So many hours of our lives are wasted worrying about what other people think.
How many times have you had an interaction with someone and immediately wondered, “Did I do something wrong? Are they upset at me? If I do this thing for this person, will it bother this other person?” These worry cycles are counter-productive. Still, our brains can’t resist. They’re happy to keep us awake at night spinning on these thoughts.
About a year ago, I discovered the power of regular meditation. It really helped me change my mindset, react more thoughtfully, and generally be more calm. Yet, even regular meditation did not disrupt these all-powerful worry cycles for me. Eventually, I realized this was a problem I couldn’t simply meditate away.
The answer finally came to me in a book called The Courage To Be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. The authors wrote this book to share the ideas of a psychotherapist named Alfred Adler. The foundational idea in Adlerian psychology is that interpersonal relationships are the root of all problems. Adler teaches that our conflicts in life and work are simply conflicts of expectations with others. He prescribes that we should adjust expectations to free ourselves from the chains of each other’s plans.
Although it seemed like an oversimplification, I was immediately attracted to the concept. I knew relationships were a major source of my worries. I’ve read the book several times over, and it has had a profound effect on my life.
Let’s explore a few of the core ideas that really stuck with me.
If you look at the majority of conflicts within relationships, they come down to one person expecting the other to do something, and being upset when they don’t do it. This causes pain on both sides, whether it be disappointment or guilt.
Adlerian psychology states that each of us is responsible for our own tasks, and these conflicts are a result of us being confused about who owns which task. To solve this, one must go about a ‘separation of tasks’ to recognize which task they actually own and need to work on. The rest, they let go.
Example: You are worried someone doesn’t like you. You keep doing things in hopes that they like you, but even then you can’t actually be sure they’ll like you. Still, you keep doing them anyway, because you are afraid of what might happen if they dislike you (disappointment, anger, confrontation, etc.).
This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, you keep doing things you don’t want to do, living a life you don’t want to live, solely to try and please someone but with no guarantee of results. Secondly, this doesn’t scale. Add a few other people who you want to please, and you can be guaranteed that eventually you will have multiple people who want different things. Thus, disappointing people is inevitable.
In this example, the separation of tasks would result in you realizing that liking or not liking you is their task, not yours. It is out of your control, and thus is not something you should be actively working on and worrying about. Discard it, and move on.
Putting aside the expectations and goals others have for us for a second — what about our own goals? We often forget to even think about them, let alone prioritize them. How can we have space to do any of the things we expect for ourselves, if we are constantly chasing approval of others? Discarding others’ tasks is the first step, but spending time on our own tasks is the crucial follow-up.
If you don’t live for yourself, who will?
One of the most powerful tenets of Adlerian psychology is the power to change our interpretations of reality. Although we cannot change the past, Adler notes we can change what meaning we assign to past events. This story from the book really drove the point home for me:
PHILOSOPHER: Have you ever drunk well water that has just been drawn?
YOUTH: Well water? Um, it was a long time ago, but there was a well at my grandmother’s house in the countryside. I remember enjoying the fresh, cold water drawn from that well on a hot summer’s day.
PHILOSOPHER: You may know this, but well water stays at pretty much the same temperature all year round, at about sixty degrees. That is an objective number—it stays the same to everyone who measures it. But when you drink the water in the summer it seems cool and when you drink the same water in the winter it seems warm. Even though it’s the same water, at the same sixty degrees according to the thermometer, the way it seems depends on whether it’s summer or winter.
YOUTH: So, it’s an illusion caused by the change in the environment.
PHILOSOPHER: No, it’s not an illusion. You see, to you, in that moment, the coolness or warmth of the well water is an undeniable fact. That’s what it means to live in your subjective world.
Our subjective perception of the world not only influences how we see the world, it is our world.
We can influence the present (and future) by changing how we view the past. This is a superpower that is vastly underestimated. I was able to apply this lesson to my life almost immediately, and to my surprise, it had a dramatically positive impact.
A while ago, I found myself feeling stuck at work, and increasingly overwhelmed and upset with the situation. I decided to try and apply the learnings I just had from the book around altering subjective realities. Initially, I was quite skeptical. I wondered if this was simply an act of self-delusion, and wasn’t sure what good it would do. I gave it a try anyway.
