When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece. — John Ruskin
I’ve been thinking about how we are each responsible for our own care.
So often, so many other things and people come first: boss, kids, spouse, parents, friends. We beat ourselves up for not hitting the mark, for not being everything we can to them, not realizing that we can’t even come near that (unrealistic) goal if our focus veers so very far away from ourselves.
We pay lip service to the “Take some me time” concept. But in general we put ourselves at the bottom of the to-do list. “Me” is the line item we let slide, the one that can wait.
We treat hearts, our minds, our bodies like a tin can or a paper bag: disposable, temporary, unimportant. We should treat ourselves like a masterpiece — fragile, rare, special — and care for ourselves in kind.
This takes two things: love and skill.
The first step is being kind to yourself.
Most people are used to being hard on themselves, noticing every flaw and every slip-up and then punishing themselves for it, over and over and over. They’re so willing to let other people pile on with their actions and comments — so willing to let other people’s issues cut to their quick. They eschew boundaries completely and leave themselves open to any hurt that might float their way, or they build a wall so tall and strong that nothing is getting in or out. They dismiss their feelings and opinions as worthless, not valuable. They work so hard to make others happy that there’s nothing left for them.
Being kind to yourself is a choice. You can decide to take care of yourself, to love yourself, to know yourself better. There are lots of ways to do it. Eating better. Exercise. Therapy. Meditation. Books. Music. Friends with a ready shoulder and ear. Taking real, quality time away from work and other responsibilities. Considering what you love and what makes you happy, and making it a priority to get more of that into your life. Making all of these things a priority — scheduling them in like you do everything else, all the meetings and errands and things that don’t matter nearly as much.
Then you need skill. Tools for creating the proper boundaries — ones that leave space around your protected center, your heart, but that are also porous, allowing you be open to other people, to life. Tools for identifying your emotions and learning how to engage with them and move through them instead of letting them control and hurt you. Tools for learning how to let go and believe that the universe has your back. Tools for learning to engage with yourself, the people around you, and the world, so that you can feel real joy and freedom.
The most important part? Engaging with yourself. That’s what we let ourselves look at the least, what we’re least practiced at.
It’s a huge responsibility, but we need to take it on if we want our experience here on earth to be as full and deep as it can be. And truth be told, shouldering it is not nearly as exhausting as avoiding it.
You don’t have to do it alone. There are people around you who love you and will be happy to remind you of it, who will tell you in minute detail exactly what’s amazing about you, whenever you need them to. (To that end, I highly recommend a regular Dharma Dinner.) All you need to do is reach out and ask.
All the work will be worth it. Feeling yourself transformed into a masterpiece is true bliss.
This is the second — and my favorite — of Don Ruiz’s four agreements. (Click here to read about the first one, Be Impeccable with Your Word.)
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Can you see how healing this can be if you really internalize it? It’s not easy to do, but man, is it freeing when you start to get the hang of it.
When I first read what Don Ruiz has to say about not taking things personally, it really resonated with me. Perhaps because I have a long history of taking everything personally.
What was really eye-opening was when he took it to the extreme, with the example of someone you don’t know coming up to you on the street and saying, right in your face, “You’re stupid!” Who’s that really about? You, or this random person? It’s about the other person, whom you’ve never seen before in your life. But the majority of us would still be affected by that experience. As Ruiz writes: “If you take it personally, perhaps you believe you are stupid. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘How does he know? Is he clairvoyant, or can everybody see how stupid I am?'”
He goes on to say, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that [others] know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” We try to make it about us, when it’s so not about us. And the way we choose to react to whatever it is can have implications. It can cause us needless suffering.
For example, for most of our married life, when my husband would come home from work and snap at me in a mean way (not that he does this every day, but when he does), I would take it personally. I would decide it meant he thought I was a bad wife, a horrible cook, lazy, a bad mother, you name it — whatever it was, I now realize, that I might have been thinking about myself that day. What he was actually upset about, almost always — no, actually, always — was something that happened at work or elsewhere. When I made it about me, we’d end up in a stupid fight that wasted time and emotional energy for both of us.
When I finally decided to stop reacting — because after years of getting to know this person and having this same fight again and again, I realized it wasn’t something about me that he was upset about — he’d apologize and then take the opportunity to vent to me about what was really frustrating him. That’s way more constructive for both of us.
The anger I often feel as a mother has much the same shape. Usually when I blow up at the kids, it’s because I’m anxious or stressed about something completely other than what they’re asking me about or telling me. The mess in Kate’s room is really not that big of a deal, but because I’m overwhelmed by all the organization I need to do on some PTA project, or whatever, it puts me over the edge. Did Kate make the mess just to piss me off, which I can then use to prove that I’m a horrible, angry, mother? Of course not — she was just playing and being creative and having fun, as she should do as a seven-year-old.
It’s not all about me.
This idea was also once illuminated for me quite powerfully when someone accused me of something so over the top that I had to take a deep breath, sit with it and think, “Is this really something you could say about me, or something I would ever do?” And I decided, rather quickly: absolutely not. It became crystal clear that whatever led this person down that road was hers, not mine. Letting go of responsibility for that was a huge relief.
Not taking anything personally is not just an easy way to avoid responsibility for things that are yours to own, or that are your fault. But I’m pretty good at owning up to things. It’s the rest of the stuff, the stuff I used to take on just because other people handed it to me, that I’m able to let go of when I remember this agreement.
And that’s made all the difference.