Be the change

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
— Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I have been thinking about personal responsibility, and the idea of starting change with oneself. This is continuing the thinking of my recent post about updating our mental software.

Some background: I started off as a physicist, where I believed there was Truth, and that everybody should be able to agree on Truth. Therefore anybody who disagreed with me was mistaken, and I would just show them the Truth to change their mind. So when the CEO at my startup was making mistakes, I stood up at a company all hands meeting and told him why he was an idiot, because once I told him the Truth, he’d clearly change his ways. I was, um, mistaken.

Over the next several years, I figured out that people had different viewpoints and different value systems. Because of those different viewpoints, there was no one singular Truth that we could necessarily all agree with – there were many different realities that people experienced, and part of what I learned was to start understanding the realities of other people. There were many truths that I had to learn to navigate between, which led to me focusing less on being Right and more on being effective.

Continuing along that path led to the profound realization that I can’t control what other people do and think and feel. I can’t tell them that their reality is invalid and that their Truth is not true – that will generally be perceived as an attack that leads to defensiveness and entrenchment.

What I can control is my own behavior. If somebody isn’t listening to me or hearing my message, I used to be resentful and rail against their blindness to the Truth and their unwillingness to listen because of their short-sightedness. This was unproductive. Others are not going to change because I want them to, and I can spend a long time waiting and hoping for that change. Or I can figure out why my message isn’t working for them, understand what they care about, and tell a different story that is more in line with their values.

This is part of a broader attitude shift in progress for me. When I have a setback (due to others or to external events out of my control), I can be resentful and sulk about how I have bad luck or how the universe is out to get me. But it is more productive to learn from the experience and figure out what I can do differently next time to increase my chances of success. It’s a scary attitude shift, because it means taking responsibility for what happens to me – if I didn’t get the results I wanted, I need to change. It’s easier to blame the stars or “them” (whoever “they” are that is out to get me) or the universe.

It also means taking responsibility for my reactions and my emotions. I went to a helpful session several years ago at the AYE conference where they discussed the sequence of what happens in our interactions. Somebody will say something, but then there is what we hear (which is what they said filtered by our history and beliefs), there is our emotional reaction to what we heard (where the emotions often have nothing to do with what they said due to triggering of our own biases), and then there is our visceral reaction to the emotions. This whole sequence can happen unconsciously in a fraction of a second, so it’s easy to miss the steps and assume that what they said caused our emotions and reaction. But we did a couple exercises to break the steps down and notice how our own filters and history were influencing our reactions regardless of what was said. I’ve become more active in noticing such emotional triggers – when I feel a strong wave of emotion, I try to understand why what was said would trigger such a strong reaction, and figure out what that emotion is really about, so I can separate it from the interaction that I’m having in the moment. It’s an ongoing process but it is helpful in putting the locus of control back within myself rather than feeling buffeted by the actions and words of those around me.

This is not any sort of profound original discovery on my part, as the quote above from Marcus Aurelius illustrates, let alone Buddhist philosophy. But I wanted to share my experience as I learned to shift my attitude over time to focus more on taking responsibility myself and figuring out what I can do differently to be the change I want to see in the world. I used to passively sit back and hope that things would change or that people would change their minds (“You can’t help others who don’t want help”). Now I realize that I have to actively make changes in my own behavior and thinking if I want change to happen in the world. It’s a scary realization to put the locus of control back on myself and take responsibility, but I hope that it leads to better results.

11 thoughts on “Be the change

  1. To be clear, I understand that my privilege enables my locus of control to be much greater than most people, and this post is definitely not meant to be seen as promoting victim blaming. This was a useful exercise for myself, as I consistently underestimated what was under my control in my life, so I wanted to share my thoughts and experiences in that vein.

    1. This is an awesome post and I (heart) it. It’s very similar to things I’ve been contemplating recently, because E & I have started seeing a therapist. I feel weird saying that, but I’m saying it anyway because I don’t really know why I feel like that’s a shameful thing. The guy’s been amazing.

      But one thing it’s clearly shown to me is that “missing step”, where I process what was said, and understand not *what was said*, but what was said -> my history & emotions, and then get defensive/upset/angry/whatever. And that a lot of times, the way I react to things, even though I think I’m doing X to make things better, I’m doing Y to make things worse.

      And that ultimately, it’s the approach, and the effectiveness, and not being “right”, because while some things are objectively right or wrong, interactions are complicated & fraught with history you can’t possibly understand unless you’re the other person.

      I struggle a lot with the content of that quote, though. The last few years, I haven’t had control of my mind. Events beyond my control have left me really resentful and angry and embittered, and I’ve been completely unable to wrest ownership of my brain from those things, and the people involved in those situations.

      I know that “resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it kills the other guy”, but it doesn’t mean that I can make the change. Intellectually, I totally own this shit. Emotionally, it’s a fucking disaster that leaves me blindingly angry at times. I suppose part of that just comes with time and distance. And not say, strangling the other people to death. 😛

      People are complicated and weird. Who knew?

      1. I was also nervous about mentioning I was seeing a therapist in my year in review – it is interesting how we devalue those skilled at navigating emotional and social trauma while lionizing the surgeons who repair the body.

        On the challenge of dealing with strong emotions, I find that happens to me sometimes, most often when it aligns with some childhood trauma. And deconstructing where those triggers came from is often helpful in leeching those emotions.

        Thanks for sharing your response!

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