A client came in really rattled and upset that a man had paid her unwanted attention at a party. She was with friends and felt safe and in a celebratory mood. He was the husband of one of her friends and openly flirted and puffed himself up —in front of his wife.
“What did I do?’” my client asked me. “I’m someone who owns my sh*t, so I’ve been looking at this trying to see why I called it into my life. Should I not have had a drink? Should I have been firm and told him to back off and risked making his wife upset with me? Is it better if I don’t let my guard down at parties? I feel really bad about this.”
This particular scenario is really common for women. I’ve gone through it myself. If only I’d done this or that, I wouldn’t have been harassed, if only I’d stayed buttoned-up and unapproachable I would have been safe. Why did I have that glass of wine? We victim-blame ourselves before anyone else even knows what happened.
This scenario also illustrates another really common occurrence: those of us who own our sh*t can easily forget that it’s not always our sh*t.
This man’s lack of respect (for both my client and for his wife) have probably been on full display on other occasions. Had my client told him off, he might have gotten aggressive. Had she been more reserved, he might have tried harder to draw her out. There is likely nothing that she could have done differently to make the situation more comfortable because she wasn’t the one bringing the discomfort.
And if she did indeed “call this situation” into her life, she didn’t need to call very loudly. It happens all the time.
As conscious people, we make meaning from the seemingly arbitrary. Now that this thing happened to my client, by all means, let’s look for the lesson. It might be something about boundaries, or a gentle invitation to examine other similar events in her life that have caused her distress. It is for sure a microcosm of a lot of patriarchal misconceptions and mores. There could also be an opportunity for self-compassion and even an expression of sadness at the ways she has not felt free or safe every day of her life, as we all deserve to feel. Perhaps she can practice acceptance that it wasn’t her fault, that other people behave badly no matter what we do.
The lesson is likely NOT about changing herself to make a rude guy behave differently.
My conscientious client was effectively trying to own HIS sh*t, too, questioning how her actions could bring HIM into integrity. She took on the responsibility for his bad behavior. And who hasn’t done that in some way, with parents, children, intimate partners, friends, or co-workers? We experience discomfort and want to change it, and below the surface we believe we can and should do that by ourselves. And man, do we try.
We forget that self-awareness is also other-awareness.
So often, we mistake taking responsibility with being at fault. Once something has happened, it’s certainly our prerogative to make meaning from it but that’s very different from blaming ourselves. Trouble didn’t seek you out across the universe because bad, unworthy you needed to learn a very hard lesson. Trouble happens to everyone because we are all imperfect, clumsy beings trying to have our needs met. I want us all to keep making meaning and learning about ourselves, but let’s also try to remember that sometimes people – including you and me – are just goofy, wrong-headed jerks! Let’s love anyway and breathe a little easier knowing that all the work we have to do is our own.