have control over what the other person is doing.
Now I want to make this really clear before we get into this - unless somebody is physically coming at you, there is no reason to defend yourself. I do not expect anybody to stay in perpetually abusive relationships. Let’s get the extremes out of the way because they aren’t what we’re talking about. There is room in between the extremes of human behavior to create change and that’s what I’m aiming for.
We are taught to defend ourselves when people say mean things to us. But what does defending ourselves do? How does that affect the dynamic in the relationship? We think the point is to gain control over the other person’s behavior. We think that by not defending ourselves we’re allowing the other person to act this way, but that’s not true. The very nature of that statement implies that you have control over what they are doing and I hate to break it to you, but you don’t. Your point of control is in your response to what they do, but defending yourself is not the way to use that power.
Why? Because defending yourself throws the pain back. When people are engaging in insulting each other it becomes a snowball fight, with pain as the ultimate snowball. Defending yourself is picking up the snowball and throwing it back. Your point of control in the relationship is to not engage in the snowball fight. You want to make that a snowball fight for one. You want to make it boring for the other person so that they lose interest in throwing pain around. If you do that long enough, eventually the snowball fight stops.
A person that’s just there for the dysfunction will continue to do that no matter what you do or don’t do. Those are the relationships that you put boundaries up in and you potentially make the choice to end. For everybody else, not defending yourself will change the dynamic because they aren’t there for the dysfunction. They are there because they actually want the relationship with you. What that means is that given enough time, they will slowly start to shift their own behavior. This is the part you have to be patient with, it can take years for this to happen, but if the relationship is truly wanted, then eventually that shift will occur. That shift is under their control, not yours. Your job is to manage yourself within the relationship while they do the work for themselves, regardless of how long that takes.
We talk sometimes about “allowing” other people to treat us badly, but that’s actually not true, because it implies control that we don’t have. People are going to do what they are going to do, whether you allow it or not. Your desire to control other people while in relationship with them is what makes relationships so difficult for you. For some of you, there is probably a pattern of blocking people out of your life because you find everybody difficult to be in a relationship with. That pattern is all about your lack of control over other people’s behavior.
So, let’s dive into this a little more. The ego is all over these ideas of defending yourself and allowing people to treat you a certain way. The ego’s job is to protect you. Its strategy for protecting you is defending you. It’s a normal human thing. It’s what the ego does. The strategy just doesn’t work is the problem. The ego’s defense is to project pain back at the other person. That’s how you end up in a snowball fight you didn’t plan to be in. You get all up in your stuff about what people are saying or doing and it causes you to react. Your reaction is self-defense because that’s an unconscious ego response to what we see as people being mean to us.
Why do I say it doesn’t work? Because more often than not, it doesn’t change the other person’s behavior. If the intent is to control the other person’s behavior and change it, then you telling somebody off would change that behavior, but it doesn’t. Much of the time, it probably makes it worse. They engage more strongly more often. It creates a perpetual snowball fight that you can’t get out of by defending yourself. The result of this is that eventually you end the relationship because the other person’s behavior didn’t change when you demanded that it should by defending yourself.
There’s a pattern here that we’re all guilty of. Every single human being has done or is doing this on some level most of the time. We engage in these battles of ego with each other because that’s what we’ve been taught to do. I’m simply pointing out that it doesn’t work. The battle of the ego needs to stop. We need to find a new way forward and I have a suggestion or two to make in terms of how to do that.
We have no control over other people. We can’t allow their behavior anymore than we can disallow their behavior. They get to do and say whatever they want and we have to accept that. If we want to be in relationship with others than we have to accept that people throw their pain around and learn how to manage that within ourselves. So let’s talk about how to do that in a way that doesn’t require you to change anybody else’s behavior but your own and allows you to stay in any relationship you choose to stay in, even if the other person doesn’t change. Yes, you have that much power and no, you don’t need to victimize yourself to do it.
Your perception of victimization is what keeps you in this ego battle with other people. Because you don’t have control over other people, it immediately makes you believe that you are a victim. The ego says if I can’t control it then I’m a victim of it. That is untrue. That is a lie that keeps you in a pattern of behavior that causes you pain.
