It can seem so clear. They approach you. They talk to you. They use your name. They refer to things you know about or that they want you to know about. They’ll even ask you questions! And then they’ll either directly or passive aggressively attack you. What is up with that?
Maybe it’s your Mom and she’s just been grinding at you. Maybe it’s your brother who’s usual daily bullying has turned cruel. Maybe it’s someone at school or work who is running around gossiping about you to others. Or maybe it’s a total stranger and you barely know what they’re talking about, (as it is with almost everyone, all day, who works in customer service).
So how do you handle these people? What do you do to get them to be reasonable? How do you get them to leave you alone? And what is their problem anyway? How do those customer service people do this all day?!
Okay, so the first thing the sanguine customer service person realizes is that when people approach and talk to you specifically, what it is really happening is that they’re approaching and talking to the person their thoughts compile into you. So they have ideas about who you are and if that’s who they think you are then that’s obviously the only person they can attempt to talk to.
So if your Mom’s having her new boss over for dinner and you’ve messed the house up and she’s yelling at you, understand that she is pointing at you, using your name, but her words are not being used to describe you when she says phrases like you show no respect, you don’t care about how hard I work for us, you’re like your father you’re such a slob and now you’re in serious trouble. But if she’s not talking to you who’s she talking to?
She’s talking to the situation. And in her fear and helplessness she may blame you, but in the end what she’s really describing to you is what her experience legitimately is. So rephrased it would be:
You didn’t respect that I cleaned up before work because I knew I wouldn’t have time afterwards. I’ve really been stressed and I’ve been underperforming at work. This dinner was supposed to save me and now it’s going to feed into the image the boss already has of me that I don’t get my work done, when that’s not actually accurate if he watched me all day. So now our income is in danger and I know you going to university after school was important to your Dad. But he wasn’t an organized man and that meant he never did take care of any life insurance so now we’re poor and I’m terrified that if I’m unimpressive to my boss that we’ll lose everything.
And all that comes out as an angry version of you show no respect, you don’t care about how hard I work for us, you’re like your father you’re always so lazy and now you’re in serious trouble.
In the case of your brother, he’s got a new girlfriend. She does drugs and she’s gotten him secretly into them. So when he’s coming down or wants more, he’s particular irritable and the drugs affect his brain chemistry, so things he would do are suddenly influenced by the drug. Particularly with things like cocaine and meth this can turn the person into an unwitting asshole. They can be mean and cruel and they’ll think they’re cool. But once the drugs wore off when he got clean–presuming he did–then things like the cruelty you’re describing will be some of the hardest things for the addict to remember because they recognize it as so unlike the previous version of themselves that you got to know.
And in the case of the gossip at work, who knows if it’s that they feel threatened by your skills or appearance or friendships, or maybe you remind them of their high school bully just by chance. Or maybe they just watched their Mom gossip every single day from their stroller, and then they watched the same thing at the playground and then later at the dinner table. So that co-worker or schoolmate doesn’t think that talking behind people’s backs is gossip, they just think it’s what people do, and the reason some people don’t like it is because they think they’re pointing out a universal truth when in fact it’s just their own filtered perception–just like you have of them.
And if it’s a stranger that’s attacking you then they’re focused on what you represent. Your company, the delays in traffic, their fears about cultures they don’t know and understand. Like all of the above, each case is the person wearing a mask you see them in, and they speak to a mask they see you in. And if they think your mask looks stupid or unfair or lazy or whatever, then that’s how they’ll act. Likewise you are looking at a mask of theirs built from your own thoughts about them–and those will also be based on almost no real information.
The point in all of this is that they are never talking to the real you. That is always their ego addressing your ego. It’s two masks talking. It’s ridiculous in the end. And it’s unnecessary. Silence is much more valuable than filling space with useless thoughts. And when the time comes you’ll recognize soul-to-soul communication when it happens because it creates those connections that are so rare today that they often last a lifetime.
You cannot reconcile other people’s views of you with your view of yourself. You both built your ideas of each other out of your personal thinking. And while you might have attached the thoughts to each other, they can be massively different thoughts about who you each feel you are. That’s because the other person’s view will be based on their experience of you, just as yours of them is. But they spend all day with themselves and you do the same with yourself, so everyone’s always generating their views of other people based on a warped perception of a tiny percentage of the other person’s life.
It’s the same reason you think your mother’s crazy cleanliness standards, or your brother’s new bad attitude, or your co-worker’s negativity are all things about you. Because that’s what happens when you’re with them. But really that’s just the tip of a much larger iceberg that was created long before you showed up. Yes, you might trigger something in them that’s fairly consistent, and they might hold you responsible for their trigger, but you do that to others too. It’s the only way to live in ego and most of the world spends almost all of its time in ego.
So when people approach you and they’re upset, just deal with what’s actually going on and respond to that instead of all of the language around it. If it needs no taking care of then great–you can just forget it. But you will make yourself very unhealthy if you continue to retell the stories of those events to either yourself or to others. The replaying of that mental tape will only lead to suffering and it will also serve to solidify your own opinions into more permanent judgments that you will come to believe. And those beliefs are what take you further from the truth that leads to peace.
Getting along is mostly just letting people be where they’re at. If that’s unreasonable then you have to find somewhere else to go. But asking people to react to the person you know as you is impossible. Everyone will always be treating you like who they believe you are and those beliefs will be based very little on who you actually are. Forget trying to reconcile this–it’s the agonizing battle most people engage in most of their lives. Surrender. Realities are separate. If you truly and deeply accept that fact you become a witness to the world in a very special way. And in that way you can enjoy almost any person or experience as exactly that–just another interesting experience.
Be like water. Let other people’s ideas flow through you instead of hitting something solid. Be flexible. Allow them to have their state of mind. They’ll have it anyway and the allowing will feel really good for you to do.
Scott McPherson is a writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.