About a month ago, I was scrolling through my FaceBook feed and I came across the following quote credited to Gary Smalley from his video series Guarding Your Child’s Heart. The quote read “People don’t make us upset; they reveal what we believe in our heart.” As days and moments have ticked by since then, I have continued to ponder those words and what they mean for me.
I coach people continuously in the responsibility of owning feelings. Undoubtedly, many of us have that well-meaning person (at the most inopportune time) remind us how someone cannot make us feel – fill in the blank (angry, sad, frustrated, etc). As invalidating as this may be in the moment, there is truth there. Many times, I ask my clients to imagine a circle around themselves. Everything inside the circle is their responsibility. Their thoughts, their feelings, their actions are all inside the circle. Everything outside the imaginary circle, they have no ownership over. This includes other people’s thoughts, feelings and actions.
Now, most of the people I speak with are mature people. (I’ll go ahead and put myself in that group.) We are already taking ownership of many actions. We do things like feed our pets, take our kids to school, go to work and pay our bills. I am speaking of this responsibility but even further. When I think of the life I want to lead, am I taking the steps to live that life? To do this, my actions must match up with my values. In my theatrical production called life, I take on many roles. If I have the nagging feeling that I am not measuring up in one of my roles, I need to evaluate this further. I can blame it on busyness, work or other people. But in the end, those excuses will be little solace to the regrets of not living up to my own values. (I do want to point out, in the pursuit of taking ownership for my roles in life, I am also responsible for evaluating my expectations to ensure my ideas are reasonable. There is such a thing as trying to take responsibility for too much and for matters that aren’t ours. We will save that topic for later.)
I also need to take responsibility for my thoughts and feelings. This takes some internal awareness. If, for example, I examine my desire to be happy. I must learn what makes me happy and go about finding ways to make myself happy. If I am living under the unspoken expectation that other people doing exactly what I would like them to do is the path to happiness, I am probably going to be hugely disappointed, a constant control freak or both. Taking responsibility for my own happiness, is learning to define my happiness not through someone else, but as it pertains to me alone. I think Gary Smalley’s quote give us great insight in how to start taking responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. If we are feeling a negative emotion (it doesn’t matter which one), it reveals our internal belief system. An internal belief system that may need to be challenged.
I remember an aha moment when I was first married. It must have been a Sunday and I was feeling domestic. I was in the kitchen cleaning and so chipper about this grown up version of house I was playing. My husband was in his favorite Sunday spot, watching football. We were relaxed and all seemed picture perfect. While I was cleaning, I realized the trash needed to be taken out. I called into the living room and asked my husband if he would mind taking out the trash to which he affirmatively responded. I kept on cleaning. However, after a little while, I noticed he had not come to take out the trash. My happy, sunshine mood was suddenly a little clouded. I started feeling upset. The thoughts in my mind went a little something like this, “I am in here cleaning and helping while he watches football. I only asked him to do ONE thing and he can’t do it!” You can imagine the longer the trash sits there, the more upset I am getting. As the frustration continued to mount, a thought came to me. I had not asked my spouse to take out the trash right then. If I was concluding he was not going to take out the trash or help…how did I know this? And if I did need it taken out right then, I should have either communicated that (and seen if I received the same response) or chose to do the work myself. What was more important to ME at that moment? Having the trash taken out when I wanted or having help with the trash?
This example clearly reveals the beliefs in my heart. I had a belief that if I was helping our family, my spouse should be willing to help too. I had a belief that if I was sacrificing and I asked my spouse to sacrifice little (in comparison) -he should do it. I may have also had the belief system that if I ask my spouse to do something, he should do it right then or if he cared about me, then he would do whatever I asked. In hind sight, my belief system was missing whole other chunks. For one thing, it is centered only around me. My wants. My feelings. I am not considering at all my spouse’s thoughts or feelings. (I am not responsible for my spouse’s thoughts or feelings, but I can realize the possibility of differences. When I believe the best about him, I am respectful of these variations. I wrote about this specific topic here.) The other thought is that if I am using that one circumstance and then drawing a conclusion that my spouse is not “helping”, I am using a small block of time to make a very general conclusion…which probably isn’t fair.
I am not saying my beliefs are all wrong, but they do reveal my expectations. At my house, we call expectations premeditated resentments. Am I setting myself up to be resentful by the beliefs in my heart? Am I doing the work of building good relationships where I am inclusive of both viewpoints? In James 1:19-20, James calls Christians to “…be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” Not that we can be righteous, but we are called to actively pursue righteousness in the way we handle our tongue and our relationships. If having healthier relationships is one of the desires for my life, I have a couple of choices. I can hope and wish the people I am in relationships with will start doing what I want them to do, believing this would make me happier and improve my relationship. Or, I can look at myself and work on my belief system, hoping to produce actions that build up my relationships.
The importance of owning our thoughts, feelings and actions ultimately falls on us. We need to use our feelings as notifications. We can then examine our beliefs, which probably closely mirrors our internal thoughts. Ultimately, this process gives us freedom to choose our actions. Our actions can breath life into our relationships or they can undermine them. Thoughtful responsibility of our actions can lead us to a place with less regrets and more joy. It may be more work, but in the end, it is worth it.