You can’t control the external world or the people in it, that is true. Your point of control is within yourself and how you respond or react to everything that goes on around you, including the behavior of other people. If you victimize yourself then you take away your own point of control. You made yourself a victim, which is entirely under your control and not about what’s happening around you. When you accept that other people are not under your control then in order to maintain your sense of control within yourself, you also have to accept that you are not a victim of what they do. You are not suddenly at the mercy of other people. That idea is dis-empowering. It makes you feel more and more out of control which causes pain and creates patterns of behavior that create more pain and perpetuate the cycle.
To change this for yourself, you have to become aware of the pain that other people are tossing around and you have to accept that it is their right to do it. They are allowed to toss their pain around. If you’re allowed to toss your pain around then the reverse is also true. We make it all okay.
Acceptance doesn’t mean we agree with their behavior. It doesn’t make their behavior good or right in some way, it just means we stop arguing with it. The argument with it is your attempt to get control over it because you don’t like what they are doing. That’s where the problem lies. Just accept they are tossing pain around and stop trying to control that. Let go of the judgment of their behavior as bad or wrong because that is what’s causing you to want to control something you don’t have control over. Your judgment of their behavior is screwing with your perception. You may understand fully that they are in pain and tossing it around, but then your judgment of their behavior causes you to ignore that and suddenly you want to control it or change it. If you can accept that they are in pain then you can also figure out how to allow them to choose how they display that pain. Your point of control is in not allowing your judgment of their behavior to mess with your perception of the pain they are offering you.
The recognition of the pain being tossed around allows you to move to compassion. It allows you to move from self-defense because you recognize that you don’t need to defend yourself from other people’s pain. Their pain is not a weapon they are using against you. Their pain is exactly that - their pain. It’s not yours. It’s not for you. It’s not about you. It’s their pain and they are offering it to you because they don’t know what else to do with it. They may not even recognize it as pain to begin with. They may not be at that level of awareness yet.
The ego loves to put itself into things. You think they are lashing out at you so you make it about you. That’s your ego talking. Because you’ve now made it about yourself you need to defend yourself. You put yourself in it and you created the scenario in your head that made you feel like you needed to defend yourself. None of this is going on around you even if the other person is blaming you, it’s still all in your mind. It’s the story the ego tells about other people’s behavior and why they do things. The only thing that’s actually happening is the other person is offering pain. You made up everything else because the ego wants to protect and defend itself and this is a really good story that allows the ego do just that.
Youch! Right? That’s a hard one, isn’t it? Did you get up in your stuff with it? Did it bother you? It’s okay if it did because that takes some work to get to. Believe me, I didn’t start there. The power of the focus and perception that I’ve learned to have allows me to see every time pain is injected into my focus. I try to make sure I’m not looking through a filter of pain because I know it screws with my perception. I’m consciously filtering the pain out of my perception all the time.
I’ve accepted that I don’t have control over the outside world at all, I use my perspective to filter out pain. When I see pain coming from other people, I don’t pick that up. I see the pain which allows me to avoid judging their behavior. I immediately recognize that their behavior is coming from pain. That means I don’t need to do anything. It’s their stuff and it’s not mine to manage. The pain is causing them to make choices in that moment and I need to accept that it’s not under my control. My only job in that scenario is to figure out how not to engage, throw pain back, or encourage them further. My job is to be about as boring as humanly possible because that means the snowball fight is a one-way street. By making that fight boring it makes it is unlikely that they will continue to behave that way, if they want the relationship to continue that is.
That’s my external behavior. That’s how I show up. What am I doing internally? It’s not my pain. It’s not my stuff. I can’t internalize it. I don’t need to pick it up. I don’t need to hold onto it. It doesn’t need to become a souvenir. I don’t need to take it home and put it on the mantle. I can just leave it where it landed, on the ground in front of me. It’s not mine to do anything with.
Internally, I’m simply not taking it on. I’m not making up stories about it. I’m not letting the ego get in there. I’m not blaming, shaming, guilting, or victimizing myself or the other person. The experience just is. It becomes a neutral thing that I don’t have to do anything with. Because the experience is neutral, it’s only my judgment of it that causes the problem. So all I have to be able to do is stay out of judgment and because I understand that they were in pain and projecting that, my judgment of it is that they were in pain and projecting that. That’s it. That’s the story I tell. That’s the only story I tell. Anything else is going to cause me trouble within myself so I don’t allow anything else in there. I have conscious control over my thoughts and feelings so I don’t have to allow anything else. I’m making conscious choices about my perception, my thoughts, and my feelings all the time.
