November 29, 2020
Hint: It’s not the candy’s fault if I overdo it.
It’s not Covid-19.
It’s not capitalism or socialism.
It’s not the control freaks in my life.
It’s not conservatives or liberals.
It’s not my nomadic childhood.
It’s not pro-lifers or pro-choicers.
And I’m not to blame either.
Let’s throw out the idea of blame. As far as I can see, it’s never made anything better.
If I can’t blame you, the world, or myself, how can I account for my misery?
When I’m miserable, I’m unhappy because I have abdicated responsibility for creating my own happiness, sense of self-worth, and growth and development.
Taking responsibility for myself is not blaming. That’s acknowledging that the only control I have is over my reactions to what life hands me.
When I’m miserable, I’ve usually lost touch with the reality that the world isn’t fair, life hands us things we absolutely don’t want, and we often don’t get anywhere near what we do want. Period.
Today, when I notice I’m miserable, it usually means I have begun the downward spiral into self-absorption that boggles my mind every time it happens.
Here’s how it goes. When I begin to feel a vague sense of “something’s wrong, I don’t feel good,” I either go on autopilot and devolve into blame or, on a good day, start a self-assessment process to see what the problem is.
Devolving into blame has literally never ever made my life better. So for many years, I’ve been practicing self-assessment. Which can be a good thing.
But too much of a good thing can turn it into a negative.
Sometimes self-assessment can become a neurotic search for what’s causing my bad feelings and a desperate hunt for who/what is to blame?
There’s where self-assessment can turn into a narcissistic, bottomless pit of searching for the “why’s.” Why do I feel like this? Because I’m lonely. Why am I lonely? Because I don’t have enough friends. Why don’t I have enough friends? Because my parents moved me around the country til I didn’t know Iowa from Alaska. Why did my parents do that? See what I mean? It’s endless.
When I reach that level of self-absorption, I’m miserable, and it can happen at the drop of a hat.
Because we are hardwired to avoid discomfort and to seek comfort, for most of us, taking complete responsibility for our mental, emotional, or physical pain is not our first go-to. Our first go-to is to find out who is to blame — who or what is causing our misery so that we can make them stop. And if we can’t find anyone to blame, we can turn the finger around and blame ourselves.
Blaming is a perfect example of the Buddhist idea of first and second arrows.
The first arrow is the thing that life hands me that I don’t want. I fall and break my arm; I get fired; I can’t speak to a human at Comcast; the president tells a lie; my uncle is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The second arrow is where all hell breaks loose. I hear that my uncle is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Instead of allowing myself to grieve and feel the deep empathy that comes with suffering and spending as much quality time with him as possible, I shoot the second arrow at myself.
I project not only a horrible future for him and his loved ones, but I imagine a worst-case scenario for myself. It’s genetic, right? I start scaring the crap out of myself, and all of a sudden, I’m no longer caring about or for my uncle. I’m looking for someone to blame to eliminate my discomfort about all the things I have no control over.
It’s the hormones, or the vaccines, or genetically modified food! Now, not only have I forgotten about my uncle, I am becoming more afraid of, and resistant to, the world in general.
One would think that self-assessment is the answer to taking back responsibility. And for sure, it can be the beginning of a positive recovery from whatever ails us.
But here’s the challenge. There’s a point where self-assessment becomes a psychopathic focus on me, me, me in a frantic attempt to figure out why I’m miserable. And when I’m intensely focused on me and my misery for too long, I become more miserable.
Stay with the First Arrow
To summarize, when life hands me an arrow I don’t like, my initial response is to find someone to blame.
But there is another way. With practice, we can learn to catch ourselves before we do any major damage to ourselves or those around us. We can much more quickly see that blaming behavior as our autopilot lame attempt to feel better and avoid discomfort.
Today when I hear myself blaming the president, my partner, my friend, or actually, anyone or anything in my world, I see a stop sign in my head. It’s a major, “Whoa, reel it in Robyn!”
Unless someone has my arm in a vice, I remind myself that my discomfort is my responsibility to manage.
I wish I could say I always catch it before I move into the second arrow and lose it, or word vomit, or sulk, but that’s not my reality. During Covid-19, I am frequently confronted with my lack of enlightened responses. At the same time, I’m thrilled that I am better at it than I used to be. I catch it quicker and make amends sooner.
I don’t have to prefer the world the way it is. But continuing to blame it is a recipe for mental and emotional turmoil.
That doesn’t mean we don’t take responsibility for doing our part to get closer to the world we want. It means we save our energy for just that. Making a positive difference. Every single time I go down the “ain’t it awful” rabbit hole, I lose an opportunity to make the world a better place. And I make myself miserable.
When I take responsibility for my well-being, I break my arm and remind myself that I still have two legs.
I get fired, and I take responsibility for having stayed at a job that wasn’t a fit, and I go find another one that does.
Comcast won’t let me out of their endless cyber loop of transferring me from one hold to another, so I go to the store and get the problem fixed with a real human being.
When my uncle was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my son and I spent more time with him than we ever had in the past. And I started paying attention to taking care of myself in ways that would promote brain health.
The first arrow is painful and sometimes debilitating. I have a spine that doesn’t work well. That’s the first arrow. So, I do what I can to strengthen it. And I practice intentionally catching myself when I blame it, or myself, for my misery so I can skip the pain that second arrow would inflict.
Skipping that second arrow leaves me with energy to give myself a little grace, take it a little easier, and have enough energy left over to care about someone other than myself.