“Change your thoughts and you change the world.” ~Norman Vincent Peale
We all encounter times in life when someone says or does something that offends us. After the fact, no matter how hard we try to let go of feelings of hurt or resentment, we might find it hard to move on.
I know, I’ve been there before myself, mostly when I wished I’d told people how I really felt in certain encounters, or when I doubted what I’d said or done and then replayed past events over again in my mind.
I am a reformed people pleaser, and as a result, I haven’t always expressed my honest feelings to others.
More times that I can count, I felt self-conscious and anxious while approaching certain people and situations in life.
Was I funny enough? Did I seem unintelligent? Did I unknowingly offend someone? These kinds of questions would creep into my mind and take over my mood on a daily basis.
My self-doubt and fear of confrontation not only affected how I represented myself in social settings, it also caused a lot of unnecessary worry and tension in my relationships.
There was a turning point when I was fed up with avoiding conflict and tired of feeling hurt. I realized that in order to change how I felt, I needed to perceive the world through a different lens.
“You will be free the moment you stop worrying about what other people think of you.” ~Unknown
In college, I remember one of my professors asking each person in the classroom what they wanted to accomplish at the end of their academic career. The first thing that came to mind was “I don’t want to take things personally any longer.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but at that very moment my journey had begun.
While completing my degree, I worked closely with people who had been abused and neglected. They had been completely and utterly unseen by the people they trusted most. Not only did my heart ache for what they had lived through, my eyes slowly started to open. These amazing individuals were enough, even if no one ever led them to believe that they were.
And I was enough. I didn’t have to second-guess the things that I did, or allow self-doubt to get in the way of my happiness.
I could simply exist in the world without my anxiety defining me.
Shortly after this discovery I met a kind Buddhist mentor, and through deep daily mindfulness practices, I learned how to tame the anxious, unproductive thoughts that came into my mind and not get swept away by them.
As I continued my inner work, I was kinder and more patient with others and myself.
In time, I realized that struggle is universal, and that we all share these encounters in some form at some point in our lives.
How we relate to our pain is what shapes the outcome.
We can either crumble under life’s pressures or embrace them and become more evolved versions of ourselves. Our true nature is who we are underneath our struggles and stories, and accessing that nature is the key to feeling at peace.
Our disposition and family of origin greatly affect how we observe and react to the world around us. But we are not powerless; we can change how we respond to life’s difficulties.
Have you ever admired someone who came out of the other end of adversity stronger, wiser, and better equipped for the road ahead? You do not have to admire that person; you can be them.
Take a brief moment and think back to a time when someone said or did something that troubled you. Did negative thoughts take over your mind? Was your heart pounding? Did you find it hard to concentrate? Did this moment feel like it would never end?
I know from personal experience that stress can sometimes feel like an out-of-body experience. Our thoughts can quickly take over and we can get caught up in our heads. Over time we can start relying on that comfortable place of simply reacting without thinking, or we can push our feelings away and disconnect from situations completely, like I did.
For this reason, I have adapted my own go-to mindfulness exercise, inspired by Tara Brach’s RAIN practice, that I have used time and time again and referred to others. This method can help you to develop deep awareness of your thoughts, as you’re facing difficult moments or shortly after, while offering yourself words of compassion and kindness.
One of the first times I put this technique into practice, it helped me move into a more accepting, healing place.
A few years back I was at a meet for new mothers. It was my first time there, and all the conversations made it difficult to hear.
I had asked someone in the crowd to repeat their child’s name, which was, “Wren,” a pretty name, like the bird. Another mother overheard me and loudly mentioned to another person that people from the city weren’t worldly and had little knowledge of nature.
I wondered what I possibly could have done to offend this woman. My thoughts spread like a wildfire.
I felt deeply angered by her comment. I proceeded to doubt myself, questioning if there was something I had said to the group that day which seemed silly or unintelligent. My next course of action was to start thinking of things to say to counteract her verbal attack, a way of proving my knowledge.
While all of these ideas bubbled up in my mind, I was completely silent. I felt a burning sensation brewing in my stomach and chest.
I tried to make the best of the meet after that, but couldn’t help but feel irritated. I gave this person the cold shoulder the rest of the day and was upset with her. I was also angry with myself for not rising above the pettiness by choosing to snub her.
Later that evening, I kept thinking about what she had said and why she chose me as her target.
Once again I had fallen into the trap of avoiding conflict at the expense of my well-being.
I proceeded to break down what I was feeling and what needed my attention most, and this brought me much needed internal comfort.
O P E N to Your True Nature
The next time you find yourself over-thinking past situations or feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses, try this exercise to offer yourself some compassion and bring yourself back into the present moment.
Close your eyes and take a breath. Notice how your body feels—tension in the stomach or heaviness in the shoulders, for example. Then notice the thoughts you’re thinking in the moment or are dwelling on from the past, and name them, such as, worrying, fearing, replaying, or planning.
When you observe your thoughts, you’re able to choose which to believe and which to let pass. You can choose not to believe that someone else meant to hurt you, that you did something wrong, or you deserve to be judged. You can see these thoughts as nothing more than knee-jerk reactions to a perceived offense, and not reflections of reality or ideas you need to let influence your state of mind.
When you are ready, bring peace to your mind and body by saying, “I am deeply hurt and it is okay to feel the way that I do.” (Use comforting words to ease your distress about a specific situation.)
Some other thoughts that may bring you peace: “Even if other people judge me, I don’t have to judge myself.” “What other people say and do is about them, not me.”
Take a deep breath and take a moment to sit in the calmness of mind and body.
Say to yourself: “The moment has passed and now I am at peace. This is my true nature.”
More times than not, the present moment is an anchor, solace in the midst of chaos. You can always come back to the present moment.
Observing my thoughts and accepting the situation for what it was not only enabled me to make peace with what happened, but also helped me foster compassion for the woman who offended me. I realized that her bias might have come from a vulnerable and wounded place.
Being a new mom isn’t easy and I can identify with that; perhaps she was feeling insecure that day and displaced the judgment she had of herself onto me.
Had I not have taken a step back to assess my own thoughts I may not have been able to feel compassion for her.
As I continue to practice OPEN, it allows me to feel and examine the full gamut of my emotions, and in turn this allows me to feel deeper connection and concern for others.
I am no longer as self-conscious and I don’t take things personally as often.
The lesson I learned in all of this was that worrying about what others think of me does not change anything, and life is unpredictable and out of my control. This discovery was actually pretty liberating for me.
I think we could all benefit from learning to tap into awareness and calm our mind. We can learn to forgive and be kind to ourselves, and to the people around us. And we can create space between ourselves and our anxious thoughts so that they don’t define us or throw us off our center.
The next time you feel anxiety rising, remember that our thoughts can hold us back or deeply restore us. However, we do have a choice to listen to the thoughts that encourage us so we can open to our true peaceful (or balanced or noble) nature.