Be Yourself – Or Change

Actors in the ancient Greek theatres would use masks to portray different characters. Even today, the international symbol for theatres is a pair of masks, one happy, one sad. The ancient Greek word for actor was hypokrites. It came to refer to one playing false, or putting on a pretense. It’s where we get the English word hypocrite.

The problem with trying to be something or someone else is that we are never going to be comfortable with the role. The best way to get comfortable is simply to be yourself; no pretense; no masks, no hypocrisy. Just be yourself. It is the most natural thing for us.

Of course, it’s always possible that we don’t like the person that we have become. Notice: The person that we have become. This is deliberate. We may have experienced a traumatic upbringing. Maybe our parents were always arguing. Or maybe we were surrounded by people with characteristics that we cannot respect. Maybe our learned behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.

If we learned that behaviour, we can learn new behaviour. We can change. If we have become that person, we can become someone else. But we have to be genuine in this. No masks. No pretense. No hypocrisy.

“But,” you may ask, “Where do I begin?”

A good place to start is your bed. Yes. Your bed. Before getting out of bed each morning, spend a few minutes calming your breathing. Then meditate (think deeply) about a time when you were not happy with your interaction with a close friend; it might even be your partner, parents, children, or siblings. Now. In what way could you have acted differently, or what could you have said differently, that would allow you to look back on that interaction with pleasure? How can you change to make you happier with yourself?

Notice that these changes are in the way that you behave. You cannot change other people. If there are to be changes, it’s up to you to make them.

The problem with this, of course, is that if we were raised to believe that the best way to solve issues was through confrontation, we may not even realise that we have a problem. We may feel uncomfortable in our interactions, but not know why.

If you have this feeling, have the courage to ask for help. Seek out the experience of someone else; preferably a trusted friend who has been through the process of change. Learn from their experience. If they are genuine, they will be more than happy to support you as you change.

This brings us to another way to change. It involves our interest in others. But that’s a discussion in its own right.

My Choice

We have looked at the value of solitude, confidants, and groups. We have looked at how to deal with other people’s choices when they impact on our lives. Now it’s time to look at the things that we can control. And it’s important to start with our choices.

We have already touched on this subject in the previous post, Not My Choice, where we looked at our circles of influence and concern. We highlighted the need to concentrate on those matters that we can influence. Now let’s go deeper.

One of the big problems that I see in people, today, is an inability, or even a lack of willingness to accept responsibility for their choices. “Everything” is someone else’s fault. There is no concept of suffering the consequences of any actions or decisions. The view is, “Whatever happened, I’m not responsible. And it’s up to someone else to fix it.”

Why is this important? Because we can only be at peace when we accept that every decision that we make, every action that we take, every word that we speak has consequences.

Taking our responsibility for our choices means that we have to think more carefully about those choices. So does that mean we will make fewer mistakes? Possibly. After all, how many people would have chosen their most recent foolish action if they had anticipated the outcome?

And yet, even if we still get it wrong, even if we have to suffer from the results of our mistakes, taking responsibility means that we can accept those results with equanimity. We are calmer in the face of adversity.

An added bonus from taking responsibility for our own choices is that we have better relations with others. Being at peace with ourselves gives us a calm disposition that overflows into our relationships with other people. Even if they are the root cause of any frustrations that come our way, we can deal with them in a calm manner because we are in control of our own emotions. No one can “make” us angry. It’s our choice.

So how do we get to this level of calm? There are many things that we can do and I hope to explore some of them in this space. But the first thing to do is simply to accept that, whatever happens to us, we have a choice as to how we respond. We chose our moods,we choose our actions, and we choose our words.

We have the power within ourselves to be calm in the face of adversity. We have the strength to overcome pressures and trials. Even if we need to seek help, from time to time, that is a choice that we can make.

So let’s start right now with a choice. Choose, right now, to be calm for the rest of the day, regardless of what life throws at you. Decide, right now, to accept with equanimity the consequences of your choices. Be determined that, whatever happens, your response will be your choice. Then, at the end of the day, you will be able to say, “Today was a day when I made my own choices.”

