Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

If we aren’t mindful, we run the risk of allowing others to determine our worthiness.

            I was a graduate student, eager to take a creative writing class. An optional prerequisite was to share our fiction work with the professor. Oh boy—did I have something I wanted to share: the rough draft of a fiction manuscript I’d worked on that summer. My heart was soaring with hope, eagerly anticipating the moment I stepped into Professor Edmund’s office to hear the long-awaited feedback regarding my work.

            Unfortunately, the feedback was nothing short of heart breaking:

            “You can’t take the class. Your writing is terrible.”

            Despite the taste of bile in my throat aching with unshed tears, I dared ask “What do I need to work on? Please tell me and I’ll do it.”

            He shook his head, studying the manuscript the way one might a moldy slice of cheese. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. You need a high school freshman English class.”

            While the room was silent, psychically something screamed and broke inside of me. 

            It would be years before I picked up a pen to create a story.

            Years later, here’s what I know: 

  1. Regardless of whether or not I possessed “the gift” of creative writing, Professor Edmund’s cruelty was uncalled for and reflects his failure as an educator.
  2. While Professor Edmund’s lacerating words stung, the decision to not pick up a pen for several years was all mine.

Anyone who is dwelling on planet Earth knows how powerful words can be—especially when they’re spoken by someone in a place of authority or someone we love and respect. If we aren’t careful, if we don’t remain present, it’s easy to allow words of criticism to form our perception of ourselves—and by extension—our reality. If we aren’t paying attention, we can allow another’s opinion of us to alter the course of our own future. If we aren’t mindful, we can change the trajectory of our very lives by digesting another’s belief as our own.

We are all familiar with the term Back Seat Driver—the habit some people have of telling the driver when to stop, where to look, when to speed up—essentially, how to drive a car. The Back Seat Driver typically induces annoyance in the driver. We grow resentful that the BSD is telling us how to drive a vehicle that we are in possession of steering—not them!

Yet when it comes to our personal lives and the choices we make (i.e. marriage, career, etc.), the potential for a Back Seat Driver still exists. We give away our power to an aunt or a colleague, a sister or husband, a boss or a doctor, dismissing our own intuition. 

Professor Edmund was a man in his late 60’s when I was a grad student in my 20’s. Perhaps he wasn’t happy with his own life and needed to share this unhappiness with a naïve twenty-something college grad student. Perhaps he was threatened by the potential of my prose. Regardless of the reason behind his vicious tongue, he most likely moved on and never gave that girl a second thought. I allowed his words to determine my career, to determine my confidence, to determine my worth as a writer. I had, willingly, turned my steering wheel over to an angry man who didn’t even know me or where I was heading.

Consider the people in your life who offer heavy-handed opinions of you and your choices. There’s a fine line between receiving advice and altering your life to meet others’ expectations and perceptions. Ultimately, YOU are the one in the driver seat of your life. YOU determine your own course. 

Supermarket Sweep Life

There’s an unspoken “Supermarket Sweep” mentality pervading our lives.

            There’s a popular American game show, now in its 10th season, called Supermarket Sweep. The premise involves contestants racing against a timer to acquire “high-dollar goods within their allotted time. The team with the most…[number] of valuable items in their cart wins the $100,000 prize.” (source The Today Show). The appeal of the show is understandable: the rush of adrenaline to get as many items—hopefully more highly-valued than others—into one’s cart in a finite and small window of time (typically 1 minute and 30 seconds).

            The fast-paced game show hosted by the talented and humorous Leslie Jones is, no doubt, entertaining. We may watch, experiencing a hit of dopamine as the contestants race against the clock; we may experience pleasure, living vicariously through the frenzied contestants as they practically leave skid marks, stomping haphazardly through the many grocery aisles.

            Yet somehow, our lives tend to feel like we are no different than those Supermarket Sweep contestants. As a secondary English teacher, I see it with my students: the race to get an assignment in, the rush to read through an essay prompt without taking the time to consider the prompt itself. As a mother, I’ve witnessed the Supermarket Sweep mind spinning—no different than the contestants’ carts speeding down aisle after aisle. The mental guessing game of What If thinking, is its own conveyer belt of recycled worry.

