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Perception and Reaction – Embracing Hard Truths

We are disturbed not by things,
but by the views we take of things.

Epictetus, The Encheiridion                                  

It’s often interesting to watch one’s own ego in action. I recently had a discussion with a couple of friends on life’s purpose and the value we place on the things we hope to accomplish.

Interestingly, both of these friends are blessed with special abilities: one of them is an intuitive and empathic psychic who does astrological chart readings, while the other has had some interesting experiences with perceived reality and non-dual states of awareness.

The three of us were having a serious discussion on how we offer our collective services as a team to people struggling with financial, relationship, emotional, and other issues, but somehow the conversation veered into our personal journeys and I became the subject of their intuitive “whacking,” as they call it.

I have been on a journey of self-expansion (hopefully not physical!) for the last decade. Things have surely shifted and changed within me, but I probably have not achieved all that I had intended when I began this journey. During our conversation, one of my friends started hitting me with some hard truths by listing my abilities and my lack of accomplishments. He pushed me outside my comfort zone and, before I knew it, I was fighting back and justifying the status quo.

I have certainly made some headway toward my desired outcomes, but truthfully I have yet to reach my goal. A part of me is content in taking small steps forward, but another part of me feels restless and unfulfilled at the lack of progress. I have been guilty of mental self-flagellation, but when someone else started making me aware of my so-called under-accomplishments, I, like a porcupine, had my quills ready to retaliate.

This was an eye-opener for me and I gave me a few minor epiphanies.

Although many of us are very good at preaching to others, there is still room for self-acceptance and self-analysis. We humans have very fragile egos and the instant someone contradicts our inner beliefs, it’s all too easy to adopt the fight or flight response.

In this case, I was tempted to walk away but I fought back instead, becoming defensive and aggressive. I came up with justifications for the lack of progress in my chosen path. I started listing all that I had achieved and justifying what I hadn’t. I then picked on the person who was holding up a mirror to me, listing his shortcomings and subconsciously seeking to hurt his ego as he had hurt mine. He, however, seemed unperturbed.

I saw momentary pain cross his face but he immediately returned to a place of calm. Seeing him not lose his composure made me realize how quickly I had reacted; he was doing me a favor, but my ego was not prepared to receive a bashing. I was physically unharmed, yet my heartbeat was racing and my palms were sweating. My physiology was reacting to my psychology.

Fortunately, years of practice came to the rescue and I quickly became aware of my reaction, gradually extricating myself from the downward spiral. As soon as I changed my perception about the conversation, I felt at ease. I saw the perceived attack as an act of compassion and realized that the motive behind it was one of love and my betterment. My friend wanted me to be what I’m capable of. His approach may have been a tad harsh, but his motives were pure.

The same scenario repeated on a separate occasion when I tried to say something to my teenage daughter, who had endured a bad day at her golf tournament. I was trying to shed light on how she had allowed her fears to get the better of her and missed some easy putts. She immediately became defensive and started to attack me verbally. This time it was my turn to remain unperturbed and we were able to diffuse the situation. In the past, we would probably have argued, with each of us trying to have the last word, but now I understood why she was being defensive. She felt attacked and her defensiveness was a very natural reaction. She eventually understood where I was coming from and went on to explain how she messed up and how she could have done better.

Two different episodes with very similar outcomes; in both cases, there was a latent sadness and regret for not having met self-proclaimed goals.

In situations where we do not meet our own expectation, our self-esteem plummets and we become very sensitive. We feel ourselves being attacked even when someone offers feedback from a place of compassion and support, and we react—often viciously.

The recipients in both cases—first me and then my daughter—put up shields of self-justification and we retaliated. In both cases, we expressed painful emotions by lashing out, and both situations were diffused because one of the participants remained calm. Had everyone involved allowed their egos to get the better of them, there would have been a lot more pain all round.

As the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus rightly observed, “We are disturbed not by things, but by the views we take of things.” Both my daughter and I took offense at being told facts, but the moment we changed our perception of the episode, the hurt dissipated and we became open to input and suggestions.

The reason for pain is usually a wound that needs healing. In our respective cases, there was an emotional wound from not having met our own expectations. We need to understand, though, that just as a doctor sometimes needs to be cruel to be kind, people may also come across as harsh and insensitive at times, but if we can see the love and compassion behind their message, we will feel grateful instead of hurt.

In my case, my friend yanked me out of my comfort zone, pushing me to take charge of things I need to do. My daughter, too, needs to assess her game and see where she can improve. Instead of both of us becoming defensive we may need to take the surgical approach and go through short-term pain for long-term gain.

Nothing is a failure until we give up completely. There is temptation to give up and remain in the comfort zone. It feels easier, but the satisfaction we gain after achieving what we are capable of is far greater and more fulfilling.

So, the next time someone says something to you that may feel like an attack, try to look at the intention behind the act. See the person as a teacher or a mentor who is trying to wake you up and move you out of your comfort zone. See it as a blessing and soon it will become one.

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