Not My Choice

I used to have a sign above my desk that said, “Bad planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” There are other versions of this but they all carry the same message: “I have no intention of becoming stressed just because you are.”

But how do you stop someone else’s bad planning, or even their poor decision-making, from upsetting your day?

We need to make a basic distinction, here. Some psychologists like to look at our lives as being at the centre of concentric circles of concern and influence. Outside the circles are those things that we probably know nothing about. We could not influence what happens there even if we knew anything about it. Therefore, why worry about it? Perhaps we could illustrate this in terms of someone in another country who is overweight. We don’t know about it and we couldn’t do anything about it if we did.

The inner circle holds those things that concern us and that we can influence. So, going back to our illustration, we may be concerned about our own weight. That’s something over which we have an influence.

Between our inner circle and the outside world there are areas that we may know about but we have varying degrees of influence. So if our young children were overweight we are in a position to change their diet. But if our partner was overweight we might struggle to influence him or her.

From this we can see that there are matters that may cause us concern but which we cannot influence. In such situations we can often beat ourselves up over our inability to act. So what can we do about it?

First, we may be able to bring it to the attention of someone who can exert an influence. That might even be the person at the centre of our concern. We might tell our partner that we are worried about his or her weight. Or we take our child to visit the doctor when they are sick.

But there will always be times when we can do absolutely nothing. Let’s take obesity in a distant land. We may hear about it from news reports, and we may be concerned. But most of us are in no position to do anything about it. What now?

Now we act on those things that we can affect. We look after our own weight, setting an example that may spread. And, if enough people follow our example, it may eventually influence someone in that distant land.

The important thing, here, is that we don’t worry about things that we cannot affect. We have enough worries of our own. It wasn’t our choice that led to the other person’s problems. And it is never a good idea to try to shield people from the consequences of their decisions. Remember that. It was their decision, not yours. They must accept the consequences.

Of course there are times when their decision has repercussions for us. What then? Then we learn to accept the situation and look for ways to deal with it. But worrying about it will not solve the problem. Accept the situation and deal with it. That’s the only way to find peace.

The Power of Three

We have looked at the importance of solitude – having time to ourselves. And we have looked at the importance of companionship – having a confidante. Now we are going to look at the importance of having more than one or two people in our lives.

There are many references to the benefits of a large circle of friends. Nearly three thousand years ago the Bible said that there is wisdom in the multitude of counsellors. And even today the concept of a neutral observer or arbitrator is widely recognised. So how can we use the power of a third person, or more, in calming our anxieties?

The first, and possibly the most obvious area concerns what happens if we have an issue with our confidante. It may be that the very person that we turn to looking for a hearing ear is not available. Worse, what if our confidante disagrees with our proposed solution? After taking his or her views into consideration, we may see the sense of what they say. Or we may be even more committed to our own proposal. Now we need another viewpoint.

What if our confidante is the apparent cause of the problem? Again, we may need another person’s input in order to help us to get through the difficulty without too much anxiety.

The second area to consider is where we don’t have the authority to make a final decision. This is where “a multitude of counsellors” may be required. Of course, this can lead to its own stress. As soon as more than one person is involved in making a decision, we have to deal with more than one opinion; and opinions are often personal, which means that personalities are involved. Now it gets interesting. Some people have very strong opinions linked to their very strong personalities. How can we avoid stress in these situations?

That’s really a discussion in its own right. But, simply stated, how important is the decision, anyway? Most decisions are about personal preference. If it’s about personal preference, then is it all that important that we have our own way?

Of course, when the decision is made by a group, then we should be able to accept that we have been part of a process that seeks to find the best solution to a problem. And we can be content that, by consulting with others, we have done the best that we can to ensure a successful outcome.

Finally, there is the situation where we have no say in the matter. It would be easy to say that in this situation we can simply walk away without any need to worry. But so often it is the case that someone else’s decision affects us, or someone close to us. How we deal with this stress is the subject of the next article.