            Adults are far from immune to the Supermarket Sweep mindset. Whether it’s the rush to get food on the table or the desperation to install a pool (and everything in between), when we put ourselves on this self-imposed time limit to get things accomplished, we run the risk of a few things:

  1. A lack of self-awareness
  2. Greater physical stress on the body
  3. An affinity for anxiety and/or depression

Without knowing it, I spent a good deal of my young adulthood with the Supermarket Sweep mentality as a steady companion. My cart was regularly filled with items that I didn’t necessarily want but falsely believed I needed to make me feel like a “winner”: the right college, a boyfriend, friends—the key was to have these “things” so that I could feel good. Say yes now was my unexamined mentality. It didn’t matter how I felt about what went into my spiritual cart; all that mattered was that I had put something in there.

I encourage you to consider the items you may be placing in your spiritual cart. Choose them carefully and consider the possibility of removing items that no longer serve you. Your life matters and while we each have an expiration date on this planet, we are not in a race or competition with Time. Care about what goes into your spiritual cart; the only appraiser of value for your cart’s items is you.

It’s Not Personal

      When we go within for messages instead of outward, we are serving ourselves the best emotional nutrition.

Years ago, a friend introduced me to a jewel of a book: The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. According to Toltec wisdom, there are literally four keys or agreements that, once practiced, offer us a world of inner peace and freedom:

  1. Be Impeccable with Your Word.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions
  4. Always Do Your Best

Ruiz writes that the cause of most human suffering comes from not following the above four agreements. And boy, is Ruiz right! This simple yet deeply insightful book has been my go-to for years. All four agreements work together and affect each other. 

As our world continues to grow more virtual each day, it’s become clear to me that we need a reminder in not taking anything personally. While we are each the center of our individual worlds, we are not the center to others. As Ruiz states so eloquently:

“Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in.”

Words are a food for the soul. They possess the power to fuel or render us famished. But if we aren’t mindful, the words others serve us can make us sick. When we don’t take their words personally, we can continue to feed ourselves a diet that nourishes.

You can’t go onto social media now without reading someone’s vitriol regarding everything from a person’s weight to their political stance. If heeded, insulting words carry nutritional poison. But if you grow still, you will soon become aware that someone who is not happy with himself/herself serves those negative words. The poison they dish out is coming from within. You have the choice, the free will to not accept their toxic serving. Happy people don’t serve unhappiness—they literally don’t have it in them.

Actions that are cruel or toxic aren’t personal either. Ruiz notes this even in the extreme: “Even if someone got a gun and shot you in the head, it was nothing personal.” Again, negative behavior of any kind is a reflection of whatever is going on in another’s world and not about you.

This week alone, I have found myself grateful for Ruiz’s reminder that nothing is personal:

  • My friend calling me sleep-deprived after a 12-hour shift, articulating that I just don’t understand what she is going through.
  • My parents not calling on my son’s birthday, only to find out that they got the date mixed up.
  • Five people showing up to a virtual pre-launch book event of The Friendship Diet (after inviting over 100 folks) 

           Not taking anything personally also applies to compliments. While it feels good, we need to remember that, “If they tell you how wonderful you are, they are not saying that because of you. You know you are wonderful. It is not necessary to believe other people who tell you that you are wonderful.”

           When we go within for messages instead of outward, we are serving ourselves the best emotional nutrition. Looking outward for praise is a dish that will always leave one hungry for more; looking outward for guidance on who you are is the culinary equivalent of “too many cooks in the kitchen”: at best you end up with a hodge-podge of inedible messages and at worst, you experience emotionally painful heartburn.

            Nothing is personal. As Ruiz reminds us, when we know that nothing is personal “You can choose to follow your heart always. Then you can be in the middle of hell and still experience inner peace and happiness.”