At first I thought I would join them, but the two of them looked like they were having an intimate conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt. Then, when I passed, what I heard sounded more like a fight and I didn’t want to get involved. I did not do my best.
Later, I felt guilty that I hadn’t stopped and asked if I could sit down. I wish I had joined them right away. I might have helped.
The two women involved—I’ll call them Norma and Carol—weren’t friends, exactly, but they were supposed to be on the same team, a volunteer group dedicated to maintaining and beautifying the neighborhood. I’m on that team, too.
Carol was the new girl. She was having trouble fitting in, and Norma tried hard to help her become part of the group. Carol needed someone on her side because she put people off, and Norma quietly stood up for her.
Norma, who made many of her contributions under the radar, was known for selfless service, knowledge, ability, and a good eye for the lovely and the practical. She was a long-term volunteer, maybe 20 years? I’m not sure, but a lot.
Carol was the newest comer to the community. She was invested in tending and beautifying the surroundings, too, and she had creative ideas, but rather than talking about them or making suggestions, she often just went ahead and did them, with no regard for how her actions might affect others. That antagonized people.
I overheard Carol tell Norma, “I can’t believe how shabby everything looks”—ignoring, or perhaps not seeing or not valuing, Norma’s never-ending work. They were sitting in the garden Norma had planted and tended.
Norma listened politely. That’s her. She listens, thinks things over, and tries to find the good. But her feelings were hurt.
Later, Norma and I talked, and I saw she was upset.
“The worst thing,” Norma said, “was that Carol didn’t even seem to know who I am. I’m a hard worker. I’ve given many years to this project, but Carol thinks I’m lazy and incompetent. She was so angry, I started to wonder about myself. Maybe I am incompetent! Maybe I’m just no good.”
I gave her a hug.
Individually and collectively, we need to learn when and how to speak, listen, and get along with others, and especially how not to take things personally.
“You know how they say everybody is a critic, Norma?” I said. “You just ran into a specialist. Don’t take it personally; Carol is really talking about herself. I think life has been hard on her lately.”
Norma is the kind of person who picks up on things, the thoughts and feelings of the people around her. It’s a gift, but it makes her vulnerable. Sometimes the feelings of others come into her head so loud she can’t hear her own thoughts. But she’s no pushover, either, and when she recovers from Carol’s poorly chosen words, she will push right back.
Carol’s ideas are brilliant sometimes, but her manner can be offensive. She assumes she will not be heard, so she uses strong language to make people pay attention—but instead they shut her out. People don’t listen to her because she riles them up and they can’t hear what she says; they hear only how she says it.
Individually and collectively, we need to learn when and how to speak, listen, and get along with others, and especially how not to take things personally, as written by Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements.
The “four agreements” are:
- Be impeccable with your word: Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
- Don’t take anything personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
- Don’t make assumptions: Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
- Always do your best: Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
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