I went to a family memorial service last month for a lovely, old lady who had once been my mother-in-law.
Not seen a whole bunch of those people for about 20 years.
All those years ago I would have been insecure, fearing criticism and judgement and, because I was defensive, I would have come across as arrogant, aloof and disinterested.
Last week, however, I was confident and excited and joyful.
Knowing that I am powerless over other people
And they are powerless over me
Powerlessness is often a difficult concept to understand because the word is usually aligned with a victim mentality. Bill W. and friends popularized it about 70 years ago in the world of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Their reasoning was that if someone was approached when they were at their lowest point i.e. badly hung-over, or at a ‘rock bottom’, by suggesting they admitted they were powerless over their drinking, it would lead to the idea of ‘surrender’ or a ‘letting go’.
However, the idea of surrendering and letting go is much older than 70 years. In fact, when the Buddha started teaching about 2,500 years ago, he, very concisely, explained how the desire for power is at the root of all suffering in his first and second, of four, Noble Truths.
He said the First Noble Truth is dukkha or suffering:
Human beings are subject to desires and cravings, but even when we are able to satisfy these desires, the satisfaction is only temporary. Pleasure does not last; or if it does, it becomes monotonous. Even when we are not suffering from outward causes like illness or bereavement, we are unfulfilled, unsatisfied and that this is the truth of suffering.
To be clear, this first Noble Truth says that thinking we have power over other people, events, the future and our own emotions can only ever be temporary.
How many of us have expected others to behave in a certain way and were bitterly disappointed when they didn’t?
In my case, I used to rest my self worth on how others saw me; or shall I say, how I ‘thought’ they saw me. I was constantly looking for approval and affirmation that I was OK, doing OK, doing the right thing, meeting expectations and behaving in the right way.
The Second Noble Truth is that the root of all suffering is tanhā that comes in three forms:
Greed and desire
Ignorance or delusion
Hatred and destructive urges
This speaks directly to me:
My greed was my burning desire to be accepted and appreciated, my delusion was that I thought I could only get it from other people and my destructive urges took place when I didn’t get what I was looking for.
I thought I had to behave in a certain way so they would like me. I grew into a person that wasn’t me, like a ‘false self’.
I lived with this false self for years whilst trying to ‘make’ people love and accept me. Until, one day, I hit my own rock bottom. Relationships ended, people had left or it felt like they’d abused me. I had a breakdown.
I’d never, in my life, felt more alone and that’s when I admitted how powerless I was. I had as much difficulty in admitting and accepting how powerless I was (over other people) as an addict has regarding his/her drug of choice.
Many treatment centres approach people’s breakdowns as a ‘rock bottom’ in their addiction to other people.
My addiction was to always chase the feeling of being liked or loved. I would do whatever it took to maintain the addiction. Consequently, my focus was always making other people feel OK because if they were OK, they would then be better able to give me the attention I craved.
I became adept at manipulating others by helping them solve their problems and make them feel better. This also bolstered my shaky self-esteem.
I suffered with the problem of thinking that other people were a reflection of me. For example, if I went out with friends and they didn’t dress ‘appropriately’ that somehow it reflected badly on me.
My focus was always on other people and not on myself to the point that if someone asked me how I was feeling, I’d respond by telling them how they were feeling. I never really knew what I wanted from life and, consequently, I lived in a state of chronic depression.
It took me a large chunk of my adult life to recognize that this was a conflict that was taking place in my own head and it was only when recognised this that things began to change.
I started to question if someone I thought has rejected me really had, or had I imagined it? The more I asked myself some radical questions, the clearer the reality became.
For example, my friend Neela hadn’t returned my texts and I assumed that she was purposely ignoring me. Perhaps she was angry with me and I racked my brains trying to work out what I’d done wrong.
When I next saw her, I plucked up the courage to ask and she lovingly told me she’d been unable to text on her phone for 3 weeks.
I’d assumed our friendship was over, the fallout had started and the love had gone. But no, she still loved me and thought my assumptions were very, very funny.
It’s a hard and often painful journey coming to understand that others’ reactions are not about something we’ve said or done and that we don’t have that much power over them and their lives.
At the same time this is an incredible freedom; that we’re not that powerful to we can adversely affect other people.
This goes hand in hand with the recognition that others are powerless over us. We have a choice over how we respond to others words or deeds. We can either feel like a victim of their unkindness or we can recognize that their ‘bad day’ was nothing to do with us - and shrug it off.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and, as I look in the rear view mirror, it’s clear how limited my life was when I expended tons of energy on worrying about what others thought of me. I let those thoughts crash into my soul like a thousand pebbles thrown into a lake.
If, as the Buddha says, the root of all suffering is desire, then my desire to get people to like and approve of me was all for nothing.
In accepting I’m powerless over other people and their opinions, that grasping need that I once had for them to like me no longer dominates.
And so surrender begins – one day, hour, minute at a time. When I want to please others I switch gears and, instead, ask a higher power to take away my unhealthy craving.
In its place comes calmness - as if the ripples on the lake have disappeared - and it becomes flat - still - powerful. I am free.