We put our energy into taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, thoughts and behavior and hand over responsibility for our own. - Harriet Lerner
How much in life can we actually change? What do we have personal power over?
There are many societal message around personal power like 'just choose happiness' and 'you can manifest the life you want'.
And I find these messages can be harmful in the expectations they set up that we should be happy or positive all the time, or able to manifest whatever we want, from the perfect man to a new car.
It is difficult and messy and complex being human. And this stuff is confusing because it isn't black and white.
There are things we can change and others we can only choose how we respond to. And being able to tell the difference can have a huge impact on how we live our lives.
I wanted to write this blog post based on scientific evidence about the way the mind works, mostly from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT).
The village concept is my own metaphor which I use as part of my approach to help bring to life relationship dynamics, with ourselves and others.
Hello, internal village
Imagine our internal world of emotions, thoughts, desires, needs is a village.
This village makes us who we are.
It is the result of our life experiences, our culture, our genes, the messages we got growing up, the choices we make.
Each of us has our own internal village that only we can inhabit and take care of as adults.
We are told by society that we should be able to manifest the life we want, that we should be happy all the time, that we should be able to think positive - yet human psychology does not work this way.
Because there are parts of our internal village we did not choose and cannot change.
Thoughts: Most thoughts are automatic, a result of the way the brain evolved, to be very negative and critical, to judge and give more weight to negative events than positive ones. This is called the negativity bias.
We can put a lot of energy trying to control thoughts, to think only ‘positive’ but this is only possible to a certain extent, and ultimately perhaps not so useful (I will get to why in a moment).
We can never fully turn off thinking. Our brain evolved to always be on, always on the look out for potential danger as a way of keeping us safe.
Even meditators are not able to switch off thoughts completely or change them - they simply observe them and take distance from them so that their thoughts no longer drive their actions as much.
Emotions: Again, we can’t really pick what emotion we want to feel at a certain moment of the day. Emotions come and go on their own, and each emotion has a role to play in our internal villages. Despite what numerous self-help books try to tell us, we can’t just ‘choose happiness’ - it isn’t that simple.
How our village was created: We did not choose what happened to us as children, and yet until about the age of about 10, children tend to blame themselves for any abuse, neglect or other forms of mistreatment that happens to them because it is inconceivable for them to blame the people they rely on for their physical survival.
This can be interpreted as: What happened was my fault. I should be able to fix things. I am unlovable. I am not worthy of love and belonging because even my parents were not able to give this to me.
And even though none of this is our fault - we didn’t choose it and we can’t change it as it is in the past - it still affects our village today.
For example, if the adults around us were not reliable or trustworthy and didn’t respond to our needs, we might have learned not to trust people. And this belief might still be driving most of our choices today.
Perhaps knowing this can help us bring compassion to ourselves for how difficult it is being human, for how 'automatic' a lot of our behaviour is, because it made sense at a certain point in our life. It kept us alive and in attachment with the people we relied on for our physical survival.
As Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) writes:
It’s not your fault. And it is your responsibility.
Because even if we didn’t choose what happened to us, nobody else can do the work of healing and moving forward in life for us.
So what can we choose?
We didn’t choose much of what happened to us, we don’t choose our thoughts and emotions to a large extent.
Yet what we can always choose is our behavior - the choices we make, the way we respond.
To go back to the example above, even if my village was built around the belief that other people are not trustworthy, I can choose how I respond to this belief and the emotions (anxiety, fear) that show up with it. I can learn to open up and be vulnerable in certain situations, to trust - even though I am afraid.
We can have a thought like I might fail and emotions like anxiety show up - and still take action towards what matters to us.
How we react to our village is always our choice, even if we can't change it as much as we would like.
How we react to other people's villages is also our choice.
We teach people how to treat us.
So instead of trying to change thoughts or emotions which are going to do their own thing anyway, we can focus on the actions we take, what we do with our hands and our feet, because that is always a choice.
We can’t choose how someone treats us - that is their village - but we can choose how we respond - whether we put with this behavior, stand up for ourselves or walk away.
We teach people how it’s OK and not OK to treat us. If we put up with unacceptable behavior, we teach the other person that it’s OK to treat us this way. Even by not responding, we are saying yes to this.
It is nobody else’s job to respect our boundaries if we don’t respect them ourselves.
We can (maybe) influence but never change someone else’s village.
We cannot change what others say or think or feel or do. We can’t even change what they think about us, much to our frustration!
By acting a certain way, we may be more likely to influence someone else to respond a certain way - yet there is never any guarantee of this.
For example, by being polite, we might make it more likely that someone responds politely because most people value this - yet there is no guarantee of this. Imagine the other person was brought up seeing politeness as only for wimps - what are they likely to think of us? And how much can we change this?
Rather than trying to change other people, it is healthier for us to act as the person we want to be - and to let go of the need for the other person to respond in a certain way.
So if politeness is important to us, we might choose to act on this value, without needing the other person to like us or approve of us.
There is a helplessness and freedom that comes from realizing that:
Other people’s choices belong to them - they are part of their village, not ours.
Again, we can only act as the person we want to be in a situation - it is not our job to make others happy or take care of them as adults. We can care about each other, we can treat each other well because this matters to us, and we can be there for each other - and this is not the same as taking care of someone. Taking care of someone means we are going into their village - whereas caring about someone is like two whole villages that are close to each other and help each other out.
It also means allowing others to run their own village instead of doing it for them, while letting them know we are here if they need.
It is not our job to make others happy.
Nobody wins when we try to run our villages in an attempt to please others. In fact, it is a recipe for resentment, bitterness and lack of authenticity.
A lot of what happens in life is largely something nobody can change.
Stuff like: Illness, natural disasters, death, the weather.
Sometimes life sucks. And we can do nothing to change a situation except choose to respond to it in the best way we can. We can choose to act in a way that matters to us, even if we can't do exactly what we would like.
Viktor Frankl chose to continue practising his values around helping others even in a concentration camp. He famously wrote:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Perhaps we can find some peace in the realization that we are not as powerful as we are told we should be - that there is stuff we cannot really change like our thoughts or emotions, the past or other people’s behaviors.
And at the same time, we are also more powerful than we think, because we can always choose how we respond to stuff we cannot choose.
We can always choose to act in a way that matters to us, even in small ways.
We are not as powerful as we think.
And we are also more powerful than we think.