If I happen to pick up a wound along the way, that’s okay too. The system isn’t perfect. The idea is to manage that. When you recognize that you’ve picked up the pain, allow it to flow through. Don’t hold onto it. Don’t make up stories about it. Don’t blame anybody for it. You don’t judge it. Just allow the emotion to come and go and don’t pick at the wound so that it can heal. Don’t attach it to anything. Just let it be there.
We’re famous in spiritual circles for talking about the understanding that we need to leave people where they are. Putting that into practice is a whole other circus act and usually it doesn’t go very well. Why doesn’t it go very well? Because the ego gets in there and messes with it.
Trying to leave people where they are turns into a boundary issue. Suddenly we’re putting up massive walls and evicting everybody from our lives because if leaving them where they are means putting up with their pain, we don’t want anything to do with that. Now suddenly we’re looking for people that aren’t projecting pain because we don’t want to have to accept other people’s pain. If we’re not allowed to try to control it or fix it in some way then they have to go. We’ll only tolerate it if we think we can control it. The concept of leaving other people where they are doesn’t give us control and that’s where the problem lies.
This comes back to the ego wanting to defend itself and not feeling like it can or its supposed to. What is the role of the ego? What am I supposed to put up with? How much is the other person supposed to be able to “get away with before I put up the boundary? Those are the questions that inevitably come from the concept of leaving others where they are and they are valid questions.
My answer is that it will depend on where you are in terms of healing your own triggers. The less bothered you are by people as a general rule, the less triggered you’re going to be by their stuff. Some of us are just more patient than others. Some of us will put up with more than others. Some of us are more relaxed than others. We all have different thresholds in terms of our boundaries with other people. The only thing that I’m encouraging is to make those boundaries healthy and not just based on your own wounds and triggers. Healthy boundaries are not created by protecting our own wounds and triggers. Healthy boundaries are created when we understand our own power and we’re willing to honor that.
What we can’t do is talk about leaving people where they are and then complain about where they are. If we’re truly going to leave people where they are then we can’t complain about it. Complaining is not acceptance. Full acceptance happens when you aren’t complaining anymore. When does this happen the most? When you want the relationship. That’s where we have the most trouble with it. Your ego wants you to defend yourself and put up that boundary but you can’t. You want the relationship and putting up the boundary causes pain, but so does the relationship itself because of where the other person is. Now you have a choice. Your job is to figure out how to be okay within yourself.
If the relationship is wanted then you have to allow the pain of the other person. You don’t have to engage in the argument. You don’t have to defend yourself. You want the relationship so there is nothing to defend against. The ego makes you defend yourself, but the ego would also have you end the relationship and that’s what creates the tug-of-war. You can’t have it both ways.
Take the choice away from the ego because the ego can’t decide. The ego doesn’t get to drive the bus. You need to figure out what you want and that’s a conscious choice that you have to make without the ego’s input. If you don’t want to put up with the pain then you end the relationship. If you’re going to put up with the pain, then stop complaining about the relationship. Whatever you do has to be okay within you. It’s a conscious choice. It’s something you have to do with intention and focus. You need to understand where your point of control is. It’s not in the other person. It’s not out there in the world. Your point of control is within yourself.
The underlying truth here is in the desire to maintain the relationship. That desire is more powerful than the pain that’s getting put into the relationship. The thing that causes the tug-of-war is the ego and its innate need to protect you. If you drop the ego, stop defending yourself, and simply accept where the other person is, you can learn to maintain the relationship as it is and be okay with it.
How do you get okay in a relationship where the other person is projecting pain? By recognizing the pain and allowing it to be there. Don’t pick it up. Don’t attach to it. It becomes a snowball fight for one where you simply stop engaging in the fight. The snowball hits you, it falls to the ground, and you do nothing. It’s not yours and you don’t take it on, pick it up, or acknowledge it in any way. You make that snowball fight the most boring thing ever. What you will find if you stop engaging in the pain with the other person is that they will fade away by themselves.
