Guilt–it’s one of the most common feelings. We feel badly when someone we encounter is disappointed, angry, depressed–and we tend to feel it’s our fault. Lots of energy goes into this belief in our heads, especially in relationships. (Though I have found this to be a common belief in interaction with strangers as well.) Your significant other is quiet and sulky. A friend snubs you at a party. The boss finds fault with a project you completed. A service employee looks at you wrong. The automatic response in your head is “what did I do?” Or even “I screwed up.” The default reaction implies that event A–something you did–led to event B–the negative reaction of the other party. We take the reactions of others quite personally, particularly when we’re stressed and running on empty.
Over the years, shifting this perspective has been one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced. Women, in particular, are socialized in this culture to believe that others’ feelings are our responsibility. From an early age, we’re questioned and/or chided, “did you make your friend cry?” “Don’t make me mad.” One strategy that does help is encouraging the guilt-ridden to stop and consider alternative explanations. Ask yourself, when that guilt about another’s feelings arises, “what could be going on that’s NOT my fault?”
Recently, however, I read The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom . One of the agreements that Don Miguel Ruiz advises is “don’t take things personally.” Rather than simply saying “it’s not about you,” an idea I have tried to “sell” unsuccessfully for some time, he suggests a powerful perspective shift. Ruiz says when we believe someone else’s feelings are our fault, that exaggerates our own importance. Who says we are that powerful, that moods all around us stem from our actions? Are we that critical in the lives of others? I think not.
There seems to be a paradox in why this alternative view appeals to the guilt-ridden. Just like we’re taught (incorrectly) at an early age that “good girls” make others angry or hurt, so are we taught that good girls don’t brag. Good girls aren’t self-centered. Yet when we attribute the power for another’s feelings to our actions, we are doing just that: claiming powers that are an illusion. (For once, the social training that creates the problem also contains the solution!)
No one has that much power. The flip side of the argument makes this clear. When a two year old (or a thirteen year old) is really upset, do you have the power to make it all better–especially if they’re entrenched in that mood? Maybe you’re more powerful than me, but I never succeeded at that.
Next time the guilt rushes in about another’s emotions, don’t take it personally. Sure, check it out if you want, making sure there’s no transgression on your part. But the majority of the time, moods originate within, and we only inflate our importance when we assume otherwise.