When we choose to remember past moments, sometimes it’s the ego and sometimes it’s the heart that speaks. Which one speaks most often for and through you?
I was thinking about someone who has a tendency, or I should say an addiction, to consistently repeat or tell about unpleasant moments as (usually) her only conversation topics: “I remember when (this awful thing happened to me/this person did this awful thing to me)” or “Let me tell you about the latest unpleasant thing that happened (or what this person did/said to me).” This person has a steamer trunk filled with such topics, and more keep getting added in. I’m sure there are good memories in that trunk, but they don’t seem to rise to the surface as easily. In fact, it stopped her in her tracks one time when she was going through her list of unpleasant memories and I asked, “What is one of your favorite memories?” Once she was able to blink again, she said, “Why did you ask me that?” I told her I was just curious and would like to hear about one. It was the briefest she ever spoke about an experience; she did it in one brief sentence rather than her usual short or long story. This is an example of what happens to people when the ego, rather than the heart, is allowed to dominate, because the ego feeds on drama.
As I thought about this person’s tendency, I did what a lot of us do, which is I had an imaginary conversation with her where I suggested that what could be focused on was, “I remember when (this good thing happened, this person did this wonderful thing for me),” and so on, instead of the usual. And then I realized I was practicing exactly what the person practices. What an eye-opening reminder for me—yet again (sigh). It’s so easy to see what others do and miss the fact that we might do or are doing the very same thing, even if our version or justification for doing so appears to be different, at least, to us.
Following “I remember when” with good, touching, or funny stories shouldn’t be reserved for funerals. Stories told at funerals often recall acts of kindness or generosity the person did for them and or for others, funny moments shared with the person, the person’s best traits. And this happens despite anything else that occurred while the person was alive. I’m not saying this is always the case, but it does happen more often than not, or has in my experience. And if prior disputes or conflicts are mentioned, the tone of voice is usually softer; it and the words chosen wear the hue of compassion rather than animosity, or at least are spoken with the awareness that speaking ill of the deceased is frowned upon at such a time. Perhaps certain moments that originally irritated or angered the teller with the departed are now told with a tinge of humor. It’s amazing how many negative feelings carried for years about a person can be released or are when the person passes on. Maybe this is because the heart finally tells the ego to be quiet for a change, and forgiveness is allowed to release both individuals at that time, too late in some ways, but allowed.
In Doreen Virtue’s book, Assertiveness for Earth Angels, she has an interesting chapter called “Toxic Relationships: How to Recognize and Handle Them.” The toxic relationship types include Interrupting, Correcting, One-upmanship, Clingy Neediness, Stalking, Guilt-Tripping, Angerholism, Unreliability, Nosiness, Grumpiness, Accusatory Tendencies, Victimhood/Martyrdom, Controlling Behavior, Perpetual Clowning, Loudness, Substance Abuse, Lack of Boundaries, Name-Calling, Rudeness, Betrayal, Gossiping, One-sidedness, Drama Queen or King, Taking Advantage, Barbed Tongue, and Nonstop Talking. Phew! Look at those listings! I’ll bet that you, just as I, could readily assign those types to people you engage in relationships with or did. Would we also be as quick to list our name beside one or more of them, as behaviors we practice ourselves at times or more often?
One thing I know, based on experience—and it is all too easy to forget when we’re frustrated—is that practicing negative or judgmental thoughts about others, including when you’re not in their company, creates more of the same and serves to aggravate you even more. It stagnates or depletes your inner and physical energy, as well. It may satisfy the ego (temporarily) to engage thoughts and words in this way, but deep down, it doesn’t make us feel good at all. Not really. It also means that while we point one finger at another, three fingers point back at us.
It points out the fact that we have not addressed whatever issue we have with the person in a constructive and productive and peaceful way, if that’s possible—sometimes, it flat-out isn’t. Sometimes, you have to end a relationship with a person who practices one or more of those behavior types Doreen listed. Sometimes, it isn’t possible or realistic to end the relationship and keep your spiritual integrity intact at the same time, which means there’s an opportunity to learn about yourself and your potential for personal and spiritual growth that’s trying to step out of the shadows into the light.
The thing is that we tend to put our focus on others. What others do is what they do; it may be how they are, until they decide to change, if that ever happens. And they, as we, are here to learn their own lessons in their own way and in their own timing. When we observe or experience another’s behavior, it’s also an opportunity to look at ourselves. How do we feel about their behaviors and why do we feel that way? How do we feel about ourselves, and why? How do we respond or react? Is it with aggression, passivity, passive-aggression, people-pleasing, or assertiveness?
Assertiveness means we speak our truth and do so without getting snarky or outright mean or demeaning (or people-pleasing). Just as you don’t fight fire with fire (so to speak, since wildfires are sometimes fought with fire to contain them), ideally, you don’t address unpleasant behavior with more unpleasant behavior, as tempting to the ego as that might be. And if your truth is met with hostility, you can walk away (not stomp away), whether that’s until a better time to talk once both sides have calmed down enough so you can attempt better communication, or forever.
The rest of the time, check your thoughts and see how they’re running in your mind. It’s understandable, being the humans with egos that we are, that we’ll have thoughts come up about others or matters that irk us (trying to eliminate such thoughts completely is nearly impossible and may lead to self-judgment; choosing to shift into better thoughts is doable and a worthy practice). Sometimes those negative or judgmental thoughts are needed as part of the process used to gain greater understanding of or clarity about the dynamics involved and to figure out what we need to do or say. And sometimes we do need to talk to another about this so we (perhaps, finally) feel heard.
But we will benefit if we also look at ourselves in this process. Are we taking care of ourselves, and doing so with integrity? Are we communicating with integrity? What do we demonstrate or teach others by our own examples? How can we re-program ourselves to be better and healthier at the inner level if we practice old programs of complaining and blaming, and any of the behaviors listed, other than assertiveness, which is the only way to be authentic?
Deborah Tannen said, "Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations." We can begin to pay attention when we speak, as to whether our words come from the ego or from the heart. We can choose which one of those two we wish to give the greater voice to in our inner and outer experiences. We can think and share better thoughts about others while they’re still alive, or at least send them a silent blessing to find peace and joy within themselves, rather than entertain and feed the ego with negative thoughts about them. It’s a good practice, one you’ll appreciate.
Practice makes progress.
© Joyce Shafer