Humans are funny creatures. We spend the majority of time trying to change things that are out of our control. The truth is, if we look at all the things we can control, they boil down to just three! My thoughts, my feelings, and my actions (which includes my reactions and inaction). Everything else falls within the outer circle-the area that is out of my control.
A third area exists though, which is rarely talked about. It’s what I refer to as the Circle of Influence. This is a bit of a gray area because it includes things I can control (such as our language, tone & volume of voice, and body language), which may or may not influence things that are outside of our control. The fact that it may or may not influence our circumstance makes it still out of our control. This seems like a pretty basic concept. So why does it give us so much trouble?
Let’s apply it to what we know: Circumstances do not cause our feelings; our thoughts about our circumstances do. We know this to be true because two different people can experience the same circumstance and have completely different reactions to them -based on their thoughts. Understanding this concept is incredibly liberating. Consider the alternative. If circumstances really do create our feelings, we’re up a creek without a paddle! The only hope we would have of feeling better would be by changing the circumstance. (Which I’m guessing you’ve already tried without success. If you could control your circumstance, you wouldn’t be struggling so hard!)
This brings BOTH freedom and responsibility
My favorite moment both as a therapist and life coach is the moment that clients “get it”. That second that this makes sense to them, and they fully understand what it means. Their faces open. Their eyes widen. Their head drops back slightly and their face lights up. They suddenly feel empowered. They’re no longer at the mercy of other people’s actions. ..And then, the other half of the reality sets in. Their expression reverses as they realize this also means they are responsible for how they feel, through how they choose to think about circumstances. Note that responsible does not mean at fault.So what then, of this circle of influence? If it’s not my words or actions (these are circumstances) that cause someone else to feel something, but rather, their thoughts about my words/actions that cause their feelings, then what does this mean on a moral level?
Once we understand this truth, people apply it in one of three ways:
1. They under-emphasize their influence in order to absolve themselves of responsibility.
When this information is abused, people could use it as a way to manipulate others, falsely exonerating themselves of any guilt or responsibility for their actions. In it’s most evil sense, a person uses this logic to say, “I can do whatever I want. You choose if it hurts you or not. That’s on you; not me.” This could, in deed, be the making of narcissism.
When I first learned these concepts that I teach today, I struggled with the morality behind how it could be misused. And then,
while working with a survivor of spiritual abuse, I realized that even the Bible itself has been twisted and used by people to manipulate others and benefit the self. God has given us free will to choose good or evil. Just because something could be used for evil does not mean it was not created for good.
2. They over-emphasize influence as an attempt to gain control.
This is the opposite, but not necessarily to the extreme. In this case, we give our “influence” too much weight, accepting more responsibility than is ours to bear. Our daughter made the unfortunate mistake of egging someone’s house with a friend when in middle school. By having her apologize to the home owner and spend a Saturday scrubbing his siding, we attempted to influence her future behavior. (It worked!) There’s nothing wrong with using our influence in this manner, but we have to remember that influence is still not control. She may have decided it was worth the extra day’s work to look cool to her friends!
3. They accept the balance of freedom and responsibility
When we understand how God created humans and human functioning and that God is love, we find a balance between freedom & responsibility. When we recognize that it’s our thoughts that create our feelings (which then drive our actions), we can comprehend why He said we’re to take every thought captive and be transformed by the renewing of our minds instead of transforming to the ways of this world. the fact that other people’s thoughts create their feelings is not free reign to wield our words carelessly.
If I have a family member who ridicules herself harshly and is highly sensitive, I can assume with reasonable certainty that scolding her for gossiping would likely be met with self deprecation. Does this mean I have to listen to her gossip, or join her in it, for fear of upsetting her? We are all responsible for how we choose to think and feel. AND we are all responsible for our actions. If I live in balance of these two, I will handle the situation in the most gentle and kindest way possible, and then allow her to own how she chooses to think about the interaction. Freedom and responsibility. Thankfully, we get them both.
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