I ran an experiment on myself. Instead of my usual internal dialogue discussing the woes of my workplace, I would assign a positive meaning to events going on at work.
I quickly discovered it exposed a lot of positive attributes of my past and surroundings I had overlooked. I realized I had been enjoying great work/life balance, working with people I respected, and had unique learning opportunities. Even though I had been aware of these before, my intention around focusing on them made them much more… real.
I found myself feeling lighter, more energized, and breathing easier. I was spending far less time and energy ruminating. Even though nothing in my work environment had changed, my viewpoint of it had shifted and thus my subjective reality changed. In turn, I was able to spend this extra energy on more enjoyable and positive endeavors, which yielded even more joy, and the effect was cyclic.
Changing your mindset can change your world.
You’ve probably heard someone use the phrase “Sorry, I was just overwhelmed by emotion” while apologizing for an outburst. If you consider this phrase, it’s suggesting that anger itself can sometimes take control of your actions. In essence, emotions would override your ‘rational thought’ control center. Is this true?
We still don’t know a lot about the brain, and there are many theories that could argue different perspectives on this question. That said, consider this story:
One day, a mother and daughter were quarreling loudly. Then, suddenly, the telephone rang. “Hello?” The mother picked up the receiver hurriedly, her voice still thick with anger. The caller was her daughter’s homeroom teacher. As soon as the mother realized who was phoning, the tone of her voice changed and she became very polite. Then, for the next five minutes or so, she carried on a conversation in her best telephone voice. Once she hung up, in a moment, her expression changed again and she went straight back to yelling at her daughter.
What just happened? If anger was an emotion that took over the mother, how was she able to control it so elegantly to handle the call? Further, how was she able to “re-generate” the anger and resuming shouting within an instant? Adler argues this is an example proving anger is a tool the mother is using (to try and achieve the goal of overpowering her daughter).
Many of us can recall times where we were hurt, and resorted to anger as our default tool of choice, only to find that anger made the situation worse. My personal experience is that almost every time anger is used, it fails to achieve the desired effect, and inadvertently creates new problems. So, not only is anger a tool of manipulation, it is also incredibly ineffective. Adler argues we should discard this tool, just as we discard others’ tasks.
When I first considered what would happen if I simply stopped “using anger”, I immediately worried about the consequences. How would people know that something wasn’t right? How would we express our frustrations about social or political injustices? This nuance is touched on briefly in the book:
There is a difference between personal anger (personal grudge) and indignation with regard to society’s contradictions and injustices (righteous indignation). Personal anger soon cools. Righteous indignation, on the other hand, lasts for a long time. Anger as an expression of a personal grudge is nothing but a tool for making others submit to you.
Still, it can still be infuriating to be told “stop being angry”. Our natural response is, of course, to immediately become angry. But that reaction, too, is a trained response to use anger as a tool to respond to the remark. A lifetime of conditioning has perhaps led many of us to default to using anger in times of stress.
The key is to pause and reflect on what goal we are actually trying to achieve in the moment. By giving ourselves space to think about it, we finally have a chance to make a choice rather than letting acting on our instincts. When we do that, the right choice becomes obvious.
Anger is never the best tool for the job.
It’s clear that many of Adler’s ideas are centered around focusing on forward-focused goals, rather than looking deep into the past to find meaning. This belief runs in direct contradiction to the Freudian school of thought, which looks to an individual’s past to define their personality.
Adler notes, “The important thing is not what one is born with but what use one makes of that equipment.” While I don’t agree with every idea in the book, Adler gives us tools for hope. Even if we have encountered hardships, experienced trauma, the value of power to define our own world cannot be understated.
Further, I believe there is value in studying these ideas as an exercise in self-understanding. By understanding and liberating yourself, you heal the person you present to the world. In turn, you contribute to the work of healing the world.
Inevitably, making changes to adopt these techniques will encounter resistance. It can be a difficult path to tread, but can lead to liberation from the burden of infinite expectations. With this newfound freedom and space, we can finally live life on our own terms.
Freedom is hard to win, but it’s worth the fight.