When a person is in enough pain they go looking for other people that are willing to engage in the pain and dysfunction with them. If you stop doing that, you won’t need to put up a boundary because the other person will simply walk away. The other person will make the choice for you. They will leave you alone until they can be okay again to some degree. All you have to do is believe that if they want the relationship they will figure it out and make their way back at some point in the future. Your acceptance of people as they are will stop the argument. Why? Because you’re not fighting with the natural balance that wants to take place.
The natural balance is that people in pain go find other people in pain. If you’re not in pain, you’re not engaging in the argument, and you’re not throwing pain back, the other person will leave. That will create the natural balance. Your desire to “fight for the relationship” is what keeps it going. The whole thing stops when you stop engaging in it because you’re no longer showing the other person what they want to see. You’re not reflecting pain back so they go find a mirror that reflects back to them what they expect to see. To them the image you reflect back is distorted because they are looking for pain and it’s not there. Equally, the image you get back from them is also distorted. What you do is try to fix the mirror, but that’s not your work. It’s not your mirror. It doesn’t belong to you.
The other person may try to get to you to engage in the argument. They may try to get you to go back to being in pain with them. They want you to offer them the distorted reflection they expect to see. Your job is not to do that. Your job is to hold steady and not allow the distortion. If you can hold steady long enough they will give up and go find a mirror they can mess with.
Do you see that? Do you see what’s happening? You’re both trying to fix the other person’s mirror. One is trying to create distortion and the other is trying to reflect healing. They are equal and opposite to each other. Your awareness of this is what allows you to manage it within yourself.
Pain messes with what you see because it causes you to argue and defend. Arguing and defending throw more pain back. You don’t need to do that though. If you simply understand your own mirror and you don’t let other people mess with it through what they are offering you, it gives you the ability to maintain healthy boundaries without really even trying. It happens quite naturally because the distortion is not there and its no longer being accepted so it goes off to find someone else to mess with.
The mirror is yours. You choose whether to distort it or not. You also choose whether to fix any existing distortion or not. It’s up to you to decide how to use that mirror. What do you want to see in the mirror?
I made the choice to search for truth. My mirror was horribly distorted for most of my life. My desire for truth put me on a path where I started asking questions. Why is my life like this? Why is this happening? Why is there so much pain? How do I fix those things? Those answers didn’t come easy. There was a lot of work to do to unwind the stories that I was telling myself about what was happening. I spent a lot of time blaming the outside world for everything. I was mad at the world around me because it wasn’t bending the way I thought it should. It was only by dropping the stories of blame that I was able to find the truth in what was happening. What was the truth? My mirror was distorted. How I was seeing the world was screwy because I was allowing everything around me to distort my perception. As Taylor Swift says in her song Anti-Hero, “It’s me. I’m the problem. It’s me.” That’s true. My perception of reality was the problem. My mirror was distorted and I didn’t recognize that. It wasn’t until I started paying attention and healed the warp in the mirror that I was able to find clarity.
When I removed the distortion and stopped accepting distortion back, it changed my life experience completely. I suddenly understood what I was seeing. It made it easy to find a strategy that allowed me to maintain clarity. I no longer had to struggle with what was going on around me. I’ve learned to question my own thinking to figure out where the argument is so that I can shift it. That means that when my mind offers me stories that aren’t true, I go looking for truth. I won’t allow my mind to distort reality for very long. What I realized quickly was that most of the distortions came from my mind and not from anything that was actively happening around me.
Just today before I started writing this my mind decided to argue with what I was doing. I had committed to focusing on getting this book written a few days ago and suddenly my mind wanted to argue with that. Was there anything happening around me to create that argument? No, life was not showing me there was a reason to argue. There was nothing happening. The argument was entirely in my head. I created my own problem. Why? Because my mind was bored I guess. Because why not? We need a problem to solve right? Apparently making up arguments is fun for my mind to do. So what’s my job in that moment? Bring conscious awareness to what’s happening. Pay attention for 5 minutes, realize there is no reason to have this crazy argument, and get on with the business of writing. I just re-commit to the goal and keep going. The argument is pointless, but the message it offers is valid.
