It's Not Me, It's You!

I know you've been in this situation before.  Your new boyfriend didn't return your call, and you spend the afternoon spiraling from "I wonder whether he's coming to dinner with my parents?" to "If he's so sick of hanging out with me why can't he just say it to my face?!?"  When you finally connect you start shouting a well-rehearsed monologue about the importance of family, which he interrupts to tell you that he left his phone in the taxi on the way to work and by the way, you're insane.

The rage is obviously no fun, but neither is the worrying, the scrolling through all the reasons he might not be calling, the highlight reel of all the times he didn't call back before.  And your boyfriend didn't inflict that all that mess on you, you did.  All he did was the single action (or inaction) of not calling you back.  The rest is the torment you inflicted on yourself.

If you're someone who takes things personally (ie, if you're a human being in the world), I'm here today with one tiny phrase that can help you defuse your conflicts, manage your emotions, and approach the people around you with compassion in the most trying of times.  Here it is (drumroll please!):

Most things have nothing to do with you.

I don't say this because you aren't important - you are without doubt the bread and the knife.  But the obvious, inconceivable truth of life is that each person is the center of their own universe.  To assume that someone else's behavior is about you is to mistake the fact that it is almost certainly about them. Don't ever forget that everyone else is just as absorbed in their own experience (their parents, their partners, their commute, their exhaustion) as you are in yours.

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As a result of this self-centered bias, it's incredibly easy to imagine that your partner isn't calling back because she's angry at you, or your brother snapped at you because he thinks you're an idiot, or your boss wants to meet with you because your performance is suffering.  Any one of these may be true, but it's equally (if not more) likely that your partner's phone died, your brother is mad at his wife and taking it out on you, and your boss is hoping you can put in some overtime next week.  I say that it may be more likely because the truth of the matter is that most of what goes on in the world has nothing to do with you.  

Now, everything in your life is about you, and this is okay.  Your experience of any given relationship is your own, and you are free to feel whatever you feel.  But you deserve to live free from the anxiety and distress that comes from constantly taking other people's behaviors personally. This doesn't require that you stop caring what other people think, it just requires that you shift your assumption from "what did I do?" to "I wonder what's going on with him?"

But what if it is about you?  How can you know for sure if you're always assuming that it's them, not you?  You have to ask.  Yes folks, it's time for real talk.  If you genuinely don't know if someone is acting out as an indirect way of communicating with you or in response to something that has nothing at all to do with you, you're going to have to ask.  And here's where the assumption that most things have nothing to do with you can turn these potential conflicts into fruitful conversations.

First, get yourself genuinely into the mind set that perhaps what happened had nothing to do with you, that perhaps something is going on for this person that you know nothing about.  Hopefully this will activate your compassion and curiosity, which set the stage for a great conversation.  Express that you were confused when they said/did x, and ask what they were thinking/feeling when it happened.  

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There's two ways this conversation can go.  One is that it really did have little or nothing to do with you.  If this is the case, then take a moment to be glad you didn't spend the last three days stressing about it for nothing! Then try to offer what support you can, and if you need to let them know that whatever is going on for them has been difficult for the people around them.

The other way the conversation can go is that it does turn out to be about you.  In that case, find a constructive way to ask this person to use their words (yes, just like preschool!) to express directly what they feel or need in the future.  Show them that you're capable of having a constructive conversation so they know going forward that acting out their feelings rather than telling you in a more straightforward way isn't a necessary (or welcome) tactic with you.  Hopefully in your state of calm openness you'll be more primed to problem solving than if you approached with defenses up, fully armed for conflict. (And remember too that in these situations their behavior has a lot to do with their struggle to own and name their feelings - it may be that you both have some useful learning to do.)

Though it's not a universal or perfect truth, it is a useful rule of thumb to remember that most things have nothing to do with you.  Everyone is experiencing a complex and fraught world with themselves at the center, and the occasional shrapnel that comes your way is much more likely about them than it is about you.  It can be empowering to remember that you can't know why anyone does what they do unless you ask, and it can help you maintain a state of balance to get comfortable assuming it's not about you until you can have a conversation about it.  When you do have that conversation, asking in ways that are genuinely open to learning and problem solving rather than playing offense or defense sets you up for a much more productive outcome.