Why we can’t control how others think – the frustrating truth

One of the lessons it took me over 40 years to learn (and which I still need to remind myself of on a daily basis) is the fact that we can’t control how other people think about us. At face value, this seems strange to believe. After all, we spent our childhoods being told that if we behaved or looked a certain way, other people would respond favourably to us. We learn very early on that if we make ourselves pleasing to others, we will invoke the response we want.

Sometimes this worked. We smiled prettily and got an extra helping of ice cream. We stayed quiet and behaved well and mummy didn’t drink as much as usual. Or we snitched on our little brother and got him into trouble. When this “cause and effect” happens often enough, we begin to feel powerful. If we just do or say the right thing, other people will respond in a predictable way. The problem is, by the time we grow up and realise that we have less to do with the actions and responses of others than we think, our neural pathways are already well worn. We think that our partner’s bad mood must be caused by us – and if we can’t shake them out of it, it must be our fault too. Or we decide that if we love them unconditionally they won’t leave us. After all, who would reject someone who is perfect?

The irony is that we keep on acting and reacting, long after we’ve realised we have less power than we think, and even re-double our efforts to please.

By the time we reach the age of menopause, we may have got tired of trying to control others. Or our relationships have been affected and we decide we can’t live like this anymore, that there has to be a different way to live out the rest of our lives.

Are you saying we should just ignore bad behaviour?

Not at all. Part of acknowledging that we have less power than we think over others involves communicating directly and taking control of what is within our power to change. Once we’ve accepted that we can’t change someone else, we can adjust our own behaviour without trying to manipulate others.

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