I was at a bar a few weeks ago, talking to my friend Lucy. She's an incredible writer, but you wouldn’t know it. She never talks about it. She never posts her work on social media. She never brings up any cool projects she’s working on in conversation. She’s what you might call a quiet achiever.
The only problem is that she’s a freelancer. She wants (and needs) all the projects she can get. As I was talking to her about the necessary nature of self-promotion (“It’s the new normal!” “How is anyone going to know about you?” “Stop hiding—you have great work to offer!”), she was opening up to it. Until her new boyfriend, also a writer, said, “Yeah, but Lucy’s understated. She’s not like you, Susie.” Ouch!
After my initial defensiveness wore off, I thought about what he was really saying. One of the greatest things that you can do for yourself in this world is to pay attention not to what people say, but to what they mean. I don't know exactly what his comment meant, but maybe it was:
- I’m too scared to put my creative work "out there," so why should my girlfriend?
- We don’t need advice! We are doing fine! Why does someone think we need help?
- I don’t want Lucy to be too successful and outshine my work.
- Your boldness in sharing your work irks me. What makes you feel so self-assured about doing it?
Whatever the subtext, the truth is, his comment was not about me. His response was about him.
It's Not You, It's Me
The truth is that it's always about us.
For example, ask a group of people how they feel about any situation or experience they're going through together—a corporate restructure, a wedding, a lecture, waiting in a restaurant line, an episode of Quantico—no matter what it is, you will see no two people experience it the same way.
This is because it is never about the experience; it’s about how the person feels in that moment when they’re experiencing it. Their interpretation is based on their worldview, their current emotion, their level of self-awareness and assuredness.
Have you ever taken your bad day at work out on your spouse or a parent? Exactly. It was not about them, was it? They probably (hopefully) knew this and gave you a pass. What if we could do the same with all the people we don’t know that well?
Take in this knowledge (that actually, yeah, it is you)—and own it. Let it inform the way you feel about the world at any given time and how you interpret other's responses. Here are a few real-world examples.
Myth: Your boss is intimidating.
Reality: You’re not feeling secure about your skills or contributions.
Ever notice how your reaction toward authority swings based upon how confident you feel on a certain day? This has everything to do with your emotions at the time, not your boss. Focus on and recall your past achievements often. This will give you the boost you need when you are feeling low.
Myth: Your domineering friend is a bully.
Reality: You are not assertive enough to stand up for yourself.
Someone who you might find bossy, someone else finds normal. What does a pushy friend tell you about your personal boundaries? Stop complaining, and start asserting yourself by saying no. No one can push you around without your consent.
Myth: Your colleague is super annoying and/or ignorant.
Reality: You are not being tolerant.
Someone who irritates us often shows us something we need to learn. Do you need to be more compassionate? More open-minded? Is this a great lesson in learning how to accept other people for who they are and lose our judgment about how we think they should be?
I had a co-worker once who I thought was so high-maintenance—she would get emotional over small things and take all professional feedback very personally. I avoided her. Funny enough, she was one of the few people who remembered my birthday one year and she actually got me a very sweet card. It was totally unexpected. I felt horrible for writing her off in my mind. Yes she was emotional, but that can have a real upside too: She cared. That mental shift changed everything for me.
Myth: Your spouse's or partner's sarcastic comment was mean-spirited.
Reality: You're feeling sensitive.
Someone can make a comment one day when you're feeling fine, and you’ll laugh. Another day, when you are feeling down, you can stew over it for weeks. Analyze your state of mind when you take a joke or some feedback badly. What can it tell you about yourself? Laughing it off means you’re feeling strong. But if you're insulted, maybe you're feeling more sensitive. Take a time-out. Be kind to yourself, and remind yourself that a lot of the stuff we worry about is rarely personal. And you get to choose how to react.
Learn from Your Relationships
Other people are our best teachers—but only if we allow them to be. Otherwise, other people cause us more angst than anything else on the planet. Our relationships help us make sense of the world. And how you feel about yourself is represented within each one.
So why did I call Lucy’s boyfriend a loser in my mind? Because I felt defensive. I get paid to give this advice: People hire me to help them make money doing work they really love and to make a bigger impact in the world with it. When he made that comment, my feelings were hurt, and it was a reminder that not everyone shares my point of view. But a few weeks later, we have moved on from our self-promotion disagreement. Remember, disagreements are OK!
Remember too, if someone is intentionally unkind, snappy, or rude, it's a pure reflection of them feeling like sh*t—not about you at all. Give them a pass. Or have a mini mental rant, and then let it go. It's a massively empowering truth—and surprisingly simple!
Essentially, it's never about the other person. It's always about us. As Yogi Bhajan said, "If you are willing to look at another person's behavior toward you as a reflection of the state of their relationship with themselves rather than a statement about your value as a person, then you will, over a period of time, cease to react at all." Save your precious energy for something that matters: you.
Susie Moore is Greatist’s life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for her free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!