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Claiming the responsibility for our own lives is something that is really important to me and it’s a key part of my inner work.
It is something I’ve written about many times, but it appears that it is often overlooked. I know it was overlooked by me for decades. For too many years of my life, when I was suffering from often unacknowledged deep pain, I would blame others for how I was feeling.
I was bullied at school, sometimes physically, and it was their fault that the defense mechanism that I had developed was to try and be nice to people who treated me like sh*t, be a people-pleaser, and thus get treated ever more badly as I failed to put up personal boundaries.
For reasons I’ll never understand, rather than protecting me, some teachers seemed to want to bully me too—telling me I was good for nothing, telling me I was worthless and a trouble maker (often for getting bullied).
Our year head once, after I’d been beaten up on the weekend, came up to me at school, having heard that I’d been in a fight and said, “I always knew you were a piece of work,” and scowled at me like I was something horrendous on the bottom of his shoe. Therefore, it was those teacher’s fault that I had a deep cynicism about authority in any situation, even when the evidence occasionally taught me that I should be more open to those people who were kind.
And then there was that friend who lied to my face and then blamed me for calling him out. I could go on but I think you get the picture.
Whilst it’s different when you’re a child, the problem was that these people, whilst they are fully responsible for their actions, aren’t responsible for my reaction or how I feel inside as an adult. But for the greater majority of my life, I didn’t understand that at all. They had acted in sometimes awful ways toward me, and while the fact that it was years later, they were still to blame for my inability to engage in a healthy way with the world.
It was all them! I was just their victim.
Although I can only understand this now looking back from a new perspective, I was like that until, well, 2015, when something changed in me and I began to work it all out. I could see that I had power to make decisions to change my life. I didn’t really understand how that would work, I didn’t have the inner skills at that point, yet I knew that only I was responsible and I had to do something, anything, and I was ready and willing to face myself.
Then, I found mindfulness.
There’s so many different meditation apps and instructions. There’s meditations for grief, meditations for focus, meditations for this and that but at the core of it all is the recognition that the thoughts and feelings that we experience do not have to be followed or pushed away. These aren’t my thoughts; these are opinions that I am experiencing. They are not me and do not define who I am. I can just watch them instead of doing anything about them.
It takes so much practice and repetition, but slowly we can learn through direct experience that it is possible to not engage with our mental activity, unless we deem it worthy of our involvement. Without any aversion, any judgement whether that mental activity is good or bad, we can choose to let go of the thoughts that do not serve us.
With these new skills, suddenly, I could see that I was holding on to my old hurts, that I didn’t need to suffer under their oppression, and that the responsibility was mine to work with them and let them fall away. I witnessed my behaviours around people-pleasing, around always trying to fix relationship problems that I didn’t create, and I gained the knowledge that I had the choice to continue acting in that way.
Those former behaviours meant that I had kept people in my life who were not positive for me, and let’s be fair here, I probably wasn’t positive for them either. I could finally see all that. I could see it all. Understanding and acknowledging that it was me who was holding on to the pain, not those people from my past who were continuing to inflict harm upon me, well, I could let that sh*t go.
At first, I did find myself alone, which was scary of course. But I suddenly had space in my life for people whom I didn’t need to please, people who liked the person that I really am. It turns out that by sitting with everything I was experiencing inside my mind, seeing it for what it was without judging any of it and without trying to push any of it away, well, I realised I was one of those people whom I finally had space for in my life.
It has had a positive impact on everything I do. My work, whilst I still work for the same company since 1999, has altered dramatically because I have pushed myself in directions I wouldn’t have dared to before. The same is true of my personal life. I would never have dared be so open about everything I’ve been through because I didn’t value myself. I certainly wouldn’t have written about it and shared my experiences. I definitely wouldn’t have let friendships fade that didn’t work for me, but now I can (although I haven’t for a few years).
Every aspect of my life is better and it is all because I looked everything that had been swirling around my head, like some kind of deranged squawking crow, in the eye and saw that I could just let it all go.
I get that some people may think that maybe, I overplayed what happened to me, but that is what mental health difficulties are. Our mind and our reaction to our mind is what really creates the pain. Sometimes the mind creates pain out of very little; sometimes it doesn’t.
So previously, I would have thought that people have had it worse, and they have—many people have had it infinitely worse than me, but now I can see that it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t accept and face my own pain. It doesn’t matter how big or small our pain is. If we avoid it and do not try and see what it is made of, then we will suffer on some level. That will reflect in our interactions with the world because we will be doing things, often to our detriment, to escape that agony.
I realise that this is not an easy thing to practice, especially if the misery inflicted upon us by others is great. It may take years of therapy to get into a place where it’s possible and safe to sit with our reactions to past traumas and all the emotions that arise. I had two years of therapy before I was in a place to even begin to think about participating with my thoughts, but I did get there.
Even if we need a decade of support, there can be light at the end of the tunnel if only we step toward the acceptance that all of us can gain the ability to let go of our negative thought processes.
This is a journey of a lifetime. Sometimes, actually often, I become reactive, but I know I have so much more to learn and I will need to hone my skills of mindful observation of the inner world over the next few decades.
But I will continue to absorb the teachings presented by life until my last breath because that is the only choice I have if I want to have peace with what is.