One of the biggest sources of difficulty for every single human being is the desire for people to be a certain way.
We can’t seem to help it: We want the world to be the way we want it. Unfortunately, reality always has different plans, and people behave in less than ideal ways.
The problem isn’t other people. It’s our ideals.
Yes, I think it would be great if people stopped killing animals for food and fashion and became vegan instead. But that’s not the reality I’m faced with, and it’s not going to happen for quite some time, if ever.
Yes, I think it would be great if my kids behaved perfectly all the time, but that’s not the reality of kids—or any human beings, for that matter.
Yes, it would be great if my wife always agreed with me, but that’s not going to happen.
So, we can summarize the problem as follows:
- We have ideals about how people should act, or ways we’d like them to be.
- People don’t act in those ideal ways, or aren’t the way we’d like them to be.
- We get bothered by that reality—frustrated, angry, sad, disappointed, and stressed.
- This makes us unhappy and damages our relationships with others.
This is obviously not great.
We have a few options for how to handle this:
- We can stick rigidly to the way we want people to be, and be upset when they don’t meet those ideals.
- We can stick rigidly to the way we want people to be, and try really hard to make them be that way. (This pretty much never works.)
- We can let go of the ideals, and be happier and less frustrated.
When we think about it this way, it’s obvious that the third option is the best route. We’ll talk about this option soon, but let’s talk about a couple of objections first.
Objections to Letting Go
When people are confronted with the idea of letting go of their ideals about other people, they usually have a few objections:
- Objection No. 1: But then people get away with bad behavior. There’s a difference between wanting someone to behave in a certain way (and getting upset about it) and accepting that a person is acting a certain way, then compassionately finding an appropriate response. In the first case, you are angry at them for their behavior, and your response out of anger is likely to make things worse. In the second case, you aren’t bothered too much, but can see that their behavior is harmful and want to help them to not cause harm. You can’t actually control them, but you can try to help. If you try to help but they won’t accept your help, then it will be a continual source of frustration. Offer help, but let go of the ideal outcome you’d like to see.
- Objection No. 2: But what about abusive behavior? There’s a difference between feeling agonized about the abuse, and accepting that the person is acting abusively and taking appropriate action. Letting go of your ideals about how the abusive person should act doesn’t mean you let them abuse you. It just means you accept the reality that they are being abusive, while taking the appropriate action to get away from them, and reporting or seeking help for them, if it’s appropriate. Don’t leave yourself in a place where you’re being harmed, and at the same time, you don’t have to be internally afflicted by someone else’s actions.
- Objection No. 3: But then we don’t make the world a better place. If people behave in less-than-ideal ways, you can agonize about it while trying to change them, or you can accept that the world is not ideal … but calmly and compassionately work to help others. In both cases, you’re trying to do good, but in the second case, you’re not agonizing about how things are.
So these objections are all about wanting to change people’s bad behavior. This article is about inner acceptance of “not ideal” behavior. But once you have inner acceptance, you can take appropriate external action. That might be helping, feeling compassion, getting to safety, talking calmly and lovingly to someone, reporting abusive behavior, getting counseling, or many other appropriate actions that come from a place of love, compassion, and understanding rather than frustration and anger.
Letting Go of Ideals
So how do you let go of wanting people to be a certain way?
First, reflect on how these ideals are harming you and others. This desire for getting your way, and wanting a specific version of reality, is making you frustrated, unhappy, and angry. It’s harming your relationships. It’s likely making the people around you unhappy as well. This is all caused by an attachment to expectations and ideals.
Reflect on wanting yourself and others to be happy. If the ideals and expectations are harming yourself and others, wouldn’t it be nice to stop harming yourself? Wouldn’t it be nice to be happy instead of frustrated? Think about the desire to have a better relationship with other people and for them to be happier in their relationship with you. This is your intention, and it is one of love.
Notice the ideals and frustrations as they arise. See when you are feeling frustrated by someone else, and reflect on what ideal you’re holding for them. How do you want them to behave instead? Don’t get caught up in your story of why they should behave that way, but instead just take note of the ideal. See that this ideal is harming you. Decide that it’s not useful to you.
Notice your mental pattern of resentment. When someone doesn’t meet your expectations, see how you think and feel, and decide that you will try to catch it early, before it affects your actions. It’s a pattern you can be aware of, catch early, and change.
Mindfully observe the tightness. Turn your attention to the effects on your body, the tightness that comes from holding on to this ideal. Pay attention to how it feels and the quality of the energy in your body, where it’s located, and how it changes. In this moment of observing, you are awake, rather than being stuck in the daydream of your story about why this person should be behaving differently.
At this point, you can decide to try a different pattern.
A Different Way
Now you can practice a different way of being. Here are some ideas I’ve found useful:
- Instead of fixing on one way this person (or situation) should be, be open to other possibilities. Open yourself to lots of different ways this person or situation can be.
- Try to understand the person, rather than judging them based on limited information. Try to understand why they’d act this way: Perhaps they are afraid; perhaps they’re suffering in some way; and perhaps this is their strategy for self-protection.
- Try to see the good-hearted nature in their actions, rather than fixating on when they are a bad person. For example, you might see that they are tender-hearted and afraid, and they are acting out of fear. Or they just want to be happy, and this is their strategy for being happy. Or maybe they have good intentions and want to help, but are misguided. We all have a good heart deep down inside, but it might take several layers to see that. Anger can stem from jealousy, which stems from insecurities and fear, which stem from a tender-hearted worry that we’re not good enough. The angry action isn’t justified, but there is still a good heart at the core.
- See their suffering that causes their actions and know that you have suffered in the same way. Remember how that suffering feels, so you can see what they’re going through. Compassionately wish for an end to their suffering.
- Tell yourself that you don’t know how people should act. Honestly, I don’t always know how I should act. I am fooling myself if I think I know how other people should act. Instead, I might be curious about their actions.
- See the other person as a teacher. They are helping you practice mindfulness and let go of your old patterns. They are teaching you about reality versus ideals, about how humans act.
- Seriously, see the tightness you’re holding, and just relax. Smile. Be happy in this present moment.
- Practice seeing the goodness in the other person, in yourself, and in the present moment. There is always an underlying goodness in this moment, if you choose to notice. Trust in this goodness, and you’ll be afraid less and happier more.
These are some practices. Try them, and practice them over and over. I think you’ll be happier for it, and every relationship will be better.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.org