Years ago, a friend of mine was speaking about memories from her childhood. We were talking about her shyness now, as an adult. She was reminiscing about being 5-years-old and one of the first times she dressed herself. So proud of her clothing selections, she ran downstairs and was greeted by a yelp from her mother, who exclaimed, "You can't possibly wear that to school!”
She remembered it as if it were yesterday and had further memories of avoiding dressing herself, for fear of what her mother might say. Who knows if that was her mother’s intent, but she took to heart the idea that she couldn’t be trusted to dress herself.
Sometimes there are things we hear as children that we take to heart and it shapes not only how we perceive the world around us, but ourselves as well. That’s the basis for one of my favorite books, The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I read it many years ago and recently pulled it out again. It was striking to me how much applies today, even with all the advances we’ve made in the world since it was written back in 1997.
Despite advances in industry and technology, there’s nothing like basic principals around our behavior to ground us and remind us of what’s really important: that is, how we treat ourselves and how we treat the neighbors around us.
Here’s a quick summary of the guidelines in Ruiz’s book:
Be impeccable with your word: “Speak with integrity, say what you mean and avoid gossiping about others.” We all have professional careers where we need to try to speak clearly in our interactions with our co-workers so they’ll understand what we need or our instructions. We all have personal lives where we yearn to be heard and understood. “Impeccability” to me speaks to “cleanliness” and when we aim to speak “cleanly” we’re communicating impeccably.
Don’t take anything personally: “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you’re immune to the opinion and actions of others, you’ll have less stress.” I can really relate to this one. I’m built to take feedback to heart and when you live in a world filled with social media, you’re putting yourself out there for lots of feedback. That creates stress for me, just as does any situation when I might have a disagreement with my neighbors. This particular guideline helps me in times of stress, as I remember that the reactions of others might not have as much to do with me as I might imagine. It doesn’t let me off the hook for my own actions, but it helps keep their reactions in perspective.
Don’t make assumptions: “Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others clearly to avoid sadness, misunderstanding and drama.” Imagine how assumptions about issues can create drama. In our interactions with our colleagues, neighbors and friends, assuming they know how we feel when they act a certain way only creates stress and can strain even the best of friendships. The call that wasn’t returned timely, the email that went unanswered; one person feels neglected and holds back from further communication rather than having an open discussion. It’s hard to be honest with each other and I’m speaking from my own experience here. But once we reach out, we can clear up so much and the relationship can grow stronger.
Always do your best: “Your best will change from moment to moment and will be different depending on how you feel; but if you do your best, you’ll avoid self-judgment and regret.” There are some days when we don’t feel like going to work because we’re not feeling well. Or, we want to go take a yoga class or go to the gym and we feel slow and heavy so we skip it. In our Type A, fast-paced world, we often forget that our “best” will shift but as long as we do our best, even if it’s less than what we perceive as “perfect," we’re still on the right track. Doing our best to be a good neighbor makes our whole community shine brightly.
These guidelines may or may not apply to you. Maybe you’re already doing your best, only speaking positive things or not saying anything at all (as my mother would say) and pushing yourself to avoid assumptions in all your communications with loved ones and neighbors.
But every now and then, a little reminder about just the basics helps me to feel grounded. There’s so much available to us to help us communicate and build relationships outside ourselves. But it’s the relationship we have with ourselves that is the most important.