God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.
Variation of an excerpt from “The Serenity Prayer”
People are who they are and they will show you who they are. To be mad at them for expressing their true nature is like being angry at birds for flying.
Of course, accepting this can be extremely difficult and frustrating. Most people want to think they, or the force of their love, can change someone. Others believe if their partner, child, or parent loved them enough they would alter their behavior. While some simply can’t accept how family, friends, or co-workers behave, persisting in blaming them for not changing. All variations of non-acceptance are rooted in the ego’s unrelenting tendency to take everything personally and think those near and dear should conform to your expectations.
The good news is: it is not about you! That is not a judgment of your value, simply an acknowledgment of how strongly each soul inhabits itself and its own way of being in the world. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that unique package of thoughts, feelings and behaviors is driven to express itself 24/7. (Even if someone manages to suppress their true nature, by middle age it will break through those dams and assert itself even more strongly.) Again, this is all about each person being his or herself, not about how wonderful a sister, brother, daughter, son, employee, parent, or partner you are.
Since everyone has an ego, it is incredibly easy to think other people’s behavior is a commentary on how they feel about you, but it really is about them, not you. Just like you, when they look in a mirror they see themselves, not the significant people in their life, no matter how central those folks might be.
What complicates this is how other people’s behavior, even though it is all about them, affects you. If a drunk driver plows into your car you are definitely affected by their action, even though its creation had nothing to do with you. Similarly, if your friend, relative, or partner behaves badly towards you it may be very unpleasant, but it really has nothing to do with you. I know this can seem a little mind bending, and you might think, “Well, what if I did something bad, like gambled away all our savings?” Again, you can’t cause a reaction in someone. They create it themselves; otherwise, everyone would respond exactly the same way to all situations. In fact, people may react differently to the same situation at different times in their life, depending on their mood, hormones, diet, age-related issues, health, etc.
Not only is their behavior not about you, even when it looks as if it’s directed at you it is still about them. If someone behaves insensitively, or cruelly to you, it is a reflection of them, not you. Even if you behaved badly first, their reaction is theirs to own.
Often, the more loving, supportive, and generous you are the more likely it is that people will take advantage of you. If you seem to frequently encounter that dynamic it is far better to learn to set boundaries and develop assertiveness skills than to bemoan the fact that others don’t behave as you would, or you would wish them to. Accepting people as they are, for who they are, is not an easy task; but, once you detach a bit from your ego and resist the temptation to equate their behavior with their love (or lack of it), it becomes possible. Even a little taste of accepting others is a heady experience. Just imagine how free you could feel if you let people be themselves. You may not like them, you may say good-bye to some, you may see others less frequently; but, at the end of the day, not only will you enjoy what they bring to the table you will also find you accept your own sweet self more easily.
It is also wise to remember how most people don’t wake up, rub their palms together, laugh devilishly, and plan ways to harsh your mellow. They are simply trying to get through their day with some equanimity, kindness, and ease. They may accidentally bump into you, step on your foot, or unleash some pent-up anger in your direction. It probably wasn’t with any conscious intention to hurt you. Yes, it still smarts and annoys. Perhaps, during those moments when you want to retaliate, you might conjure up an image of a time you accidentally lashed out at someone with displaced fury or ignored their smile when your mind was a million miles away. Wouldn’t you want them to have some compassion for you, and cut you a bit of slack? Gift your open-hearted understanding to anyone who inadvertently projects their issues onto you and watch how it heals both of you.
Another antidote to those situations is to behaviorally be the change you want to see. Practice awareness and set an intention to connect with anyone who crosses your path, whether family, friend, or stranger. Give what you seek and, miraculously, you will find it reflected back to you.
While changing oneself is challenging, thinking you can change someone else is a bee-line to misery. Even if they do change, they are likely to go back to their old ways. People can ditch an addiction, develop an exercise habit, change their diet, and even stick with those things, but changing their personality is quite another matter, and not likely to last because personality is pretty hard-wired.
What you can do is shift the focus to you, change your perspective and your behaviors. Sometimes, associating with a different group of people, whether a self help oriented one like a 12-step program, or a social or special interest group through meet-up.com, or your local religious community, can kick some new ways of thinking into gear, and allow you to let go of old, unhelpful perceptions and behaviors. You may not be able to change someone else, but you can certainly change the way you perceive their behaviors.
Not taking things personally, allows you to better evaluate what is wonderful about the relationship and separate it from those aspects that are merely a reflection of someone else’s demons, like their addiction, for example. (See If You Love an Addict.)
If you look back on any long term relationship you have had, you will notice how many times someone has shown you their true nature. Of course, if you were young, you may have thought you, and the force of their love or your love, could alter them. Even if you succeeded in bringing out some latent qualities, their deepest personality traits will ultimately surface. The one thing you can trust is they will be who they are meant to be, whether that’s Cruella De Vil, Mother Theresa, or, thankfully, all the options in between.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang