I’ve been in lockdown for weeks now, and I’ve given you all a bunch of money advice. (If you missed the treasure trove of webinar fun, click here). In that time, I’ve been taking walks and feeling my feelings and thinking about life. I’ve considered what I’ve learnt (the hard way) and what I wish I’d known earlier.
And so, forgive me if I take Fierce Girl Finance on a bit of a tangent for the moment and give you some Fierce Girl Free Life Advice, which you are totally welcome to accept or ignore as you see fit.
Truth No. 1: You don’t have to accept anybody else’s narrative about you.
Just because someone says something about you, doesn’t mean it’s true.
This sounds simple but goddamn, it took me so long to learn.
It’s true of family, friends and colleagues who have something to tell you about yourself. But it’s especially tricky with romantic partners. When you live with someone day in, day out, you hear their narrative about you a lot. You love them, you trust them, so you assume what they say is true.
This is true about the little things and the big ones. In a past relationship, I was told that I’m a ‘whinger’ because if I’m hungry, I want to eat. If I’m cold, I want a jumper – and I’ll express that desire. But this was extrapolated into a narrative about me being a negative person.
I am a lot of things, but negative is not one of them. Once I was out of that relationship, I realised that it was a big old pile of projection.
But a bigger narrative was about me being the author of all this person’s ills. Everything wrong in their life was my fault. And like an idiot, I believed it for far too long.
It took a long time, but I finally wrapped up this narrative and returned it to sender. My favourite life coach, Brooke Castillo, calls these types of narratives ‘models’. And she says:
“Some people want you to hold their models for them. They’ll say hey, here’s my model. Will you please hold it for me? Will you please take care of my feelings? Will you take care of my results for me?
“And that’s not their fault. It’s your fault if you pick it up, if you open it and keep it, but it’s not their fault they want you to take it.” (My italics – click here for the full text)
What took me a long time to learn is that I just don’t need to pick it up.
These days, I’m more aware of this trap. It doesn’t mean I don’t take criticism. I am happy to hear feedback.
The hard part is working out what’s worth correcting, and what’s just the result of someone else projecting their issues and insecurities onto you. If there was a magic formula for telling the difference, I guess I’d make millions by selling it. Maybe it’s a matter of practise – continuously seeking clarity on who we are, and then comparing it to the things we hear about ourselves. Comparing and contrasting this with the internal and external versions of our identities.
So now, if I decide I don’t accept that narrative, I simply put it back down. Return to sender. Thanks, bye.
Truth No. 2: You can’t police other people’s emotions. And they can’t police yours.
Have you ever noticed how we say things like ‘he has no right to feel that way’ or ‘she’s just overreacting’. The reality is that it’s not our place to decide.
On one hand we have empathy – imagining someone else’s experience to see if from their point of view. But then there’s the part where we go beyond that, where we decide that they’ve ended up in the wrong place.
But just because Person A wouldn’t be angry about something, doesn’t mean Person B won’t be.
We don’t earn our emotions. Like, there’s no test you complete to say ‘Yep, it’s ok to be angry about this.’ If we feel it, we feel it.
However … we don’t have to take responsibility for Person B’s anger.
Related to Truth No. 1 – if they are blaming it on us, we don’t have to accept that blame. We don’t even have to give them space or time to express it to us, if we choose not to.
But we cannot stop them from being angry in the first place. And making a value judgement about whether they are right to feel that way is useless at best, arrogant at worst.
Similarly, if someone is telling you that your feelings are wrong or invalid, you don’t need to listen to them. If you’re being told ‘you’re overreacting’, you don’t have to agree.
Of course, you have the right to self-awareness – you can look at the situation with a clear head, you can talk it over with someone, and maybe then you realise that you were reacting a bit too much.
But it’s your decision to feel however you feel. We are not slaves to our emotions – we can process them, manage them, work through them. We can leave our anger or hurt or sadness behind. That’s totally a possibility.
But it has to be our own decision and our own work. We can’t switch off a feeling just because Person A told us not to have it.
And here’s the thing. When someone else tells you that your feelings are wrong, it’s often because it’s making them uncomfortable. They don’t want to be in the proximity of that emotion, so they tell you not to have it.
I understand this. You can’t be a human and not hurt people along the way. Usually by accident – through selfishness, or carelessness, or just by prioritising your own needs. But sitting beside someone you’ve hurt is really hard work. It requires you to hold space for them, and it’s really uncomfortable. Of course it would be easier if they could just stop feeling that pain.
Even if you aren’t the person they are upset with, it can still be hard. It’s like sitting by a fire – you don’t get burnt, but still you walk away smelling of smoke. Sometimes being a good friend/daughter/mother means sitting in the smoke next to someone who’s in pain.
There is a balance though. If someone in our life keeps inviting us back to the fire, over and over, but makes no attempt to put it out, we have a choice to decline the invitation. This is what boundaries are, and they are not always easy to set or enforce.
When do we stop saying to someone ‘hey, this is above my paygrade – maybe you need therapy?’. When does holding space turn into enabling someone to nurse their negative emotions?
Again, there’s no simple formula for that. I guess it comes from experience and practise. Hey, I never said this stuff was easy.
In the end though, this truth is empowering. As Ms Castillo says: “Once you really understand that what other people do is not on you and that you’re not responsible for it, then it has to go both ways … you have to then recognize that what you do is on you.”
We can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, but we sure as hell can control our own.
Stay well Fierce Girls, and if you’re one of the 14 millions Australians in lockdown, hang in there. Much love.