Growing up, the feeling I hated most was that of being unheard. When I felt unheard or misunderstood it triggered the most righteous indignation inside of me. I could feel it physically – a rush of heat through my body, a constriction in my throat, my eyes widened, fists began to curl. The desire to be heard, to be understood, to communicate my message burned within me. I identified myself as a person who was willing to say what needed to be said. This is a brilliant quality to possess if one has an actual message to share. Slightly less brilliant if the message is simply a stream of complaints, judgments and offhand comments about every little thing that is happening throughout the day.
As a coworker said to me a few years ago, “Do you ever have thoughts you don’t say out loud?”
It’s been 13 years since I was first diagnosed with depression and I have seen A LOT of therapists over the last decade. Some that I developed wonderful working relationships with who helped me very much and others that I saw once or twice and then ran as fast and as far as I could because their techniques were not for me. Recount the time I took the wrong bus in kindergarten? No thanks. Despite the range in therapeutic perspectives and techniques, there has been a common thread laced through each session. In order to reduce stressful emotional outbursts, it’s wise to learn that not everything warrants a reaction.
I struggled mightily with the idea of choosing not to react. This choice seemed to mean I was willingly silencing myself. In silencing myself I felt untrue to the identity I had built. If I chose not to react, not to say something, then I stopped being the person who possesses the courage to stand up and say what needs to be said. If I chose to address, accept, and move on, I was silently condoning behaviors or statements that I most certainly did not agree with.
Thank goodness for my current therapist who was finally able to get this nugget of wisdom I’d ignored for the last ten years wedged firmly into my consciousness. With mindful awareness, I began to practice the art of non-reaction. If I stood in a 10 items or less grocery lane behind someone who intended to purchase 13 items, I did not mutter angry things about the social contract just loud enough to be heard by the offending party. If a couple walked down the sidewalk hand in hand and left no room for me to walk past, I did not shoot them a look full of vitriol while I stood in a planter waiting for them to pass. If I got home from work and my husband had chosen to relax and enjoy himself rather than check all the items off the Honey Do List I left that morning, I greeted him with love and enthusiasm rather than frustration and anger (I’m pretty sure this is the Master Level).
With a lot of practice, the beauty of the choice not to react to everything became clear to me. The magic is two-fold.
First, it’s a lesson of powerful acceptance that I am Not the Center of the Universe. The person in line with 13 items is not out to ruin my day. The couple on the street is in love and enjoying themselves and completely unaware that I am standing in a planter. They did not conspire to make a stranger stand next to a tree for 2 seconds. My husband came home from his work day and needed to recharge. He did not love me less because he wanted to have a beer before washing dishes and cleaning cat boxes.
Second, it’s a lesson in toxic emotional pollution. Al Gore convinced all of us to reduce our carbon footprints, right? Please allow me to encourage you to reduce your toxic emotional pollution footprint. In what ways am I advancing human kindness by muttering angry things about social contracts, or complaining about two people in love, or greeting my husband with frustration? Yes, you’re right. None of those sentiments advance human kindness. There is a great deal of hate floating around in the air, we can all do our part to limit our own toxic emotional output that condenses into the smog of nastiness.
There is a difference between the choice to not react to a minor inconvenience and to stay silent in the face of an intentional or malicious slight. I want to be clear that reducing our toxic emotional pollution footprints is not the same as becoming a passive doormat to hurtful or abusive behavior. Appropriate assertion of self-worth and respect is not mutually exclusive to the practice of non-reaction to daily annoyances. The art is in identifying the difference and asking ourselves, “is what I’m about to say useful? Does it help restore human kindness or does it float right into that murky emotional smog?”