It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.
As my “fun” reading this past week, while I slogged through Henry James’ novel The Golden Bowl (as exhausting as I always find him, I loved it — but I’ll tell you about my love-hate relationship with Mr. James another time), I enjoyed Jane Austen’s Heroines: Intimacy in Human Relationships, written by an academic named John Hardy. I picked up this lovely little tome at the South Orange dump. I know, hard to believe someone was throwing it away!
Seriously, though, I adore Jane Austen. Everyone gets what they deserve in her books, good or bad. And I love her clever, heartfelt heroines, especially Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice — she’s such a badass, and she really knows how to handle that Mr. Darcy. The sweet orphan Fanny Price from Mansfield Park, which may be my favorite Austen novel. And Emma Woodhouse from Emma, the most adorable and sympathetic busybody you ever met. The scene where she finally gets together with Mr. Knightley is one of my favorites in any book.
I hadn’t ever thought as much of Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility until I read the essay about her in Jane Austen’s Heroines. The adjectives in the title have to do with Elinor — who uses her “sense,” in this context her reserve and her intellect, over her feelings — and her younger sister, Marianne — who uses her “sensibility,” or raw emotion — to operate in the world. As an open wound-type emotional person myself, I always related more to Marianne, even though she’s kind of clueless and screws a lot of things up. I viewed Elinor’s reserve as coldness, or a lack of ability to truly feel. Poor her.
But as the essay helped me to see, Elinor is no cold fish. She may not be in everyone’s face emotionally; she may even hide her more intense feelings from most of those around her. But she’s quite self-aware. She interacts with people carefully, from a position of comfort and ease in who she is and what she wants out of her relationships. Her “sense” translates into self-possession, versus the self-absorption of her little sis, who indulges her every emotion and rushes into “intimacy” with a man who isn’t really appropriate or able.
According to Hardy, “Elinor realizes that intimacy can only result from a privacy capable of being shared.” Elinor isn’t incapable of intimacy; she simply takes time to deliberate when it comes to her emotions and interactions. She’s discriminating, and that’s not a bad thing. Her experience of intimacy is more refined for it. It’s more valuable. In the end, she’s the one who enters into a successful, lasting relationship.
As much as I appreciate rules, plans and structure, it only recently occurred to me that emotional structure might be useful to me as a feeling person. Setting boundaries for your children is an act of love, so it follows that setting some for yourself would be loving as well. Like creating structure and foundation in yoga (you knew I was going to bring this back to yoga) allows you more freedom, creating emotional structure actually allows you to be more genuinely intimate.
Perhaps this is one reason I often felt frustrated with my emotional connections, or believed that others couldn’t go as deeply as I could. I held that as a point of pride, even though it didn’t necessarily bring me much satisfaction.
I think at some point, when I felt really emotionally burned, I thought that protecting myself was actually going to mean shutting down, closing myself off. And I didn’t have any idea how to do that. So I figured I was just destined to go through life as an emotional mess. What a relief to find that creating boundaries and becoming more self-possessed has actually opened me up.