A client told me about an experience with her husband. He’s Hungarian, and apparently Europeans like to snack in the middle of the night. Not a ‘take something from the fridge’ type of snack but full-fledged bread, cheese, hot salami and sliced tomato snack. The snack is not the problem. Even the act of snacking in the middle of the night is not the problem. It’s the mess left behind that was the foundation of her complaint that day.
My client, Daria*, considered this behaviour to be a personal attack against her. It was as though he did it on purpose just to piss her off, leaving the mess for her to always clean up. She was telling herself stories: He doesn’t respect me; he thinks I’m lazy; he leaves this for me because he thinks it’s the wife’s duty. I challenged her thinking.
“Who,” I asked her, “are other people in your life who his general behaviour reminds you of?” Without pause, she replied, her mother was the same as him. I probed. More importantly, it was the way Daria reacted to his actions that were the same as Daria’s reactions to her mother’s actions when she was a child.
You see, we know that our actions are our responsibility, but what you may not know is that your reactions are also your responsibility.
Daria doesn’t need to respond to her husband’s mess with the feeling he’s doing it on purpose to make her life difficult. Her reaction is her decision. I asked her what his actions would mean if she was not part of the story. Immediately Daria was able to see that her husband wasn’t thinking about the impact of his actions on anyone else at all. He was only concerned with his immediate need for a midnight snack.
Daria’s reaction to her husband’s actions is an example of what we perceive is what we project onto a set of circumstances.
Let’s delve a little deeper here.
Remember how in The NLP Communication Model I wrote about the approximated 11 billion bits per second of information our mind is processing every second? Recall too, how we sort that information and filter it through our meta-programs & strategies, what we’ve learned from past experiences, our beliefs, values, memories and our prior decisions about how the world works?
Well, Daria’s reaction to her husband’s actions were a perception she projected on the event based on this filtering process. Her unconscious mind automatically recalled how she used to react to her mother’s actions, and not surprisingly, her actions with her husband were the same. He reminds Daria of her mother. Daria’s unconscious mind has set up filters to process information that remind her of her mother and she automatically reacts the same way.
In order for Daria to be at cause for the solution to her problem, she needs to take a step back from the set of circumstances and remove herself from the story just as I did in coaching her.
She came back to me the following week with a new resolve. She chose each morning, upon seeing the mess, whether it was really about her and whether it was her responsibility to clean it up. Just taking a moment to stop and decide what to do meant that Daria no longer took the mess as a personal attack. This is true in every action we’re reacting to.
This doesn’t let Daria’s husband off the hook for being an unfair person to live with, it just controls how Daria feels. And that’s the key. Daria is in control of her emotions.
What we project onto others is precisely based on what we perceive because that is how our filters work. They’re based on a lifetime of the processing of billions upon billions of bits of information. The only way to counteract this perception is to challenge the action by asking, what am I perceiving that makes this personal for me?
Keep in mind too, that in actions where you’re being verbally or physically attacked for no apparent reason, you’re still responsible for your reaction to their actions. This is a harder pill to swallow for people who have been in abusive relationships or who’ve experienced child abuse, for example.
To be clear, I am not saying you asked for it nor deserved it. However, if you’re still reacting to their actions the same way, therefore remaining at the effect of their actions, you are not being at cause and therefore will not be able to change the projection you’ve perceived.
For all circumstances, we can decide how to react. I am not suggesting it’s easy, nor will it be immediate, but with self-awareness, coaching and social experimentation, you can change how you react to others actions.
* Not her real name of course.