The answer to almost all of your questions related to contentment, happiness, and living your best life, is summed up in two words: Care less.
Not careless, as in “behave in a haphazard manner,” but care…less.
Before I continue, a quick aside…stop saying “I could care less,” when you are trying to convey to someone that you are bored, have no interest in what is happening, or are incapable of giving two blanks. If you COULD care less, then you care, because you have some still to give up. Once you reach the point where you COULDN’T care less you have stopped caring and have nothing at all left to surrender, for you have already allowed all caring to escape you. Please make proper adjustments moving forward…or don’t, I couldn’t care less.
Almost everyone’s hang ups in life, whether it be related to intimate relationships, friendships, finances, or even hobbies and interests, is that they care too much. “hang ups,” in this context is meant as a term that holds us back and keeps us from reaching our true full potential because we are “hung up,” on something that is, at best, distracting us, and literally, at worst, standing in the way of what we truly want and need.
What is it, you ask, that you care too much about? Other people…and their opinions, thoughts, judgments, and feelings. Get over that, and I promise you, you’ll be freed from the shackles that bind you.
In the military, there is a method known as “breaking.” A new recruit must first be broken as a human being so that he or she can then be rebuilt into an ideal soldier. This is what you must do to yourself if you want to feel absolute contentment; you must break yourself all the way down when it comes to caring about anyone else other than yourself. Once you do, you’ll find how easy it is to build yourself back up and learn the difference between caring FOR other people and ABOUT a very select few. That latter group will be your “inner circle,” and they will have to earn their way into the circle with each and every interaction you have with them, all of the time, every day. Everyone else gets to go to hell and have no space in your head or heart.
Too many people, sadly, have to start this process with total strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I know the feeling, but I haven’t felt it since I was 17 years old. When I see or hear about middle aged men and women being concerned with people they don’t know, and have never met, judging them for the items in their grocery cart, I feel nothing but pity for them. There’s a reason I mentioned being 17 the last time this was an issue for me…being self-conscious about the judgments of others that you don’t know is what happens in high school. In other words, it’s childish; and it’s time grow up.
The first time I went to a therapist I was convinced that when I walked through the mall with my girlfriend people were laughing at me, making fun of me, and wondering how and why such a beautiful girl was holding my hand. I had purchased my first brand new vehicle, with my own money; it was a Toyota Pick-up truck, (the last style before they made the Tacoma) and I should have been beaming with pride that I had accomplished that at the age of 17, but instead, I was convinced that every single person on the road looked at me in the driver’s seat and thought “well he clearly didn’t earn that, must be his dad’s truck.” These horrible voices of self-loathing were endless. It took only three sessions with my therapist before he was able to make me realize that it was very possible that the people I was so worried about were saying the exact opposite of my thoughts. Perhaps they were complimenting me on my gorgeous girlfriend or thinking how amazing it was that I had worked so hard at such a young age to afford my own brand new truck. Or maybe, they didn’t even notice that I was alive. He challenged me to notice how often I judged, thought about or cared how total strangers looked or acted and it dawned on me that most of the time, I barely even noticed their existence. Maybe life wasn’t all about me.
We ended after our sixth session, which was an hour of discussing the possibility that maybe my initial fears were true. Maybe other people were saying and thinking all of those horrible things about me. He made me feel it and relive it. He even played a recording of people I had never met saying things like “that Rob guy is a total fraud. What a joke. Loser.” To my recollection the recording had 5 or 6 different voices and went on for about 2 total minutes. When he stopped it, he just looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and waited…three seconds passed and I realized he was looking for a response so I gave it to him, verbatim: “What do I care? Who the fuck are they and why do they matter to me?” He smirked and said “exactly.” By the way, he was also a teacher at a local college and it turned out that those voices were some of his students who he had asked to say those things after using me as an example to his class of the type of patient they may see. He assured me that he had never identified me beyond my first name and I told him I was flattered which garnered a strong “huh?” from him. I remember saying “well, I’m either one of the best patients you’ve ever had or one of the most screwed up…in both cases I clearly stood out and made an impression and I’m good with that. He laughed, we shook hands, and I left a new man.
I often joke that he created a monster. He took a kid who on the outside appeared to have it all going on; I was a good student, popular, I had a job, I had a girlfriend, I had lots of friends, and I drove a new truck that I bought. On the inside, that kid didn’t believe that’s what other people were seeing AND he cared. In six sessions, I became whatever it is that I still am today. Some call it arrogant, others confident. I’m sure there are plenty of other adjectives for me as well…I just don’t care at all what they are or who is saying them.
