You Can’t Change Others, but You Can Change Your Seat

Photo taken through slight cover of leaves shows smiling person sitting alone in parkThere were three sisters: May, Eileen, and Rose. May and Rose were best friends forever, but only with each other, not with Eileen. Eileen, long considered the “weird” one, was always left out. She was more down-to-earth and artistic, but all three sisters were talented in different ways. Nevertheless, Rose and May often ganged up on Eileen and bullied her, and their mother never intervened.

They were part of a large family that had its problems. The girls’ mother had decided her own sisters, cousins, etc.—most of her family, in fact—didn’t cut it; they just weren’t worth her time. May and Rose agreed, but Eileen liked them and, maybe because of the way her sisters treated her, tried extra hard to make friends with her mother’s extended family. And she succeeded. Her other relatives liked her very much. Once, her cousin asked her how come she was so nice and her sisters and mother were so mean.

Many of us have relatives who make us feel really bad, who don’t respect us, who we wouldn’t even talk to if they weren’t our cousins or sisters or whatever. Of course, you’ll meet one another at various family affairs, and you have to be polite, but how do you stand it? An afternoon with some people can make you ready to hide under your bed and never come out, you feel so terrible about yourself.

Notice I said, “You feel so terrible about yourself.” You feel terrible because of the nasty way they have treated you. They, the aggressors, are the ones who should feel terrible. Why take their nastiness inside? It doesn’t belong to you, after all; it belongs to the person giving it to you. Don’t pick it up. Don’t own it.

How else can you defend yourself? This is what Eileen did: She and her sisters were waiting for a plane together; everybody was pretty tired and bored, but Rose and May took advantage of the downtime to take their frustration out on Eileen as they sat together eating sandwiches. In the past, Eileen would have eaten in silence and choked down her food. This time she decided to eat somewhere else. She stood up and moved to another seat where she could eat her lunch in peace.

There are people who feel so bad about themselves they can only feel okay if they hand those bad feelings off to someone else. That’s how they get rid of their bad feelings and feel good—they make you feel lousy about yourself, and then they can feel better. Instead of taking responsibility for their feelings, they simply pass them on.

She still felt bad about how her sisters treated her, but she realized one truth: That’s how they roll; she is not going to change them. But what she could change was her reaction to them. Eileen’s next task was to take their criticisms of her as expressions of how they felt about themselves. She had to remember that what they were saying had nothing to do with her; it was about them. So her new mantra went, “It’s not about me.” And then she had to drop it—just ditch the poisonous feelings her sisters gave her.

There are people, May and Rose among them, who feel so bad about themselves they can only feel okay if they hand those bad feelings off to someone else. That’s how they get rid of their bad feelings and feel good—they make you feel lousy about yourself, and then they can feel better. Instead of taking responsibility for their feelings, they simply pass them on. They are all about, “I’m okay and you’re not,” like the mean kids in high school.

Which reminds me: When I was in college, there were two cafeterias: a large one and a small one. I was younger than everybody else—I started college when I was 16, and I felt scared and out of place. At first I ate in the large cafeteria, but it turned out there were some mean kids who saw how timid I felt and bullied me. I wanted to be friends, so I took it for a while, but when I finally had enough I moved over to the small cafeteria and made good friends with people there.

I didn’t just change my seat. I moved to another room entirely.

Do what you need to do.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 17 comments
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  • erin

    erin

    August 25th, 2016 at 10:24 AM

    What a powerful article.
    I think that there are probably a lot of times when I think that other people are doing me wrong and yet I don’t make the effort to change my scenery, hoping that they will become different people.
    Good life lesson is always that it is impossible to change other people
    But never impossible to change yourself.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 25th, 2016 at 11:40 AM

    Well said, Erin.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Nell

    Nell

    August 25th, 2016 at 1:42 PM

    My sister and I have never gotten along mainly because I am sure that my parents love her more than they love me.
    I know that you are probably thinking that this is just childish rhetoric, and that no parent ever favors one child over another.
    Sadly in our case I am pretty certain that it’s true and that has always taken a toll on the relationship that she and I have with each other.
    She is always content to hold it over my head that they do more for her and always will.
    I guess the one saving thing is that as an adult I really don’t need that much from them anymore but it would be nice to feel like they cared for me.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    August 25th, 2016 at 4:43 PM

    Nell, some parents do favor one child over another, that’s just a sad fact, and I’m sorry that you have had to live with it.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    August 26th, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    Why does it always seem that there is one person who has to be willing to do all the changing and the other is let off scott free without ever having to change a thing?

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 26th, 2016 at 1:23 PM

    Good question, Gabriel. Not everybody has the ability to change. Irritating to those of us that do though, isn’t it?
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Gabriel

    Gabriel

    August 26th, 2016 at 1:46 PM

    You know you are so right. That ability to be flexible and open to change I would say does not come naturally to all people, but do you really believe they just don’t possess the ability to do it or they have no real concept that this is something that they should even consider
    Narcissistic maybe?

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    August 26th, 2016 at 5:06 PM

    Narcissistic yes, immature too, you’ve got the idea. Also frightened.
    Take care,
    Lynn

  • Luna

    Luna

    August 27th, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    hmmm just because you change your own seat in no way means that you are changing what others think.

    but it is true that if you aren’t so close to them anymore then maybe you don’t have to let what they say bother you quite as much

  • jacob

    jacob

    August 29th, 2016 at 8:47 AM

    at least there are other people in the family you can turn to

  • Isabelle

    Isabelle

    August 29th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Believing the things about yourself that other people are saying is allowing them to have complete and total control over you.

    I want to be in charge of my life and how I feel, not let that be dependent on what other people say or do.

  • TinsleyKate

    TinsleyKate

    August 30th, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    But you do have to recognize that much of this is about being PROACTIVE and not reactive and there are some people who have no concept of how to live like that.

  • Creed

    Creed

    August 31st, 2016 at 11:30 AM

    I could be wrong but I kind of feel like maybe more women have family issues with people that they don’t like than men do. I don’t know, maybe it is just the women in my family but I think that the men are sometimes better able to not take things personally and we kind of let things roll off our backs a little more. I am not being sexist but I just think that the way women feel sometimes runs deeper or something than what men allow themselves to feel.

  • Kat

    Kat

    September 9th, 2016 at 6:34 PM

    I’m going through this right now! My brother has always been an insensitive bully, and he really broke the camel’s back recently. I was growing a raspberry bush, and one day he thought it was ugly and chopped a lot of it away. I’ve tried telling him my feelings in a kind manner before, but he keeps doing awful things. This time, I was really honest with how I felt, and kinda yelled at him. I know that I may never change his behavior, but it felt great to really be honest with how I felt. I demanded an apology, and got one. There may be situations where we do need to defend ourselves, and that the family bullies may take advantage of our decision to calmly walk away.

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    September 10th, 2016 at 11:05 AM

    Well done, Kat!

  • carrol v.

    carrol v.

    November 6th, 2017 at 8:41 AM

    Thank you for this very powerful piece that resonates with me!! Sadly, I have had to change the scenery, for my own well being.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    November 6th, 2017 at 10:55 AM

    It’s a sad experience Carrol– but it sounds like you handled it well.
    Take care,
    Lynn

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