Recently it was my birthday. A lot of people sent me greetings, but two people I think that I’m very close to ‘forget about me.’ Most of the time, I react to this as if it were a threat. I feel distressed and rejected. But is this true? Are they really rejecting me, and is this the only way to react to a behavior that I don’t like at all? How can I apply the concept of acceptance to these moments?
“One of the biggest sources of difficulties for every single human being is the desire for people to be a certain way”, I read.
We want the world to be the way we want it. Unfortunately, the reality is different, and people behave in less-than-ideal ways.
The problem isn’t other people. It’s our ideals.
Yes, I think it would be great if people were friendly, mindful, never forgot about me and think the way that I think. But that’s not the reality. People are different and have different values. I’m not perfect, and other people aren’t perfect, either.
We have ideas about how people should act or ways we’d like them to be. But: People don’t act in those ideal ways, nor are they the way we’d like them to be.
My rational mind totally agrees with that, but my feelings see it very differently when things happen that I don’t like. Reality bothers me. I’ve become frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, and stressed. Someone simply forgetting my birthday (which is not so critical of a day for me in the first place) makes me feel this negativity and has the power of damaging my relationships with others.
This is obviously not great.
There are a couple of options for when people act the way you don’t like:
- You can expect rigidly the way you want people to be, and be upset when they don’t meet those ideals.
- You can try to educate the people around you to be the way you want them to be. (It’s hard work and pretty much never works.)
- Let go of some ideas and be happier and less frustrated.
When we think about it this way, it’s obvious that option 3 is the best route. We’ll talk about this option soon, but let’s talk about a couple of objections first.
Problems of Letting Go
When people are confronted with the idea of letting go for changing their opinions about other people, they often have a few concerns:
- People get away with bad behavior. There’s a difference between wanting someone to behave a certain way (and getting upset when they don’t) and accepting that a person is acting a certain way, and then compassionately finding an appropriate response.
- What about abusive behavior? Letting go of your ‘ideals’ about how the rude person should act doesn’t mean you let them abuse you. It means to accept that they are an abuser while taking the appropriate actions!
- Your desire to make the world a better place is in danger. If people behave in less-than-ideal ways, you can worry about it while trying to change them, or you can accept that the world is not an ideal place. (Maybe you should read the book Factfulnessfrom Hans Rosling. He describes the world as a place where almost everything gets better.)
Letting Go of Ideals
Now we come to the hardest part. How can you let go of wanting people to be a certain way? Maybe you can try this:
Notice, without judging, the ideals and frustrations as they arise. Realize when someone is frustrating you, and reflect on what model you’re holding for him or her. How do you want them to behave, instead? Recognize your story of why they should behave that way. See that this ideal is harming you. And maybe you choose that it’s not useful to you.
Notice your mental pattern of resentment when someone doesn’t meet your expectations. Try to catch this pattern early. How often do you realize this pattern in your life? Ask yourself if this pattern is helpful to you. Maybe it’s an ancient pattern that is not at all beneficial to you anymore.
Notice your body. Maybe you feel a tension that comes from holding on to this ideal. Pay attention to how it feels, the quality of the energy in your body, where it’s located, and how it changes. In this moment of observing, you are awake rather than being stuck in the daydream of your story about why this person should be behaving differently.
Would you like to feel differently in some situations and not be so harsh and strict on yourself and others? Here are some ideas I’ve found useful:
Instead of fixing on one way this person (or situation) should be, be open to other possibilities. Open yourself to lots of different ways this person or situation can be.
Tell yourself that you don’t know how people should act. Honestly, I don’t even always know how I should act … I am fooling myself if I think I know how other people should act. Instead, I might be curious about their actions.
Practice self-compassion! Realize that not everything is a threat. The strategies for protecting ourselves are different in people and cultures. Try to understand the person rather than judging them based on limited information. Try to understand why they would act this way — perhaps they are afraid. Maybe they are suffering in some way.
See the other person as a teacher. They are helping you practice mindfulness and are showing you the necessity of letting go of your old patterns. They are teaching you about reality vs. ideals and about how humans act and interact.
You have choices!
Make your choices with your mind. We know people who consistently display morally and socially questionable behavior in everyday life. If you detect ‘dark traits’ in someone, you can also accept this, send him or her your love and let them go. Not everybody has to be good for you. You can always choose what you are willing to learn and choose your boundaries.