Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish what is me and what is not me. We take personally a myriad of meanings to which we have arbitrarily attached ourselves and then we have strong emotional responses to anything related to those meanings. For example, we sometimes see a sports fan who is so identified with his or her team that their progress feels personal. The fan will get enraged with negative comments about the team or feel extreme joy at sports victories. What has happened is that this person has identified with the team and any negative experiences related to the team threaten this person’s sense of self worth. Any positive experiences enhance the person’s sense of self worth.
Clearly there is no relationship between an independent individual and the ups and downs of a sports team. But it feels like there is. We can attach personal meaning to any number of things, and we can come to believe those meanings represent some reality. For example, people become very attached to the brand of car they drive, the computer they use, or the grades on their children’s report cards. With this attachment comes a vulnerability to being hurt or becoming angry triggered by events that are actually unrelated to them.
We can use relationship experience, that is the other person’s behavior or words, against ourselves by attaching personal meaning to them. This is a more difficult reality to tease apart. In close relationships our own behavior and words have an impact, and we do want to pay attention to the interaction and how it affects the other person and the relationship. On the other hand, each person has idiosyncratic meanings, ways of being in the world, and feelings about the relationship and about us. The idiosyncratic part means that this person has a unique history and meaning structure, and we cannot take responsibility for managing that.
I was talking with one couple who achieved a breakthrough when the wife announced, “I have suddenly come to understand that when you are watching football on t.v., it means you are interested in football. Not that you are avoiding me.” It may or may not be that the husband had attached personal meaning to the football game, but it is clear that the wife had attached personal meaning to his choice to watch it.
Our responsibility is to engage with the relationship in harmony with our own ideals about how we want to be in relationships and what we think this particular relationship is about. We cannot control the other person’s responses or interpretations. We can explain, and we can listen. Ultimately, we can learn from the reflections we get from other people about how we are being, but their mirror contains the unique distortions of their own lives, and does not accurately represent some external truth.
Over time we get better and better at distinguishing what is me and what is not-me. It is easier with sports teams and car brands, but somewhat more nuanced with relationships. The only way to move toward true inner freedom is to allow the other person to be responsible for his or her feelings and for us to take responsibility for our own. And, in a larger sense, we can distinguish what is truly about me and what is not, even when we have triggered strong feelings. We can cheer for the home team and still not take it personally when they win or lose.