My sister recently shared the observation (borrowed in part from a book she has been reading on nonviolent communication) that when there is a problem in life, people tend to do one of four things: blame others, blame themselves, sense their needs and feelings, or sense the needs and feelings of others. “The ideal,” she said, “is to hold three and four in either hand and realize that both deserve empathy.”
I was shook! Such an astute reading. For many years — from childhood through my twenties, I think — I blamed myself for most unpleasant or painful situations that arose. I will never forget the day I was parallel parking in a tight spot in Chicago’s beautiful Lincoln Park neighborhood, right in front of Floriole on Webster Avenue, when a man in an enormous SUV made a big show of being in a rush: accelerating too fast, slamming on the breaks behind me, gesticulating out the window, and then — after I took too long finagling my way into the spot, sweating bullets the entire time — he careened around me into oncoming traffic, rolled down his window, and gave me the finger, yelling something disgusting in his wake as he sped off. I was, in a different and far worse way, shook. No one had ever spoken to me that way, or given me the finger for that matter. The casual cruelty of it! I was flustered for the entire day and prone to sweat-inducing flashbacks whenever I attempted to park on a busy street for weeks to come. But when I reported the incident to Mr. Magpie in a tone of righteous rage — how dare he! — I was sharply aware that I was only miming indignation. It was the hardened exterior shell protecting the softer inner feelings of shame and frustration at having caused someone inconvenience or angst. Maybe I had lingered too long trying to angle my car in? It was a crowded street! Maybe I had stolen his spot without realizing it? I should be more aware! I should have given up after that first try, I guess? I really need to learn how to park better. The accusations came fast and furious. It was much harder for me to say, and believe, that I had simply been dealing with an enormous prick.
There are other stories like this, too personal and tender to share here, that coagulate around my guilt and self-reproach over failures in relationships with people I love. For years and years, I assumed I alone was the culprit in these embroilments.
In a strange way, starting and closing my business helped me out of that rut. Mr. Magpie and I often refer to the years of running a business together as a gradual unveiling of the world as it is. By this I mean that we learned, in thousands of excruciating interactions, that people generally mean well, but are driven by private motivations and anxieties that often cluster around necessary self-preservation. I slowly began to learn to take fewer things personally. And not by erecting a wall around myself, exactly, but by apprehending that people are subject to forces entirely beyond my ken and control, and that often my interactions with them are only incidental, even accidental, in relation to their core concerns.
He’s not angry at me, I would observe, carefully, as I pitched my business for the ten trillionth time to an irritated client or a brusque venture capitalist — he’s tabulating the fifteen other items on his list, or agonizing about the bad quarter he’s had, or digesting troubles at home. All I can do is show up prepared and with an open mind and trust in my gut that I’m doing my best. I can’t control his day or how I fit into his plans.
From a sales standpoint, Mr. Magpie called this “the art of collecting nos.” The quicker you can get to a definitive yes or no (far more commonly a “no” in the world of sales), the better — you waste less time and less resources, you notice patterns that help you expedite the process with future prospects, and you develop the thick skin you need to succeed. You learn to take less offense at unpleasantries and awkwardnesses and also realize that about 50% of your sales touchpoints have nothing to do with the widget you are selling and everything to do with understanding the world of your customer, much of which is cluttered with issues far outside your realm of focus.
These observations spilled over into the personal realm, too. Curt exchanges with passersby, unthinkably rude interactions with strangers, clipped conversations with loved ones — over time, I have found myself increasingly capable of letting these things go, of shrugging off the slights, of reminding myself, as a reader recently and brilliantly noted, that “guilt is very often our reaction to other people’s feelings — which they are entitled to, and we are not in control of.” I am far from consistent on this front, of course. I recently went off the deep end arraigning the wounding behavior of a friend, only to have my Dad say: “you know, Jen, you don’t know the full story. You’ve got to let this go.” And more often than I’d like, a stray arrow glides over the battlement and lodges itself in that vulnerable space between the thick skin public writing and running a business and just surviving for 37 years on this earth requires, and the dispassionate logic of which I know myself to be capable. And in those moments, sometimes I find that it’s not entirely bad to start from a place of self-reproach. The activity of analyzing what I might have done wrong or could have done differently in a given situation is often productive, or at least humbling. It helps me ferret out my blind spots, stretch to think how others might feel. Besides, I remain leery of leaning too far into a mindset of “it’s not my problem, it’s theirs!”, as if universally exonerated from blame.
Still, it is a perilous perch, and if I am not careful, it can lead to unhealthy browbeating. So I will continue to strain towards that ideal my sister helpfully outlined at the top of this post: holding empathy for myself in my right hand and empathy for others in my left.
How do you feel on this subject?
+More on building and shuttering our business in this post on my professional journey.
+Already missing the days when I could get away with putting mini in sets like this. Too beyond adorable.
+Just bought Mr. Magpie these Vejas.
+This fish print quilt! On sale for $25 and so adorable for a little boy’s room (or a tummy time mat! or a picnic blanket!)
+And speaking of fish print, how amazing is this $28 bag?!
+J’adore this breezy mini for summer! Those bows on the shoulder! (Under $40!!). Cute with Supergas or GGs or Vejas.
+If you are an expecting mama, please treat yourself to a Sleeper Brigitte dress while on sale! So beautiful, works with bump, and great for nursing, too. On sale in the orange for under $100 (!!) and in the white for only $104!
+It’s been a minute since I raved about this $8 secret to keeping my engagement ring sparkly.
+These boyfriend jeans are seriously trending. I’m eyeing a pair!
+Cute blockprint napkins at a great price.
+Cute athletics shorts for older girls.