“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.”
I’ve seen his quote or others like it all over the Web recently. I guess the sentiment is supposed to be all Zen like. It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment without sounding like a jerk. But I’m going to disagree, so be kind.
Like so many things I run across in life and on the Web, the sentiment gets stuck on the wrong point. It gets stuck worrying about someone else’s situation or behavior.
In this quote the idea is that you don’t know a person’s struggles. If you can’t know or don’t know, then what does it matter? Why is an acknowledged ignorance part of the equation at all? In the context of being kind, why is something you can’t know even being taken into consideration? So I’ve amended the quote to take the focus off other people’s situations and behaviors and put it where it belongs. On you.
Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.”
If you want to be kind the rest doesn’t matter. Or perhaps you don’t even need to be kind, just don’t get worked up and be all judgmental. That’s really what we are looking for here, isn’t it?
I think it pays to go back to what I think is the root of this sentiment. I think it comes from a sentiment like “Don’t get worked up and annoyed by other people’s behaviors because you don’t know what they are going through.” Again you can’t really argue with that. It’s coming from a well-intended place.
I think the sentiment should stop after “Don’t get worked up.” First, because if you go past this you keep the focus on things you don’t control. And second because it’s trite to think that all annoying behavior can be justified. Sorry. Some people are jerks and self-centered. The only excuse they have is that it has become habit, not because of some tragic event in their life.
So to me the sentiment should be “Life will be annoying at times, you need to learn to let it go.” Since we’ve established that we can’t know a person’s motivations and history, it needs to be solely about our own behavior, not anyone else’s.
So what we really need to do is to learn to let it go. Easier said than done for sure. So here’s my take on getting started.
Dummies Guide to Letting Go: Five Steps
You have to learn to let go. You hear people say this all the time. Hell, I say this all the time. But how do you learn to let go? That’s a fair and good question.
We don’t have nearly enough conversation about the process of letting go, about the skills of letting go. You don’t go from reacting to everything to not reacting to everything with the flip of a switch. It’s like telling someone they need to lose weight: it’s not real advice, even if they agree it doesn’t just happen, it’s probably annoying, and everybody is different.
Some people who know they need to let go take retreats or take up meditation. But not everyone can afford that, not everyone is comfortable with that and not everyone is aware of these as options. We need some simple options.
So what if we looked at “Letting Go” in the same way we look at losing weight. What if we looked at it as a problem to solve and as a need to change a habit? Look at “not being able to let go” as a bad habit. Here’s five simple if not easy steps.
1. Effort and Desire
You have to start with the question “Do I really want to change?” Just like losing weight. You have to want it. Effort and change will be required, mental and emotional. And then the desire to not obsess over things. That’s the ticket. The desire to be free from forces outside your control that cause you anger or annoyance or judging or any other unpleasant emotion.
If you’re not ready to make an effort, that’s OK. Everyone’s not ready. And if you have no desire then you’re all good and don’t need to go on reading. There’s no point.
2. Habit and Skill
Begin to understand that your reactions to other people’s behaviors are a matter of habit. Mastering habits is mastering a skill. Habits are a set of neural pathways that fire when certain conditions are met. These neural pathways need to be changed or offset. Start by understanding habits. Habits are comprised of cues, routines and rewards. Understanding how those work is the first step because it’s hard to change what you don’t understand. The good thing is that it’s pretty straight forward, still takes effort, but the knowledge is approachable.
Here’s a teaser. How Habits Work by Charles Duhigg. He’s also the author of “The Power of Habit,” the best place I have found for gaining a deeper understanding. Knowledge is your friend here. Get the book here. It has three main sections. You just need to read the first section.
The key point here is that habits have triggers, behaviors and rewards and you can learn skills to affect them.
3. A Single Step
It starts with a single step. Start with one behavior and its cue or trigger. That will be plenty. This allows you to create a space in which you can be successful. Prove to yourself that you can change one thing.
Now you’ve picked the behavior you want to change. Good. Let’s say it is getting angry at other drivers in traffic. Now you have to begin to ask yourself some questions.
What is the cue or trigger? Let’s narrow it down to one trigger because there may be many. Let’s say it is when someone cuts you off. Focus just on that.
Now what is your behavior? Perhaps you bang on the wheel. Perhaps you swear. Perhaps you talk as if the person can hear you calling them names. Let’s say you talk as if they can hear you chewing them out.
Now what is the reward? Based on our trigger and behavior it is probably an adrenaline rush. Energy is coursing through you, you are passionate and alive.
Of course, you are passionate and alive and filled with negative energy and chemicals that cause physical stress and damage. And then the adrenaline passes and you are spent and angry. Then that’s not so awesome. This is the habit loop we want to change.
4. Changing the Habit.
Now you’ve identified the pieces of the puzzle. You know the trigger so keep an eye out for it.
Next, the behavior or routine that is triggered needs to change, and it needs to change to something that still gives you a positive reward. That’s going to be different for everyone so I can’t give you a definitive answer. I can give you some examples though.
I decide that instead of ranting at the driver who cuts me off I’m going to laugh. Just laugh. Because laughing feels good. It decreases stress. Laughing instantly reduces the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and dopamine, and increases the production of serotonin and endorphins which reduce effects of stress. In fact check out this and all the other wonderful benefits of laughing here.
Or perhaps instead I will employ a more lighthearted method, the Dr. Evil Zip It method. See Exhibit A: Zip It. It works like this:
Someone just cuts me off. I start to rant, “You’re a total mor… Zip it! Where did you…. Zip! I can’t … Zip!” And on until you wander off to your next thought.
Which should distract you and hopefully make you laugh or at least smile. Again the obvious rewards of serotonin release.
Or perhaps I could go with a more serious method from meditation practices.
Someone cuts me off. I start to react but instead focus on my breathing, the physical act and sensation of breathing, even taking a deep breath. Deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. This is because when you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. The brain then sends this message to your body. Check out some breathing techniques here or the many other breathing techniques you can find on the Web.
5. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Keep at it. It takes time to build new neural pathways. Be patient. You didn’t build the habit overnight. It won’t go away overnight. But eventually it will become the new habit and you won’t have to think about it. Then you can move on to the next trigger, behavior, reward. The added benefit here is that not only have you changed a habit, you have introduced a process on changing habits to your brain that it’s now familiar with. You’ve created a skill.
Sure, sometimes you’ll fail. That’s OK. That’s why it’s called practice. Keep at it.
Things to remember
Sometimes people think letting go means compromising or being taken advantage of. It does not. It pays to think about it in these ways:
- Letting go doesn’t mean you don’t care
- Letting go doesn’t mean the other person wasn’t in the wrong
- Letting go doesn’t mean you can’t address it at some point
Letting go instead means being in control, control of what you’re thinking and consequently what you’re feeling. And how cool is that? Pretty cool.
So there you are. Be kind by letting go.