Once you free yourself of writing your story for what total strangers are thinking about you, the actual hard work begins. Applying the same standard to family and friends, and most noteworthy, people you choose as romantic partners in life, is a much harder task, but absolutely necessary as quickly as possible. I have only a handful of shorts, pants and shirts that my wife doesn’t like. She makes fun of me, in a playful way, when I wear them…but guess what? I still wear them. Does that mean that I don’t care what my wife thinks? Not exactly, but kinda. You cannot turn over your power to other people…ANY other people. If you like something or someone, pursue it, regardless of what anyone else says about it. Why in the world would you not play golf just because your wife thinks it’s a game for dorks? If you truly enjoy listening to Barry Manilow, or taking hot baths, why would you not do those things just because your guy friends say it makes you girly? Or fruity? Or whatever…and perhaps even worse, why would you do them in secret and deny who you are to the people in your world? If the people that you call the closest, can’t accept you for who you truly are, then you need to re-evaluate why you hold them so closely.
That, of course, is a two-way street in real relationships. My role in the lives of the people I care about the most is not to change them, or judge the choices that they make (at least not out loud to their faces, unless they ask). Rather, it is to accept them as they are, for that’s the reason I liked/loved them in the first place. I chose them for reasons…leave those reasons alone, and help them grow. Sometimes they grow in a direction that changes them in ways that makes them no longer someone I want to hold closely, so I let them go. That’s all part of life. People come, people go, people change…and people should change…and sometimes those changes result in the aforementioned people going. Who’s the one person that is still and always in the picture? Me, so I better like myself the most, first.
The absolute hardest category for most people is family. Learning and accepting that being related to someone does not give them any sort of authority over your life is the most difficult thing for most people to do…which is why most people never do it. I’ve watched the endless suffering of countless people over the years, all caused by their own inability to recognize the toxicity caused by the people they choose to call “family.” Yes, you read that correctly, family is a CHOICE as an adult. And that’s the rub, isn’t it? Earlier I wrote that the reasons my friends are in my life is that I chose them, which is true. I was going about my life, met them somehow, got to know them, and ultimately realized they had a lot to offer as a friend, and I wanted to offer what I have to them in return. Ultimately, relationships are merely transactions in many ways.
When you are brought into this world, you are given no choices. You are related to a group of people that you are then quite literally forced to be around for nearly two decades at least. Many of those individuals make decisions for you, tell you when you’re right and wrong, make rules you have to follow, and teach you things like love and punishment, often in very destructive ways. Regardless of that experience, once you become an independent adult, you quite literally no longer NEED any of them; it’s time to choose. Sadly, most people decide instead that idiotic expressions like “blood is thicker than water,” and “nothing’s more important than family,” are actual dogma. That second one is pretty close to true, but it requires redefining the word “family.”
Rather than your family being people that you are related or married to, your family should be the people in your life whose wants, needs, and desires are as important to you as your own. That’s the sociological definition of love, and it’s powerful as hell if you let it sink in. Your “family” members, of course, have to feel the same way in return. In addition your “family,” should be comprised of people that make you feel good, welcomed, and comfortable as you are, who you are, and in whatever state you are in at the time. These same people should also be those you can always rely on, for anything, whether it be a comforting ear, or some needed harsh (and asked for) advice or judgments.
Perhaps most importantly, “family,” shouldn’t hurt. You’re able to disagree, you’re able to speak freely, and you’re able to have differing thoughts, opinions and judgments…and through all of it, neither person hurts or gets hurt.
That last one is also tough for most people. At some point, I wish for everyone to learn that if another person gets hurt by something honest that you say, think, or feel, that is their problem, not yours. If you acted with no malice, and spoke candidly, the other person’s reaction to your words or actions is on them, and them alone.
Now go back to the checklist of who should be in your family and apply all of those items to the people you know. How many of them are truly family under our new definition? I have a small but wonderful family and a lot of friends (second tier) and tons of friendly acquaintances. I’m related by blood to dozens of people that I know are alive. Fewer than three of them are my family, and most I rarely talk to for they lack most, if not all, of the criteria needed to be in my family. Which doesn’t make them bad people, it makes them unqualified for the job that I need them to do, and since I put my needs first…NEXT!
If, and when, you are ever able to truly free yourself from caring about whatever anyone else thinks or says about you, you will find that the path is so clear as to who you want to give that gift to. That’s what it is, a gift. You are offering to someone the ability to hurt you, trusting that they won’t, but knowing that if they do, you’ll survive, no matter how deep the pain may be. When you stop caring, your caring becomes a prized asset, offered only to the most special people in your life, and when you choose those people correctly, you have an amazing existence. When you realize that you chose poorly, or that a person has betrayed that gift you gave them (and it will happen), you will simply un-choose them, feel the hurt, and place them in the “I couldn’t care less” pile.