How often do you focus on other people’s behavior instead of your own? How often do you think their behavior is to blame for the state of the relationship—or the cause of your overall persistent discontent?
This might be big or small.
Maybe you focus on the annoying coworker who inevitably stops by your desk as you’re immersed in a project. Maybe you focus on the ex who’s about as mature as a 4-year-old and can’t have a serious relationship to save their life. Maybe you focus on your friend who clearly has zero boundaries and is constantly crossing your’s.
Focusing our time, energy, and attention on others’ actions in these kinds of situations only boosts our anxiety and keeps us stuck. That’s because we can’t control what others do. But, of course, you can control what you do.
According to therapist and author Kathleen Smith, Ph.D, LPC, in her insightful new book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down, “There are many ways we get caught in the trap of focusing on others. When we really want someone to like us, or we worry about someone we love, we lose sight of ourselves. When someone disagrees with us or hurts us, we try to calm down by changing or blaming the other person.”
Thankfully, we can emerge from this anxiety-provoking trap by reframing our thinking.
Smith notes that we can simply flip other-focused questions into self-focused questions. “Think of it as hitting the reverse camera button on your phone in order to take a selfie.” She shares these excellent examples:
Other-focused: Why doesn’t my family understand me?
Self-focused: What part do I play in the immature functioning of my family?
Other-focused: Why do people pile too much on my plate?
Self-focused: What do I do for others that they can do for themselves?
Other-focused: Is my spouse really right for me?
Self-focused: How can I be the person I want to be in my marriage?
In Everything Isn’t Terrible, Smith features a list of questions to help readers observe your behavior, evaluate it, and interrupt your automatic way of operating. Here are some of my favorites: When do I focus on blaming others? When do I try to change others so I can manage my own anxiety? What emotions and symptoms do I experience when I’m focusing on others? What might my best self do in situations where I’ve blamed others? What future opportunities can I practice being self-focused with? What resources can help me become more self-focused?
The next time you’re upset or overwhelmed about a situation, explore whether you’re focusing on someone else. Explore whether you’re giving away your power.
Yes, the other person may absolutely be in the wrong. They’re likely partially to blame for the issue. But paying attention to your personal role in situations gives you agency. It helps you take responsibility for your functioning, according to Smith. “Because that’s what responsibility is—the ability to respond.”
And that’s one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves: to take action that honors our well-being.