Here’s the distraction. The mind offers the argument that maybe the goal is wrong, maybe I shouldn’t be committing to the book. Okay fine. But is that the truth? Is that what I’m actually supposed to get from this? No. What’s the actual message? Going after goals takes courage and willpower. It’s easy to get distracted. The mind will even offer you the distraction in the form of an argument that isn’t true. Your job is to decide what the priority is and then do that. By doing that you commit to it, you get okay with it, and you stop arguing with it. You understand that eventually you will pick back up whatever it was you dropped to commit to the new goal. You’re allowed to do your own thing. It’s the constant argument with it that makes you think it’s not okay.
My mind offered to distort the mirror for me. I need boundaries with my own mind because if I don’t put those boundaries there I get into trouble really quickly. I have to be able to manage my own thoughts and feelings. I need boundaries within myself so that I don’t end up with chaos. It’s okay to have those parameters and boundaries for yourself. It’s okay to know what your own focus is and do that. It’s okay to tell the voice in your head where to go when it offers you dysfunction and chaos. It’s okay to make choices and stick to them even when the world tells you it’s not a good idea. It’s okay to give yourself permission to shift when you need to shift. You’re not a tree, stop acting like one. If you want to move then move. If you don’t want to move then stay put. But don’t argue with it. Figure out what the mind is actually trying to offer you and then respond to that. There is almost always a hidden message in what the mind offers you because the mind likes a problem and a good story. Your job is to figure out the cryptic messages of the mind and then make choices based on the truth that you find along the way.
Boundaries are part of the story that we tell about life. Boundaries are an ego’s need to defend itself. When relationships are wanted those boundaries don’t help you. They cause you to defend yourself and reflect pain back to people. That creates a cycle of pain in the relationship. The choice you’re really making is whether or not you want the relationship. Boundaries have nothing to do with it because if you want the relationship, then you’ll force yourself to figure out how to manage the pain. What I’m offering you is the idea that you can manage the pain by not doing anything about it at all. Don’t pick it up. Don’t throw it back. Don’t defend yourself against it. Just leave it there. By doing nothing you stop the cycle and that shifts the relationship on its own.
You can see the behavior of other people. Based on that behavior your only choice is whether or not you want that relationship with the person as they are. It’s not about boundaries. If you don’t want the relationship because of the pain the other person offers, then you don’t need boundaries, just end the relationship. If you want the relationship even though the person is offering pain, you still don’t need boundaries because your job is not to take on the pain they offer. You have to accept what they are doing, even if you don’t agree with it or don’t like it if you intend to stay in the relationship. Why do you have to accept it? Because their behavior is not under your control. You only have 2 choices when it comes to other people: be in a relationship with them or not. That’s it. Needing them to change to be in the relationship is not realistic. It won’t happen. It’s not under your control. You use boundaries to try to make the relationship tolerable but that doesn’t really work for you. It causes you to be miserable and it keeps you in this cycle of wanting to change them. But they don’t change, do they? Why don’t they change? Because they aren’t ready to do that yet. You have to leave them where they are. That means that the only choice you have is to be in the relationship or not. That’s it. That’s your only point of control in any relationship you have.
Does it get more complicated when you’re talking about family? Yes, of course it does. Once everybody is an adult, much like any other relationship, it becomes optional. The idea that we have to maintain relationships with family because they are family is a lie. It causes unnecessary pain. You do not have to stay in any relationship that is unhealthy regardless of who they are in relation to you. Your job is to be okay with making that choice. It’s not an easy choice, it’s not going to be. The point is that it’s not off limits. You can make that choice if you need to.
Relationships with other people are often difficult. We struggle with the concept of boundaries. We struggle with egos bouncing off of each other. We struggle with the lack of control. We struggle with the pain other people offer. Those struggles are part of the human experience. It is in understanding how to allow each individual to live in their own bubble their own way that makes life easier to manage. The more we can stop trying to burst each other’s bubbles, the less we worry about each other, the easier it gets. It’s not that you can’t care, it’s how you show that you care that changes. By understanding how to care in a way that doesn’t require you to control other people, you will be able to retain your sense of compassion and empathy for others without the pain that often comes with that experience.