The call to action Mahatma Gandhi put forth when he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” is inspiring and uplifting, but how do we actually do it? Does it mean that we need to change our entire life and become a peace activist like Gandhi? Or are smaller actions equally as valid to be counted among being the change? How each person decides to be that change can, and will be, as different as snowflakes. There will be no two alike.
Another way I like to view this is through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s saying, “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.” This reminds us that the most important place to begin doing anything is with ourselves. It doesn’t matter if our neighbour doesn’t recycle or chooses to abuse their body with drugs and alcohol. What matters is if we ourselves are doing the same or worse. We cannot control our neighbour, but we can control ourselves (and if you say you can’t control yourself, I promise you can. I used to think I couldn’t, but I was wrong. Keep reading and I’ll explain more.) We have many more Self Help Articles Now Available.
The final show of the long running The Oprah Winfrey Show recently aired. Oprah shared many things that she had learned over the course of those years. One of these points resonates very clearly with Gandhi’s and Goethe’s sayings. Oprah reflected on the behaviour of guests in the early years of the show. These guests often had something in common: they typically talked about how someone in their immediate family, an ex-spouse or ex-partner, or quite possibly best friend, had ruined their life in some way. An unsuspecting guest was often brought onto the show to find out a shocking fact, like the guest’s best friend was having an affair with her husband. Shock value and drama seemed to rule the choice of guest to bring on.
These people were looking externally for the source of all of their problems. Oprah said on her finale, “Here’s what I learned from all of that, besides not to do that anymore: Nobody but you is responsible for your life.” I know from personal experience how hard it is to look in the ‘mirror’ and realize that I myself am the real source of all my problems. Having someone else take responsibility for your life is much easier than taking responsibility for yourself. It’s easier to retain an image of yourself that is untarnished; you remain the faultless friend or partner because it was the other person who damaged you (I couldn’t have done any damage, it was them!) I don’t know a person who hasn’t done this to some extent. (It can also be known as ‘passing the buck’.)
However, while taking an honest look in the mirror is hard, it is also incredibly liberating. It is liberating because once you can admit a habit to yourself, you are able to start identifying where and how it occurs, and you can start to take the steps necessary to change yourself. Imagine for a moment the best archer in the world is standing in front of you. She draws back the bow, lets the arrow fly, and gets a perfect bulls-eye. Now, the archer puts on a blindfold. Hand her the bow and arrow and ask her to shoot again. Will she get a bulls-eye? No. The archer will be lucky to hit the target. Like the archer, we don’t know what we want to change unless we can see it. Looking in the mirror is way we can hit our bulls-eye.
A good place to check if you blame external sources for your problems is to look at the statements you make about a situation. Here are three snippets of my interior dialogue I saw in the mirror: He was abusive; I was a victim. It’s not my fault I didn’t talk to her about her behaviour; there was never a good time. I tried to get the work done, but there wasn’t enough time.
When I took off my blindfold and looked at my interior dialogue again, I was surprised at what I discovered. My first statement was, ‘He was abusive; I was a victim.’ I came to the hard realization that I had chosen to stay in the abusive situation, and that by staying I was consenting to the abuse continuing. In my situation, looking in the mirror helped me to accept that the responsibility I hadn’t taken was my role in the abuse: I had not pointed out the abusive behaviour to the abuser, instead I had chosen to play the silent victim; I hadn’t asked anyone for help or even made the effort to find out what help was available; finally, for a long time I chose to stay in the relationship and suffer when it would have been possible to leave.
Accepting that I had not made any effort to change the situation in any way, and that I had allowed myself to be abused, was a very hard point to accept about myself. With gentle work I was able to accept my own responsibility, and what’s more, forgive myself for what I had put myself through. [If you are in an abusive relationship I encourage you to reach out. There are people waiting to help you.]
My second statement was, ‘It’s not my fault I didn’t talk to her about her behaviour; there was never a good time.’ The truth I had to accept is that this was a blatant excuse. My friend and I had identified behaviour patterns that were hurting our relationship. We agreed to give each other feedback when those patterns occurred to help each other change. I chickened out due to a deep fear of confrontations I was avoiding. I made excuses because I was afraid she would be angry with me for pointing out her personality ‘flaws’, which might lead to the friendship being terminated.
Instead of believing in the strength of the friendship, bolstered by the agreement we had made to give each other feedback, I made excuses to cover up my own fears and inactivity. What I saw in the mirror was that by failing to keep up my end of the bargain, I had let down my friend by not helping her work on herself when she had asked me to. I had also let myself down by allowing irrational fears dictate my behaviour, which strengthened the hold those fears had on me. This allowed me to work on my fear of confrontations, and slowly but surely be able to speak up in any situation I was or am faced with.
The final item of my interior dialogue was, ‘I tried to get the work done, but there wasn’t enough time’. In reality, at the point in my life when this dialogue was most common, I worked from home and had fallen into the habit of doing fun things first and then getting working later. Being a morning person I’d get up at 5:30am, but instead of working in the morning when I was fresh, I would often go out for coffee with friends or spend the day in the park and then start work late in the day. This caused me to work late into the night to get everything done, which then affected the quality of my work the next day. What a snowball effect!
What I saw in the mirror was the need to hold myself accountable for how I managed my time and the priority I gave to my responsibilities (oh, how the word accountable made me cringe back then). Once I admitted to myself only I was responsible for producing sub-quality work due to my schedule, I went through several systems to find one that would balance getting my work done with having fun. I finally settled on, and committed to, regular work hours starting in the morning with specific hours set aside for fun later in the day.
Then I instilled three habits, which I still have: I don’t answer the phone and my personal email is turned off while I work, and I time my tasks. Having my email off means I won’t be tempted to check it every five minutes, or get caught up reading any backlog. Before I started not answering my phone, I told friends to please leave a message during my ‘working hours’ and I’d call them back later (call display lets me take work calls). After a few complaints everyone came on board, and many started doing it themselves!
To time tasks I write the start and end time in a page-a-day diary. This way I can see how long I’ve been working before I take a break, or if I’ve taken too many breaks.
On days when I have difficulty concentrating (or just plain staying seated at my desk), I set a kitchen timer to 30 minutes and cannot stop working on the task before me until the timer rings. I keep scrap paper handy to jot down quick notes of anything non-task related that pops into my mind for later.
These are just three examples of how I found myself externally blaming others for problems I had in my life. Were they easy to look at and accept responsibility for? No. Was the reward of going through that process worth it? Every minute. Do I still externally blame others? Every now and then I do, however now I often catch myself as the thought is initially forming and am able to look again and see where I am avoiding responsibility.
Self-improvement is an ongoing process. Being gentle with yourself and remaining vigilant are key. I invite you to reflect back at the end of each day in the coming week. What situations did you find yourself in? Were there any negative situations? What did your internal monologue say (or is still saying)? Also think back to at least one situation in the past that still brings up a strong negative emotion, such as anger, disappointment, shame, or fear. What does your internal dialogue play for these situations? Did you avoid responsibility? Where and how? What changes can you make in your life today you learned from that situation?
Remember, the change can simply be in how you choose to react to or think about someone, it doesn’t have to be readily visible to anyone except you. We have many more Self Help Articles Now Available.