The one mantra I think most sensitive people need to master is, “It’s not about you!” It is actually good advice for everyone to heed, since it reminds us that while we may be the center of our own world, we are not that important to the billions of others cohabiting the planet. That statement itself may seem insensitive. Please bear with me as I explain how taking yourself out of the equation is often the most loving and freeing action that a sensitive soul can make.
For years, as a very sensitive, empathetic person I struggled with the pain and guilt of other people’s problems. I thought I was being loving and helpful by commiserating with friends, family, clients, and colleagues. As I wallowed in their grief, they would often tell me that I made them feel better, yet their problems didn’t actually go away, and I was left feeling sick with despair. I came to realize that I wasn’t doing them any favors by attempting to take away their pain or by providing my perceived solutions to their challenges. Rather than being selfless and kind as I’d hoped, I was actually being self-righteous.
The Other Person is…
Interestingly, I found myself surrounded by people who followed very similar patterns. I was irritated by the ways they tried to manipulate me or “fix” me according to their beliefs. Then, one morning my Yogi Tea bag offered painful insight with the message,
“Recognize the other person is you.”
Ouch! I had trouble choking down that cup of tea, as I realized what was annoying me in everyone else were the same behaviors I was exhibiting myself. It felt like such a contradiction to the concept, “It’s not about you.” I wrestled with the challenges of seeing myself in others, while not actually making their actions or feelings about me. I still struggle with this daily. The following thoughts have offered guidance and clarity.
You Can’t Know How Other People Feel
Empathy means putting yourself in another’s position in an attempt to feel what they are feeling. It is a compassionate and important skill for living in harmony. After all, one can’t really live by the Golden Rule (do unto others as you’d have done to you) without some empathy. However, it is impossible to know exactly how another person feels. Our feelings and senses are based on our own personal experiences and traits. Although trying to be empathetic to another person’s feelings is a loving act, assuming you really know what they are experiencing is somewhat invasive and disrespectful. It also brings a great deal of unnecessary pain and struggle for both people. Simply acknowledging another person’s feelings is enough. This is sometimes referred to as bearing witness or holding space and it is one of the greatest gifts you can give another person.
You Are Not the Decider
One of George W. Bush’s classic gaffes was when he announced, “I’m the decider. I get to decide.” He had many poor word choices, but those statements in particular struck me as being the most arrogant and childish. Sadly, Bush’s declarations represent the way many companies, institutions, and families are ruled. Oftentimes decision are not made by majority opinion. Instead, the person who speaks the loudest, demands the most, or holds the highest position of power is the one who makes the rules. It is a lot easier to concede to this truth than battle it. I try to remind myself that while I am often not in charge, I always get to decide what I feel or think. I also live loosely by the principle:
I decide what is best for me. You decide what is best for you, and if the two interests conflict, then together we can decide what is best for US.
You Are Not Responsible
What I am referring to as decisions are really issues of control. Trying to control circumstances or another person’s actions is always a source of distress. No one wants to be controlled. Moreover, being controlling feels pretty awful. So, what are you supposed to do when people ask for your opinion or want your help? The answer to this pressing dilemma came from my friend Marc, who told me, “I’m learning to let go of the outcome.” Offering advice or support when it is requested is kind and helpful, bossing people around or demanding they do things the way you want them to is not. In short, no one is responsible for anyone else’s actions. You are only responsible for you.
You Must Talk To & See Yourself
I was a huge fan of the first season of the True Detective series on HBO. I particularly loved Matthew McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle (although I went through the entire season thinking his name was Russ.) In Episode 6, he said, “People that give me advice, I reckon they’re talking to themselves.” In response, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan) said, “Some people, no matter where they look, they see themselves.”
The line of dialogue, which led to a racy sex scene, struck me as incredibly profound. Rust’s character had taken the death of his young daughter personally, just as he had taken responsibility for the unsolved murders he had been investigating relentlessly. It led him to drink himself nearly to death. Still, in that fragile state he was able to reflect on the fact that we are hypocritical by nature.
We preach the very advice we should be following ourselves, which to the viewer who had watched him rant throughout the series, was an interesting twist. Maggie, also in a fragile state, was able to see that Rust was so broken because he took responsibility for tragedies beyond his control, and he judged everything from his narrow point of view. The two characters tried desperately to gain control of their lives, but ultimately found themselves consumed by anger and self-loathing. They had difficulty, as most of us do, seeing how their thoughts and actions played into the outcomes of their lives.
The Final Word – Detachment
I’ve always felt that being sensitive or empathetic was a gift that shouldn’t be suppressed. It allows me to offer much-needed compassion and validation to others. However, I’m finally accepting that such a “gift” can be teamed with issues of control, responsibility, and an unyielding need to make things right according to my own terms. All things require balance, and sensitivity is no exception. If I really want to be loving and compassionate, I must first love myself by detaching from what others do and say.
If someone criticizes me for missing a get-together because I’m sick or too tired. – It’s not about me!
When an acquaintance complains that no one helps them, after I’ve given help. – It’s not about me!
When my partner is tired or disappointed about something that happened at work. – It’s not about me!
When a friend is unable to take the advice I’ve offered several times. – It’s not about me!
These revelations, while painful, have made room for more joy and acceptance in my life. I hope they offer you insights too