The Power of Two

Solitude is important. We all need time alone with our own thoughts. But it is also essential that we do not isolate ourselves. As mentioned in my previous article, The Power of One, isolating ourselves from other people can lead to selfish thinking.

So, in addition to spending time alone, we also need good companionship. Why? Because there are times when we simply need to talk with someone. And, sometimes, we need someone in whom we can confide.

It isn’t always a matter of getting advice. Just having someone listen to us often helps us to deal with issues. I remember someone telling me that her friend was chopping wood, one day, and she went and sat on a swing, nearby. As he chopped, she talked. After some time she said, “Thank you. You’ve really helped me.” He said, “Actually, I haven’t said anything.” Then she realised he was right. He hadn’t said anything. Just having someone listening was enough to help her come to terms with the feelings she was experiencing after the loss of her husband. And this wasn’t even that close a friend. In fact, it hadn’t been more than a few days since she had met him and his wife. But he was a good listener. And it was enough for her to find peace and move on.

Now, just imagine how much more a close friend could achieve; especially if that close friend is someone we care for and who cares for us. It’s a beautiful experience.

So don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from a close friend or, even better, your marriage mate. But remember, to have a friend, you have to be a friend. And that can lead to all sorts of peaceful possibilities.

The Power of One

We all need other people. We are designed for companionship. We thrive when we are in good company, especially in times of trial or adversity. In fact, that’s when we need each other most.

Yet we also need time on our own. We need time to contemplate the things that affect our lives and the lives of those we care about, no matter where they might live and no matter whether we know them personally or not.

That’s where personal time comes in. We need to be alone, sometimes, just to be able to make sense of life. We could say we need time to breathe; to refresh ourselves; to clear everyone else’s clutter from our minds so that we can get on with dealing with our own issues.

So what do we mean by “time alone”? It can mean different things in different circumstances. Sometimes we may want to just kick off our shoes, stretch out on the sofa, close our eyes, and listen to our favourite music. But there is so much benefit in simply enjoying silence. Our lives are so full of noise, these days, and we need to switch off from it so that we can hear those things that really matter.

One word of caution, though. We must not isolate ourselves. As the opening paragraph says, we need other people around us. Isolating ourselves too much can lead to selfish thinking and actually cause more problems than it solves.

One good suggestion is to take yourself out for a meal. Go to a nice restaurant on your own and eat a meal on your own. It’s a fantastic experience. And you will still have other people around you.

Still, look for opportunities to have some time alone each week. Give yourself a break. Life will be so much easier to deal with when you start looking after yourself. You’ll feel refreshed and ready to deal with anything.

You Are Not Alone

When we are struggling to cope with the things that life throws at us, it’s easy to think that the whole universe is conspiring against us. We know it’s not true. It simply feels that way.

I spoke with a woman, last weekend, who raised this very issue, but from a more balanced point of view. She rightly pointed out that she feels that despite trying to do good to others, bad things keep happening in her life. But then she explained that when she sees what some people have to endure she realises that she’s not so badly off,  after all.

It’s a lesson we should all learn. I’m not suggesting the concept that some people have: That there is always someone worse off than us. If that was true then who is in a worse position than the person in the worst position? It’s a specious argument that only wastes time in pointless reverie. It leads to no real gain. I’m sorry if you believe in such a form of meditation but I’ll cover that in another article.

Yet we do need to be realistic. Our problems are real. They do exist. And they do cause anxiety. But we need to be careful not to see the whole of our lives in one day’s worries. Yes, we have problems, and yes they may be long term. But consider this: If you made an appointment with a doctor, a bank manager, a counsellor, or any sort of advisor, how many other people would be visiting the same consultant within hours, or even minutes of your appointment? Why? Because we are not alone.

Ok. Let’s accept that our problems are real and they cause anxiety. But look around you. All those people also have problems. Maybe they are not the same as yours. But to those people they are just as worrying. Whether it’s chronic illness or chronic finances, it’s just as worrying.

What makes the difference between coping and not coping is our viewpoint. We could turn inward and think that we are alone. Or we could look around us and appreciate that everyone else is suffering in some way, too.

Read Widely

When it comes to peace of mind the advantages of reading can be very underrated. Reading slows down the pace of life. It creates an oasis in the desert of our lives. It gives us the time to sit quietly and breathe, activities known to calm shattered nerves.

But, to be effective in developing inner peace, our reading must not be hurried. Take time over it. Savour the words and phrases. We need to imagine ourselves in the scene. Even if our reading material is academic we can still drift into the picture by imagining that we are explaining the material to someone else.

Most importantly, spending time reading forces us to spend time on ourselves without the distractions of pampering to other people. This does not have to make us selfish. Bringing peace and calm to our own lives gives us the strength to radiate that peace to others. How?

When we are not anxious we are in a better position to be in control of any situation. And such control reduces our own anxiety. It’s a wonderful spiral to be in. That spiral then becomes a vortex, pulling our companions in and helping them to see that things are seldom as bad as we might think. And, if others around us are too stressed to find the way out, we are better able to offer the leadership that they need to find their own path.

Reading also gives us something on which to meditate, rather than letting our minds drift aimlessly. We learn new skills and principles that we can utilise in our daily lives.

One word of caution, though. To be refreshing and beneficial our reading must be of the best quality. Read material that makes you think; that challenges you to change; upbuilding material. Don’t read anything that will incite the wrong emotions. Especially do not read material that encourages anger, violence, or depravity. These things only add stress.

So, read widely and often. Try to spend some time each day reading upbuilding material. And feel the peace that develops in your own life and in the lives of those around you.

The Power of “No”

We lead such busy lives, today. We are surrounded by clutter. We buy too much and spend too much and eat too much and leave too much lying around.

Yes. I admit that I’m as guilty as anyone else. I have to make a conscious effort to clear my desk every night. I have to make a conscious effort to put things away. And I don’t always succeed.

But the biggest clutter comes from other people. How often have you planned some activity, only to answer the telephone and hear the pleading voice confirming that you are the only person in the whole wide world who can help and it’s really, really, desparate, and if you don’t help the caller doesn’t know what he or she will do?

And how many times have you given up your day out to go and help, only to find that it was something that could have been put off till another day?

That’s why we need to schedule personal time every week. We need time for our immediate family – which does not include the children who have left home. And we need time for ourselves, too. We need to protect that time. Don’t let anything trivial get in the way. We have our own needs to take care of. And if we don’t look after ourselves, we will not have the resources to look after anyone else.

This is where we need to learn the power of ‘No’. We need to learn that our time is precious and must be protected. Yes, there will be emergencies. But as one fridge magnet puts it, “Bad planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.”

After all, there will always be other opportunities to look after the grandchildren; opportunities when you can plan fun activities, rather than being stressed about what you cannot do or should do or could be doing.

De-clutter your schedule – learn to say, “No.”

Sanity

It’s so easy to get all worked up about trivialities when you’re tired. And yet that’s the very time we need to have peace in our lives. I know. I’ve been there.

But the majority of our stress often comes from things that we cannot change. So we need to learn about our own capabilities. Look at what we can change and get on and do it.

We also need to learn to identify those things that are important, especially if they impact on other people. Those are the things that we should concentrate on changing.

Yet even then, if we cannot change the circumstances, why get stressed over it? Leave it in the hands of those who have both the means and the authority to act. And that allows us to de-clutter our minds so that we can concentrate on the things that we can change.

I’m not suggesting that we adopt an uncaring attitude. I worry just as much as anyone else about those people who are affected by natural disasters. I have friends who have been affected by them. But I don’t have the circumstances to go and help them to rebuild. I have other friends who are far more capable at that than I am. Still, I can support them in other ways.

But being concerned does not mean being miserable. I know that my friends who have been affected by those disasters are equally concerned about me and my circumstances. And we all simply get on with life and deal with those things that we can change.

And that gives us a mind clear enough to get through each day.