It’s not all about me

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 14: It’s not all about me

Egocentric Bias

The root cause of the usual error is that we assume things about others based on our own internal perceptions, concepts, and experiences. In addition to causing the usual error, this causes another error: the egocentric bias. We know everything there is to know about our own actions and responses, so we mistakenly assume we’re responsible for the actions and responses of others. For instance, when someone we know is upset and we don’t know the cause, we’re more likely to think it’s because of something we did than to think it’s because of something completely unrelated.

Kyeli’s Story: The Urgent Email

One morning, I launched into an argument with Pace before she left for work. Later in the morning, I wrote her an email explaining to her the reason I’d been upset. It was a touchy subject for me, so I was a little nervous about sending the email. We do like to talk about things, though, so I sent it.

By lunchtime, I’d heard nothing from her. I was getting nervous.

By the time she came home, I was a huge mess of nerves. She came in and was grouchy and didn’t feel like talking about anything right away. We had dinner and watched an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while I worked myself into a frenzy.

Finally, she said she was feeling better, so I asked if we could talk. She said sure, so I asked if my email had upset her.

She looked puzzled, then laughed. “No! I meant to reply to you and tell you everything is totally fine, but I had a horrible day at work and was super busy and didn’t have any time to do anything but work all day!”

I’d gotten frantically worried over nothing because I spent the day thinking it was all about me, when really it wasn’t about me at all!

Another way this manifests is in the way we relate the events of our lives to ourselves. A car crashes on the highway, causing traffic to come to a standstill, and we say to ourselves, “Why did this have to happen to me?

Thinking of events only in terms of how they relate to us causes us to miss out on the bigger picture. If someone cuts us off on the road, we think, “What a jerk, cutting me off like that,” attributing malice or callousness to what could simply be mistake or necessity. We don’t think of the possibility that they simply missed us when checking their blind spot, or that they had to change lanes quickly to avoid someone suddenly slowing in their lane, or that some mechanical or medical condition may be impairing their driving.

This isn’t because of any moral flaw on our part; it’s an effect of our necessarily self-focused worldview. The bad news is that it tends to cause far more stress and disappointment than happiness. The good news is that we aren’t trapped by this! We can take steps to mitigate this bias and its effects on us. We can remind ourselves, “It’s not all about me.”

This phrase isn’t meant to chastise or diminish ourselves; it’s a reminder that even though your internal world is all about you, the external world is not. It reminds us to expand our view and look outside of our own scope so we can see things more clearly, improve our lives, and be happier.

Pace’s Story: Kyeli’s Kidney Stone

A few years ago, Kyeli suffered through a year of painful, debilitating, and frustrating medical difficulties. As a result, she built up a lot of residual anger, fear, pain, and bitterness that caused mood swings. She had occasional outbursts of sadness or rage.

When she had one of those outbursts around me, especially if it happened during a conversation, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that I must have done something to cause her sadness or upset — but it wasn’t true. Even if my words or actions happened to trigger an outburst, that didn’t mean I caused the outburst.

Reminding myself that it wasn’t all about me helped bring me to my senses when I felt like I was the cause of her emotions. If I had gotten stuck in feeling like it was about me, I would have been lost in a blamestorm and made the situation even more difficult for both Kyeli and myself. When I remembered that it wasn’t all about me, I managed to stay calm enough to support her.

Triggers and landmines are important examples of “it’s not all about me.” These are metaphors for our insecurities, our extreme emotional reactions to things, and our “hot-button” issues. Landmines are our deeply buried emotional issues that don’t surface on a regular basis. If you have a fear of spiders and your partner playfully pretends their hand is a spider, they may be surprised when you scream. Your partner has stepped on one of your landmines; they have accidentally triggered an extreme and unexpected emotional reaction.

Michelle and Anthony’s Example: It’s All About Me

When Michelle was young, her father went on a business trip and never came home. He ran off with another woman and abandoned Michelle completely. The trauma from this experience left Michelle with a severe abandonment trigger.

Today, Michelle’s husband Anthony has gone on a business trip alone. Though she is excited for the opportunities this trip gives him, she’s now feeling afraid that Anthony will abandon her because her fear has been triggered. She needs reassurance, so she calls him.

Michelle: “Hi! How are you doing, honey?”

Anthony: “I’m having a great trip! I’m having a lot of fun and enjoying myself a lot!”

Michelle: (holding back tears) “So you’re happier without me around, is that it?!”

Anthony: “What? Where did that come from? Why are you upset? You’re the one who wanted me to go on this trip!”

What happened here? Anthony responded genuinely, sharing his enthusiasm for his trip with Michelle. He didn’t have her insecurities on his mind. He accidentally stepped on her landmine, triggering her fear. She responded by lashing out. This is why we call them “landmines”: it can often feel like stepping on a landmine. We’re casually talking, and all of a sudden BOOM! There’s a huge explosion! We also call them “triggers” because any innocent word or phrase can trigger the insecurity and the resulting emotional explosion.

When dealing with landmines and triggers, it’s especially important to remember that it’s not about you. Anthony didn’t do anything wrong, and neither did Michelle. Michelle’s insecurity was triggered and she reacted emotionally to an issue that she finds scary and difficult. In these situations it’s hard not to take it personally, like Anthony did in the previous story. He responded defensively because he felt that Michelle had accused him of doing something wrong. However, that wasn’t Michelle’s intent. She expressed the emotion triggered by Anthony accidentally stepping on one of her landmines. If Anthony had recognized that Michelle had been triggered and felt afraid, the conversation might have gone differently.

Michelle and Anthony’s Example: It’s Not All About Me

Michelle: “Hi! How are you doing, honey?”

Anthony: “I’m having a great trip! I’m having a lot of fun and enjoying myself a lot!”

Michelle: (holding back tears) “So you’re happier without me around, is that it?!”

Anthony: “What?” (pauses for thought, realizes that he has accidentally stepped on one of Michelle’s landmines) “Not at all, sweetie! I’m sorry that this is triggery for you, and I’ll be happy to reassure you as much as you need.”

Once a landmine has been stepped on, it’s time to do damage control. Aid your partner and reassure them; we often need extra reassurance when our landmines explode. To aid yourself, remind yourself that you’ve done nothing wrong and remember that it’s not about you. This will help you be compassionate and open instead of defensive and upset.

We use “it’s not all about me” primarily in communication, but knowing that most things are generally not about you is useful in many other situations as well. When something happens and your initial reaction is one of self-blame or guilt, thinking it over with a broader perspective will help you discover whether it actually is about you. More often than not, you have little or nothing to do with any given situation, and you can save yourself a lot of frustration, stress, and guilt!

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