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Other People’s Stuff

Byron Katie of The Work, whose ideas I have to take piecemeal, nonetheless makes a good point in saying that there are three kinds of stuff—your stuff, someone else’s stuff and, for lack of a better word, God’s stuff (anything you want that to mean). You should only be in your stuff. If you’re in someone else’s stuff or in God’s stuff, you’re not where you should be.

Yet, how many of us are almost always in someone else’s stuff?

The problem is, we fool ourselves easily with good reasons to be in other people’s stuff—loyalty to a family member, obligation, no choice, and so on. All the while we don’t realize we’re in someone else’s stuff or that being in someone else’s stuff is not a good idea. Or if we know we are, we think there is good reason to be. We get messages from people that tell us we should be in other people’s stuff to the point that we don’t know how to distinguish between when we’re being helpful versus when we’re just avoiding our own stuff.

And therein lies the issue. When you’re in someone else’s stuff, you don’t have to be in your own, which is exactly where most of us prefer to be. Only we don’t admit it. We heap on a sense of duty or obligation or fear of reprisal to the extent that we don’t even know we are actively avoiding our own stuff.

I am pretty sure I’m almost always in someone else’s stuff on the pretense that I’m helping them, or else that if I analyze why someone is doing something, surely I will understand it all better. After all this understanding and conclusion drawing that I engage in, I will see clearly what move I should make. And that move will be immensely popular to all involved, people will think I’m a genius and everyone will like me.

And then there’s reality, which is that most decisions we avoid (while we’re in other people’s stuff) are the very ones that other people won’t like. Usually they won’t like it because it breaks from a unspoken agreement to keep a pattern going that no one really likes but no one wants to change either. The people around us, especially family members but also close friends or even co-workers, rely on us to remain exactly as we are. They rely on us to keep responding to situations in the same way we usually do. These traits may not even be liked by them but familiarity is better than the unknown world of change.

We allow ourselves to build theories about the causes of problems that sound plausible but, in reality, allow us to avoid making decisions that we don’t want to make. These causes are filled with partial truths. Partial truths are dangerous. They are true enough to veer us off course (the course we should be on) but not true enough to excuse our making that unpopular decision.

A friend recently told me of a chain of rather unsettling events. Many tragedies all at once, in the lives of people around him. In other words, all of it was peripheral but he was nonetheless tied up with these people, as we all are in some way. Like many of us, he has always been in control, the one stable person surrounded by dysfunction. People come to rely on you to behave in a predictable way which could mean always helping out, always giving money, never falling apart yourself. You resent that role. But you secretly like that role because it gives you some power. Only you don’t really know that or won’t admit it. Plus, what if you did have a problem? The set pattern in his case is that everyone around him is unreliable. To change the pattern could mean really seeing, first hand, what you know to be true but always feared….that you can’t rely on these people at all.

So instead, my friend is bogged down in an irritated sense of obligation and is focusing on details of each situation, which is a normal reaction. He’s heard these songs before. The tune never changes. He knows none of these people will ever change, so he has to step in and fix everything. He draws neat conclusions — sociological, abstract, intellectual explanations. In other words, things that are cleverly impossible to fix. No choice is involved. He is resigned to more exasperation.

And that is exactly where most of us wish to remain. Only we don’t admit it because that would mean we’d have to fix something about ourselves that we are too afraid to fix. Most of the time, that simply means disappointing someone because we changed a pattern we never agreed would last forever anyway.

So, are you in your own stuff or someone else’s? How do you know the difference between being helpful versus avoiding making an unpopular decision? What are you avoiding by being in someone else’s stuff? And what is the worst that could happen if you made the decision you are afraid to make?

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