Have you ever found yourself in a social situation where someone makes an off-hand comment, a vaguely critical observation, that is so hurtful to you that you feel instantly shattered? One stupid sentence, and it feels like someone knocked all the wind out of you? Of course you have, we all have. It’s been happening since the dawn of time.
Portrait of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (commons.wikimedia.org)
In the Stoic school of philosophy, the masters taught that the best way to handle a specific criticism in a social setting, is to accept it, and respond by turning it into a self-deprecating joke. Like this:
Criticism: “Boy, you’ve really gained a few pounds since I last saw you.”
Response: “You have no idea, I’ve been eating everything in sight. If you think this is bad, you should see the nightmare happening on my thighs.”
By taking in the seemingly negative comment, and turning it into a joke, said the masters, you’ve taken back power over your own emotional state (from “insulted victim” to “in on the joke”), and subtly let the other person know their negative comment doesn’t affect you.
In order to truly practice and live a spiritual (or “conscious,” if you like that term better) way of life, you must be willing to take a kind of personal responsibility for whatever is happening inside you at any given time. It is the fundamental understanding that all of your feelings, reactions, and judgments have absolutely nothing to do with the other person. No one can make you feel anything. It is the ideas, stories, and interpretations you make, about what was said or done, that cause you to feel whatever you feel. (This is why one person’s joke is another person’s insult. It is the insulted person’s internal interpretations that make the joke offensive).
Recognizing this, you see that there is no reason to retaliate for harsh words, no reason to get defensive, no reason to send your emotional poison (as don Miguel terms it) to anyone else. When you feel upset, or emotionally reactive, or “triggered” (as the cool kids now call it) by something, it is not the time to lash out. It’s not the time to create new rules of conduct. It’s not the time to get righteous, or set boundaries, or hit them back. Instead, it is the time to take a pause (a “sacred pause” as one of my friends calls it), and figure out what you feel and why. What are you really reacting to? Start with the assumption that anger is fear, and ask yourself in that moment “what am I afraid of here?” When you have done your internal work, when you have reached your emotional neutral, that is the time to discuss your feelings with the other person. If you don’t know the real reason you’re so upset, how do you expect the other person to address it in any satisfactory way?
“Living one’s truth” or “speaking one’s truth” has become a little bit of a cliche in personal development and/or spiritual circles. It’s often mis-used as a justification for selfishness and reckless confrontation; but that is not at all the proper understanding of this beautiful concept.(more…)