It’s Me, Not You: The Mindfulness Habit That Has Made Me Happier and Nicer
“Oh, and I fed your kids dinner.”
My next door neighbour stands in his doorway with a proud grin on his face while my two youngest sons put on their shoes. I’ve come to take them home, where their older brother, their father and an oven-roasted fish supper are waiting.
And just like that, an indignant energy in my chest rushes to my head, through my arms and down my legs. A barrage of possible responses flood my brain. Which delicious self-righteous line of objection to choose?
But I’ve trained myself to pause, to take a breath and think before speaking in such situations. And sure enough, a few seconds later, I remember to notice. In this case, I notice that I’ve been triggered. Greatly. Outrageously. But still, I remember my commitment to myself and sigh. No matter how obviously right I am, I now have a protocol for times like these.
If I accomplished one thing on my recent professional gap year, it’s been internalizing this mindfulness habit: noticing whenever I get triggered and immediately shifting my focus from the offending body and on to myself.
In other words, I ALWAYS assume it’s me.
At first, I went around observing myself like some funny scientist or documentarian. Cut off sharply in traffic, I’m feeling indignant.
But very quickly something shifted. I began to notice a second, more subtle emotion lurking beneath the initial one. I’m a good driver! Really, I am! Not one of those slowpokes who impede the flow of traffic!
Sometimes I could laugh at myself and let go of the incident. Who cares what some yahoo in a souped up German car thinks of my driving?
More often than not, however, that deeper feeling turned out to be a signpost pointing me towards an area that needed work. As a Canadian expat living in southern Turkey, I still struggle with the local attitude towards visiting. It is not at all uncommon, for example, for an entire family to stop by unannounced on a Sunday afternoon.
For years I focused on how inconsiderate this was. After I started examining my triggers, I realized I was insecure about my abilities as a hostess, the messy state of my house, the absence of baked treats. That in a society of Mediterranean extraverts, I felt shame for just wanting to laze on the sofa and read a book for a few hours, for wanting to be alone. The toughest realization? That I already resented my own children and husband for keeping me on my feet all weekend, that I wasn’t carving out enough time for myself, and that I was blaming our guests.
It took a few weeks to unpack all that, but the alternative would have been to continue to turn away visitors, much to my Turkish husband’s disappointment and discomfort; only occasionally accepting guests but then with minimal civility and certainly no joy.
Shifting my focus means I no longer react to triggers, which I now realize are my subconscious playing a grand game of smoke and mirrors, a a brilliant decoy to keep my attention away from what’s really going on. And just to be clear, this doesn’t mean I don’t hold others to high standards. If someone really is a jerk, then I address that calmly, and in a way that solves the problem. But this is about being less reactive, more intentional; and it’s about making my triggers work for me.
In the case of my oblivious neighbours, I had let my boys go when four-year-old Arda came calling at 6pm. I hadn’t walked next door with the boys, said a quick hello to the parents, warned them the kids could only stay a half hour, we’d be having supper as soon as my husband came home. Instead, I chose to steal a half hour for myself with The Goldfinch. And if I’m really honest, I knew deep down there was a chance they’d feed my kids something that would spoil their appetites.
So the real takeaway here, if I want to avoid getting this upset again and maintain good relations with these neighbours, is to be more proactive, to communicate clearly, and to not leave things up to chance.
Or, if I do, then to be willing to roll with whatever happens as a result.