~ Someone I know has been side-railed by the pain of someone they love.
Indeed everyone I’ve ever known has at some point frozen up because they didn’t want to hurt someone else.
I have too. (Those of you who know me are whispering “understatement…”)
It’s because we want those people to be well and safe and to live in joy and peace.
~ But stuckness is a red flag
My experiences and values — as well as the stories, data, and theories I’ve collected from admirable folks both famous and not — tell me that when I find myself immobile, it’s a sign of some misperception on my part
That’s because truth always frees us up — reveals and allows our next move.
~ In these cases it’s best to look into reality. Very specifically
My friend and I decided to look at the lives of people we admire and care about and see if there has been any evidence of opposite scenarios in which:
–> Someone went ahead and lived the way they wanted even though they were pretty sure (and sad) that it would contribute to the unhappiness of someone they cared about… but in fact the other person ended up thriving.
We found so many examples that you might think I’m making it up, but likely, if you play along, you will find tons too.
Who: Spurned spouse stories alone numbered twelve before we forced ourselves to move on. Then we found examples of bosses, colleagues, parents, siblings, kids, other relatives, friends, heros, mentors, advisors, and entire religions, fields of work, and nations — basically every kind of entity you could care about — who recovered after a person disappointed them. Actually they not only recovered but ended up so much better off.
“Selfish Action”: The potentially wounding actions in our stories included severing ties with that person, quitting a job, declining a promotion, moving, not moving, changing hairstyles, coming out as something different (different religion, gender, sexual preference, political affiliation, and more) rearranging furniture, going sober, changing professions, quitting school, revealing personal details in writing a book or movie, being late, canceling plans or trips, spending money on something, getting a pet, taking a class, simply telling someone that their actions/words feel hurtful or distasteful, ceasing to do a behavior they no longer find enjoyable (cooking, driving…) doing any of the above to a third party that the person cares about(!), or some elaborate combo (e.g., becoming a male warrior to save your people and land when you should be a bride, as a certain Disney hero did).
Results: The other person ended up happier in these stories for different reasons — because they moved to a place they adored, found out they loved living alone, discovered the joys of living with friends rather than relatives, moved in to help with grandkids or aging relatives, reconnected with old friends, made all new kinds of (healthier or more fun for them) friends, ended up with a new romantic someone who was much more easily suited to them, got into therapy or otherwise looked at themselves or their past and healed/grew, adopted step-kids or -grandkids or horses or other animals, got rid of step-people or step-animals, developed an amazing hobby/interest/skill/job (this was most common — sometimes it was an old thing revisited, sometimes a new necessity, and sometimes something random), went back to school, changed careers, did surprisingly better financially without the other’s fiscal influence or take-charge-ness in their life, got spiritual, got sober, partied more, became a vegetarian, became self reliant, wrote a book (okay maybe about the person who wronged them but, still, it is a success!), traveled more, cozily nested in their home more, avoided a disaster they would’ve been in (like a plane crash, car crash, epidemic), simplified, and/or allowed themselves to live more largely. We knew more than one story of a person for each of these cases. Plus a few movie plots. Likely, you do too.
Quite often, it was hard not to conclude that the seemingly wounded person thrived not only DESPITE the “bad” situation but BECAUSE OF IT. We found ourselves thinking they might even say “thanks be that happened.”
Note: Stop here if you want to end on a happy note. It’s all the evidence of truth that you need. Only continue if you still believe, deep inside, that you should do something that makes you feel bad in order to avoid making another person unhappy.
–> Someone forced themselves to live in a way that didn’t feel good to them in order to avoid hurting someone they cared about… but in fact the other person ended up unhappy anyway.
Who: same categories of people as above.
“Selfless Actions”: Staying in a situation that feels bad or doing some new thing that feels bad or refusing some new situation that feels awesome. In our examples, the situations involved a marriage, friendship, job, home, town, style, lifestyle, and/or plan of some kind (involving travel, money, animals, children, and more).
Results: It was all too easy for us to find cases in which the “other person” seems to be unhappy no matter what happens, no matter how hard the selfless hero tried and continues to try to do the right thing. The results are homes, workplaces, books, friendships, clubs, political eras, etc that are lifeless. So many sages say happiness comes from inside us and each of us is responsible for figuring out how to be happy. The evidence we found really supported this as truth. It’s not an easy truth for those of us who want to consider the impact of our actions on those we love. If we could make them happy by our actions, we would. But sadly, we can’t.
–> Someone forced themselves to live in a way that didn’t feel good to them in order to avoid hurting someone they cared about… and they themselves ended up unhappy.
We did find sad cases of chronic loneliness, stress, bitterness, energy loss, or just sadness on the part of the selfless hero.
–> And what’s even sadder is the surprising revolution we had: there are cases we found where the selfless hero’s own decreased happiness led them to engage in behaviors that seemed to contribute to the other person’s unhappiness… further down the road: illness, meanness, adultery, substance abuse, withdrawal, accident-proneness, poor job performance or job loss, or simply a constricted way of living and/or inability to support and appreciate the other person. That person who they were originally trying to protect felt wounded, just at a later date.
I don’t like reporting these results. They’re sad.
–> Less catastrophically and seemingly more commonly, we see cases where the hero continues to behave selflessly and things go reasonably well — it seems they did protect another, and they live a decent life, but at the end of their life they feel regret.
This famous blog post went viral and led to a super lovely video (I love watching and listening to this woman talk — I think it’s really worth 16 minutes out of your day) and book because of the ubiquity and poignancy of this scenario.
I’m not saying you should live as a selfish egomaniac. We are talking about you living as your heart desires — and your heart is good and true and there is no danger of it wanting to be a bad person. Psychopathic, narcissistic, sociopathic, Machiavellian behavior does not make its host feel good. Tune into your body compass (try here or here or the Martha Beck book Finding Your Own North Star). If you’re still unsure, get someone to help you figure out this and other ways your heart communicates with you. Because I am convinced that the beauty of our hearts means the following is true:
“If you truly live as your heart desires, it’s best for other people and for our world.”
Bonus: a gorgeous, fierce horse may join you for the adventure…
* Mulan. But then you already knew that. Click and sing along!