In my high school psychology class I teach my students about a game almost all of us play called, “See What You Made Me Do?” It goes like this: you do something I hate, I shout at you, you ask me why I’m shouting and I respond with the all-encompassing and oft-used, “Because you make me so mad!”
“People do make me mad,” my students usually reply, “it happens all the time…” this followed, of course, by the one story that will make me see the validity of the “you made me mad” argument. Whether the story is about a boyfriend or a mother or a sibling, the end result is always the same:
“Who is in charge of you?” I ask.
“I am,” the students answer.
“Then how can someone else make you feel something you didn’t want to feel?”
Of course, in theory this makes perfect sense. I am in charge of me, you are in charge of you, and we are all responsible for our own choices. So why is it I can never seem to take my own advice?
I used to play the “See What You Make Me Do” game in my marriage and even with my children. “You make me so mad!” was phrase thrown around quite a bit, often in relationship to its cousins, “How could you do this to me?” and, “You are making me cry!” After over a year in counseling I have finally dropped this routine, although the drug of blaming others is really difficult to shake.
That said, I catch myself more readily than I used to and often am able to rephrase with I statements and other tools new to my communication tool-box. Those textbook “I feel____ when you___” have gone from laughable tension breakers to much more natural forms of discussing issues. The results have been a more peaceful home. More to the point, it allows for a better sense of who I am and what and how I allow myself to act and interact.
Unfortunately for me (and others I encounter) this “you made me” reaction still particularly resonates in other areas of my life. Take politics, for example. Sometimes people say things that make me so crazy (see, I just allowed them to be in charge of my feelings) that I want to scream. In reality, they say inflammatory things and I could choose to ignore them, especially because they are usually said with the intended purpose of igniting my temper; and yet, time after time, I take the bait. I’m the trout who can’t seem to avoid the tempting treat that incites my rage (second time in one paragraph, did you catch it?) As a result, I end up saying what I want to say, but never feeling satisfied because I know I did it on their terms instead of my own. There is no sense of peace, no sense of my own power; instead, there is an empty place of unsatisfied frustration with myself.
Unsatisfied frustration, that seems to be my motto also at work. I know the drill by heart: unvalued professional, underpaid public servant, favorite scapegoat for all things wrong with American children and, therefore, our future. It’s so obviously incorrect it’s almost laughable. Why “almost?” Because so many people believe it’s the truth. Only the kids seem to think otherwise and instead of celebrating that fact (because, after all, who are we here to serve if not them?) I still find myself drowning in the sea of the blamers and the twisters who speak with such voracious intensity.
Where is the balance between being open to the constructive lessons I need to learn and being closed to those who I allow to tear me apart? Learning to ignore things is a critical element to my path toward peace and yet the skill is so illusive I’m not sure I even know where to start.
What if, instead of trying to ignore them, I just decide to not be unsatisfied or frustrated? What if I came to the personal, political, and/or the educational table completely calm in mind and heart because I know, above all else, I’m doing the best I can with what I know and how I know it. I am secure in self and, while open to other opinions, I get to decide whether those opinions are valid for me or not. Can I do that? Simply choose what to take in and what to set aside as not-for-me?
I think I can. It will start with me knowing when the anxiety starts to build, not when the rage takes over. When I feel my shoulders tighten and my neck tense, then is the time I need to remind myself that no one is in charge of me but me. We are all entitled to our opinions, but when those opinions are shared with me it is just information for me to process, consider, and then move along with or without. That’s all, just information.
Framing disagreements, however intense, as just two people sharing information instead of two people on the attack—that might be the ultimate vehicle I need to get on that path toward peace. Something tells me I have something new to teach my students tomorrow.
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