Taking responsibility

There is life. And then there is the story you tell about it.

One of the most important steps in the shamanic tradition of the Toltecs is a taking of responsibility. While I’ve always considered myself a very responsible person, this is a different kind of responsibility. The tradition teaches that we must take ownership of our lives, of all the bad things that happened to us, of the stories we tell ourselves about those things, of the pain, and of the emotional wounds. This is the only path to true freedom and happiness.

After studying the basic tenets of the tradition, and learning the Toltec psychology, I embarked on the long, and sometimes scary, process of reframing my stories. As I looked at each painful experience of my past, examining my thoughts, feeling, and actions, I began dismantling the victim perspective. When I was done, I realized that I am no longer the victim of any of my stories.

I want to be clear that this isn’t about denying the truth of what happened, but it’s about finding the core negative beliefs that create the victim story. By removing the pity party dialogue, the right versus wrong dichotomy, and the negative judgments against ourselves and others, we are unshackled from the victim mind-frame and all the pain that comes with it. (If you’re familiar with Buddhist lingo, this is the second arrow of suffering).

I’m going to say something controversial, but very true, so bear with me till the end: To the extent that I have been emotionally hurt by something that happened in my life, it is because I allowed myself to be hurt by it. How, you ask? Because I took that person’s words or actions, and believed them, or made assumptions about them, or took them personally, and inflicted suffering upon myself. I internalized what they said and absorbed their words as the truth. Or I made interpretations about their actions that tied them to my self-worth.

The truth is that no one actually has the power to control how you feel. No one can unilaterally hurt you emotionally. People can only say or do things based on their own beliefs or feelings. Then, if you have awareness, you have a choice. You can see that their words or actions are nothing more than their own projections (no hurt), or you can absorb what they say, and take it personally (lots of hurt). It’s really within your control.

In order to develop the awareness, you have to understand how this process operates within you. If you just tried to dismiss something hurtful by saying “whatever, I don’t care what so and so thinks…” it wouldn’t work. You’d still feel the hurt or pain of their words every time you remembered it. To really understand this concept, you have to go into your experience of it. It takes some contemplation and introspection. The key here is to look at what you believe about yourself; to find what part of their statement or action was hurtful.

But let’s unpack this a little, because I don’t think it’s entirely clear at the abstract level. Take this example to illustrate the point: (I’m using a female perspective here just for convenience).

Let’s say you are out having dinner with some girlfriends, and you go to the ladies room to freshen up.  This particular evening you are wearing a gorgeous red dress. You love this dress. And more importantly, you love how it makes you feel. It’s a little shorter than you’d like, which makes you feel a little insecure. But otherwise, it fits so well that when you wear it, you feel sexy, and powerful, and radiant, so why not…

As you’re washing your hands, a woman approaches you and says, “this blue dress you’re wearing is the wrong shade for your complexion. You really shouldn’t wear dresses like this.”  She turns around and leaves before you have a chance to respond.

After the moment of shock wears off, you think to yourself, “This woman is crazy. My dress isn’t blue. She must be color blind or something.” And you shrug it off. Maybe you look down at the dress to confirm that it is, in fact, red, and you’re not the crazy one, but that’s about it. Most likely, it doesn’t really affect you in any way. When you get back to the table you tell your friends all about the weird lady in the bathroom.

Let’s say instead that the woman approaches you and says, “That dress you’re wearing is too short for you. At your age, you really should be dressing more conservatively.” Again she leaves before you have a chance to respond. But what is your internal emotional reaction now? Do you instantly assume she’s crazy? Or do you absorb what this woman is saying as the truth you really believed all along? Do you get angry? Embarrassed? Hurt? All of the above? Do you run back to the table to tell your friends about the evil lady in the bathroom? Do you turn the exchange over and over in your head? Do you start hating her and make all your friends hate her too?

Do you see how in the first instance you can completely discount the criticism (and recognize that the woman is crazy, or color-blind, or both), because you know that your dress isn’t blue? But in the second instance, you can’t discount the criticism, because you actually believe that the dress may, in fact, be too short for you, and at your age, that’s a bad thing?

Your reaction (and the emotions you feel, and the subsequent actions you take) depend entirely upon what you believe about yourself. It has very little to do with what is actually said to you. Do you see the difference?

Things can be said and done to you that are objectively hurtful, but if deep down you don’t believe those “bad” things about yourself, you aren’t hurt. You aren’t emotionally triggered by the criticism. You can see that the person saying them to you is confused, or color-blind, or whatever the case may be. It’s not about you, so you don’t have an emotional reaction. If instead you have an inkling that the thing they are saying might be true about you, and that this particular thing is “bad,” you do get triggered emotionally. You do get hurt. And then you blame the other person for the hurt you feel. If you slow down and notice your own thought process, you’ll see how this operates within you.

Now extrapolate this example out to your life. Remember a time when someone said something that hurt you, and try to find the thing that hurt about it – what were you believing in that moment about yourself that made the thing hurtful? It’s really an interesting exercise.

This process isn’t exactly easy, but it’s incredibly empowering. When you realize that you don’t have to be hurt by anything that happens around you, you start to feel invincible. When you start revisiting your past (and all of those moments of pain) without blaming yourself or anyone else for what happened, you regain your power and recover all the energy you wasted on carrying that pain around. You are then able to start the process of forgiving yourself and others, which is a really beautiful thing!

More on forgiveness soon…