Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy discusses how to stop thinking everything is your fault
I developed many, many bad habits and ways of thinking over the years. Each of these picked away at my self-esteem and ability to relate properly to the people and world around me. The one I want to focus on now is the one that has possibly been the most deeply rooted and difficult to break – taking everything personally.
I’m sure this is familiar to many of you. A partner, a friend, a colleague – someone comes in to the room in bad form and my automatic thoughts are, or rather were, ‘What have I done? Why are they annoyed with me? I have to make it better. How can I make it better? I’d better find out what’s wrong. I’d better find out what I did wrong. I’d better apologise.’
If it was my husband, a very frustrating conversation would follow during which I would try frantically to discover the source of the mood and ultimately come round to asking whether or not he was annoyed with me. This conversation never resolved anything and as often as not made the situation worse.
If it was a friend or a colleague I would most likely withdraw from them, and retreat into long and complicated conversations with them that took place entirely in my head. I would create whole scenarios which would become real to me, and in turn influence the next actual interaction we had. Do you see how quickly this can get out of hand?
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We are responsible for ourselves; our own actions, our own thoughts, our own feelings. Our actions and thoughts are within our control, and while our feelings aren’t always, we are certainly responsible for how we act on those feelings.
How other people feel is completely outside our realm of control, and to think otherwise is actually quite egotistical. It presumes that they are focused on us all of the time, that we are the centre of their universe, that their every thought and action relates directly to us.
The assumption and belief that we are the source of how other people feel also puts huge pressure on us, and absolves them of taking responsibility for their actions. It makes us vulnerable to being taken advantage of. Imagine the imbalance that could create in a relationship. A more vindictive partner might recognise the power that gives them – they can behave however they like because the blame will always be willingly carried by the other.
When I first realised this, admittedly only in very recent months, it was almost like a slap in the face. How could my presuming everything was my fault have a negative impact on those around me?
I had rationalised it so well for so long it was part of me, and I thought taking responsibility for peoples’ problems was almost kindness. But here’s the thing. Sometimes people get annoyed for not particular reason. They may be tired. They may have been stuck in traffic. The kids may have been acting up. There are endless reasons why someone may come home in bad form, and chances are it has nothing to do with whoever they meet when they come in the door.
Do you know what makes it worse though? Facing into an interrogation about it, having to reassure someone that it’s nothing to do with them.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is freedom from the belief that we are directly responsible for how other people feel. For sure, we can influence it – words and actions can really hurt. But we cannot control their response. Likewise, the words and actions of others can hurt us, if we let them. We all lash out from time to time, and it’s a cliché, but we tend to take difficulties out on those closest to us.
So if for some reason my husband comes home in bad form, or a friend unexpectedly cancels on me, I have two choices. I can make it about me. I can take his bad mood or her cancellation, and I can turn it into a direct personal insult. I can go into a tailspin wondering what I’ve done wrong and how to make it better, I can make myself feel sick with anxiety until they finally reassure me that it’s nothing to do with me.
Or, I can accept it for what it most likely is – nothing whatsoever to do with me. I can offer a hug instead of an interrogation, or accept a cancellation with good grace rather than anger. I can save myself hours of unnecessary grief and heartache, I can save my system from the flood of chemicals all that anxiety creates. I can remind myself that the world does not in fact, revolve around me, that I am not responsible for everything and everyone. Instead, I can breathe easy, control what is within my control, let go of the rest, and get on with my day.
If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie