Here’s a basic belief that many people are having trouble with. It’s the idea that we can actually make other people suffer or that other people can make us suffer. This belief is really a gem.
You are experiencing it if you sometimes have the feeling (without knowing exactly why) that your choices and actions are making other people suffer. Or it may be the other way around and you may feel that someone else’s choices and actions are making you suffer. We find this interesting idea behind so many of the problems that arise in our relationships with our partners, family and friends.
Is It True That Someone Else Has The Power To Make Us Suffer?
But let us ask ourselves if this is true. Is it true that we have the power to make other people suffer? Or that someone else has the power to make us suffer?
When we understand that we live in a mental universe and that everything we experience in our lives – everything – is a thought, we understand that all our experiences are nothing more (and nothing less) than our interpretation of events. No event or circumstance has any inherent value or meaning in and of itself (which becomes obvious when we notice that different people react differently to the exact same event or situation.) So we see that no event or circumstance in itself can affect us one way or the other because we can only experience our thoughts about events and circumstances.
It takes only a little investigation to discover that this is true. Let’s take some examples.
Example 1: Your boyfriend breaks your dinner engagement.
You were supposed to go out to dinner with your boyfriend tonight. At four o’clock in the afternoon he calls to tell you his boss wants him to work late and he simply cannot get away so he has to cancel the date.
Does his decision make you suffer? That depends on how you interpret his decision because your interpretation determines your reaction.
So how do interpret this and react?
– You’re disappointed but understand. And you tell him so.
– You get angry because this isn’t the first time this has happened. You think he’s a workaholic and that he feels his job is more important than his relationship with you. You wonder if you want to continue the relationship. (You suffer.)
– You’re relieved because you also have a lot of work piling up and you could use the evening to catch up. And you tell him so.
– You’re overjoyed because you’re tired and really want to have an evening to yourself.
– You’re happy because you want him to do what’s right for him in all situations and you tell him so.
And so on. Of course there are many more ways you could react. But the point is, how you experience the broken dinner engagement depends completely and entirely on your thoughts – and not on the fact that he had to cancel. Whether you are sad (suffer) or neutral or overjoyed depends entirely on your way of looking at things. It has absolutely nothing to do with him.
This is why we can say nothing external can affect us.
Let’s take another example.
Example 2: Your mother criticizes you for making poor choices in your life.
You make an important life decision like dropping out of school, changing your job, moving away or getting married and your mother criticizes you. She says you’re making a big mistake and you’re going to regret it. She says you’re immature and never listen. She’s upset and unhappy with your decision.
Do her comments make you suffer? That depends on how you interpret what she says because your interpretation determines your reaction.
So how do interpret this and react?
– You immediately get defensive and feel that your mother will never understand you and you tell her so. You end up quarreling and slamming down the phone. You feel angry and upset all week. (You suffer).
– You wonder how come you are so unfortunate to have a mother who never understands you. All your friends’ mothers are so much more understanding and supportive. But you don’t say anything. When the conversation is over, you feel hurt and humiliated at having such a mother. It bothers you all week long. (You suffer).
– You listen to what she’s saying and reply “Mother you might be right and I still feel this is the best course of action for me. But thanks for your concern.” You are really touched by her concern and tell her so but you also feel a bit sad that your mother doesn’t really understand your situation. But you accept that that’s just the way it is.
– You laugh to yourself because you know your mother doesn’t have a clue about you and your life, but you don’t tell her so. You know she’s just a little old lady who’s trying her best to help you and who wants you to have a good life.
And so on. Again there are many more ways you could react to your mother’s remarks. And again we see that your experience of your mother’s advice (whether it makes you suffer or sad or not) depends completely on your thoughts about your mother and her role in your life.
Your reaction has nothing to do with your mother, but rather is the result of your beliefs and stories about your mother and your relationship to her. The reality is that your mother is just telling you what she thinks – based on her beliefs about life!
Beliefs About Mothers (or other people)
Of course if the above mother exchange upsets you and makes you suffer, it may be because you have other underlying beliefs about mothers that you need to examine. Your beliefs about mothers could sound like this:
– Mothers should understand their children.
– Mothers should be supportive of their children no matter what they do.
– Mothers should always be kind, tolerant and loving.
–Mothers shouldn’t get mixed up in their children’s affairs.
– Mothers should let go of their children when they grow up.
If any of these statements ring true to you, it might be a good idea to take a closer look at them. Because when you do, you will probably find that reality is quite different than these beliefs. The reality is:
– Mothers often don’t understand their children (even if they try).
- Mothers probably don’t even understand themselves.
- Does anyone understand anyone?
- Do children understand themselves?
- Why should mothers understand their children?
- Do children understand their mothers?
- And so on...
– Mothers are often not supportive of what their children do. Again this is reality.
– Mothers aren’t always kind, tolerant and loving.
– Mothers often do meddle in their children’s affairs.
–Mothers often don’t let go of their children when they grow up.
So the question is – are you causing yourself unnecessary grief (and suffering) in your relationship by arguing with reality? Do you have unrealistic expectations to life and mothers? Are you expecting your mother to be different than she is? Are you making yourself unhappy by setting up a totally unrealistic standard for mothers that no mother can live up to?
If that is true, how would your relationship be with your mother if you were more realistic about who she really is and her ability to understand and support you? Wouldn’t you take better care of yourself if you “got real” about who your mother really is instead of fighting reality?
But let’s go back to our ability to make other people happy or unhappy...
Making Other People Happy (or other people making you happy)
The flip side of the belief that we can make other people suffer is the belief that we can make other people happy. This translates into thoughts like:
– I can make other people happy.
–My choices and actions can make other people happy.
– I am responsible for the happiness of others.
Is this true? Do our actions really have the power to make other people happy or unhappy? Let’s go back to the conversation you just had with your mother. You just told her you were going to drop out of college or move to another city and start a new life and she criticizes you. She says you’re making a big mistake and you’re going to regret it. But there are an infinite number of other ways she could have reacted to your decision, depending on her beliefs and outlook on life. She could have said:
– Why darling I’m so glad you finally decided to move away from this dump and go someplace interesting!
– I support whatever you do. If it’s good for you, then it’s good for me.
– Great darling, that is wonderful news! You will love living in New York.
– I understand my dear. I wouldn’t want you to end up with such a boring life as mine!
– I don’t care what you do!
– It’s OK with me but your father will have a heart attack when he hears the news.
– You must follow your heart dear and if this feels right to you, then go for it.
– I always thought you’d be happier being a belly dancer than going to medical school.
So what does your mother’s reaction have to do with you? Her reaction is completely arbitrary and totally based on her beliefs about the world. In fact, she is just telling you her story of what she thinks the good life is. And if your actions make her happy – fine! It’s still her story. (She was the one who made her happy – not you!)
Explaining Your Behavior (to others or to yourself)
If you are trapped by the belief that somehow in some universe, you and your choices and actions can make other people happy, you end up getting stuck with the crazy idea that you are responsible for other people’s happiness. This is a cruel trick to play on yourself.
It’s especially cruel because when you have this belief, you then allow other people to ruthlessly manipulate your behavior without being aware of what’s going on. And all this comes from your sincere (but uninvestigated) belief that you somehow have the power to make other people happy or unhappy. As a result, you end up always explaining yourself – also to yourself – when you somehow fail to make other people happy.
What an impossible situation to put yourself in! This is definitely not the way to live a happy life! This I can tell you from experience. I tortured myself for years thinking my own dramatic decision to run away from home because of the Vietnam War when I was a teenager was the cause of so much unhappiness in my family because that is what my family told me, over and over again. It was like a broken record... how unhappy I’d made them, how much they’d suffered because of my choices, etc. etc.
At the time, I didn’t realize I came from a dysfunctional family and that trying to make other people responsible for their happiness is one of many confused things people do in dysfunctional families. In my case, it took me years to get over the guilt I felt and understand that I wasn’t responsible for my parents’ happiness (they were).
It was their interpretation of my actions that was making them unhappy, not me. I did what I believed was the right thing, not because I thought it would make them happy or unhappy. In reality, I did what I did for completely other reasons. Their reaction to my decision was their business; their unhappiness was the result of their beliefs.
Every choice has consequences, but you have the right to make your own decisions regardless of what anyone says. Don’t let your own mistaken ideas about what you should or shouldn’t do (according to whom?) rob you of your freedom. Stand up for yourself and your right to be you. Defend yourself and learn to deal with the criticism that goes with the turf of being you and living an authentic life.
©2013 Barbara Berger. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Published by O Books,
an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd. www.o-books.com
Are You Happy Now? 10 Ways to Live a Happy Life
by Barbara Berger.
About the Author
Barbara Berger has written over 15 self-empowerment books, including the international bestseller "The Road to Power / Fast Food for the Soul" (published in 30 languages), "Are You Happy Now? 10 Ways to Live a Happy Life" (more than 20 languages) and “The Awakening Human Being – A Guide to the Power of Mind”. American-born, Barbara now lives and works in Copenhagen, Denmark. In addition to her books, she offers private coaching sessions to individuals who wish to work intensely with her (in her office in Copenhagen or on Skype and telephone for people who live far away from Copenhagen). For more about Barbara Berger, see her Web site: www.beamteam.com