As a reminder: This post is coming from the context of someone who has taught martial arts to kids for 20 years now. I am not a child psychologist or counselor, but I still believe that my insight has value. Ultimately, YOU, reader, will be the one who decides whether my writings have value to you and your household. I wouldn’t be typing this if I didn’t believe that you would find value in it. But that’s for you to decide.
Rewatching the Office
So, Sarah has been rewatching the Office, going back through all the old episodes. For her, obviously, she just wants to watch Jim and Pam’s relationship develop again. For me, when I’m watching it with her, I’m analyzing the comedy of the show.
One of the elements that keeps the comedy running is the motif that Michael Scott will do whatever it takes to produce a happy-looking office. And other low-confidence characters (Pam and Phyllis) are in a different-looking-but-same boat. The comedy is often (not always, but often) built on the social expectation of keeping people happy and not offending or upsetting others.
This motif makes Stanley stand out, as he doesn’t care about making anyone else happy. It also makes Angela’s character stand out, as the person who constantly expresses unhappiness to change the actions of others.
And it’s comedy, right? It’s funny, right?
Well, we know that in order for something to be funny, it has to relate to the context of the watcher/listener’s world. Things often are not humorous unless you’ve seen what it looks like in someone’s world.
And people who are held hostage by the unhappiness of others are, of course, real. And when you’re in that boat, it can make social interactions and family interactions difficult and stressful.
So say it with me. And if you haven’t said it before, I truly believe these are powerful words.
“It is okay for you to not be happy.”
It’s powerful for parents
Most parents I’ve met, seen, encountered, etc. know that only a pushover parent would allow their child to get their way when they throw a tantrum, or whine, or whatever. While there are a few parents who unintentionally award this behavior to keep the peace (“You’re whining, here’s a game or a toy or some food to quiet you down”), most know that rewarding this behavior would move us backwards.
However, I do believe many good, involved, thoughtful, well-meaning parents fall into this trap: When their child expresses upsetness, the parent STOPS what they are doing/talking about and works to address their child’s upsetness.
There is value to this in certain contexts but all-too-often, we unintentionally send off this false message: “When you are upset, it is mandatory that other people change their course of action. You can make your unhappiness someone else’s problem.”
I know we don’t mean to send this message, but we do. I’ve seen, consistently, a parent unable to move forward when their child is unhappy. They don’t actually give in…rather, they explain why the child should be happy with what is happening. Or they explain that these are the rules. Maybe they say things like…
“I don’t know why you’re upset, I TOLD you this was going to happen.”
“I know you don’t want to get off the playground, but we’re going to go see Grandpa and Grandma after we get home!”
Maybe a parent addresses the child’s perceived concerns. Maybe the parent shows their child that their upsetness is frustrating them and that they SHOULD have seen this coming. But the message is still sent: “Your unhappiness is my problem.” And they see you changing your course of action to fix it.
So if you haven’t tried it, say it with me. I mean it…it’s actually freeing! And if you’ll believe me, I dare say that it’s actually healthy for your kids. Here it goes: “It’s okay for you to not be happy.” “It’s okay for you to not like this.” “It’s okay to not want to.”
Whatever parenting approach we choose, we have to ask this question: “Does my child’s life get better/more desirable when they express negativity, or worse/less desirable?” It’s simple enough…if my life gets better when I express negativity, then I’m obviously going to continue to express negativity. Do I receive comfort? Do my parents suddenly come closer, whereas before this they were more distant?
(“I don’t like where this is going. Are you suggesting that when my child is sad/hurt/upset, that I DISTANCE myself from them?” Actually, no. When your child NEEDS comfort/closeness, provide it. When your child WEAPONIZES their emotions, you could say something like “I don’t enjoy talking to kids who are grumpy and upset. That’s a downer for me. Go to your room, and you are welcome to come out as soon as you have chosen a attitude that brings others up instead of bringing others down.”)
It’s powerful for social interactions at work or school
It’s hard to say this without sounding like a crotchety old get-off-my-lawn motif, but I’ll still say it: Some of those children became adults. Therefore, we have a lot of adults who use their own unhappiness as a weapon to control others. Because from a young age they learned…it works.
The depressing news here is the following: Those people are going to exist. You lack the ability to change them. But what you are able to do is make sure that you are not caught into their trap. It takes confidence. It takes guts. But if it can be accomplished, it’s freeing.
So let’s say it again. It takes practice. It’s freeing. “It’s okay for you to not be happy.”
The old saying “Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil” comes from this phenomenon. When people express their disapproval, their dissatisfaction, their unhappiness, others change course to try and appease them. In other words, the adults around them reward the behavior. Their life gets better when this happens. And you can’t stop it, can you?
But you can get them to say, in their subconscious, “Wow. That doesn’t work with Martha. Martha treats me WORSE when I am upset, and better when I am calm.” That is, if your name is Martha.
It’s powerful for social interactions between friends and family
I was once in a debate with a friend where the words were uttered to me, “If you value our friendship, you’ll be very careful what you say next.” While every friendship has ups and downs, these words were the irreversible downfall of the friendship for me.
Why? Because it was a leverage. “My happiness, my approval of what you’re going to say next, is of a higher value than your thoughts or open discourse. I won’t enjoy this friendship unless you walk on eggshells around me.” And according to Social Penetration Theory, intimacy (both platonic and romantic) deepens through a mutual and gradual process of self-disclosure. When self-disclosure is punished, friends begin to depenetrate in which they share less and less of their deep thoughts, and are only willing to engage in superficial conversation. No one likes to walk on eggshells.
This is why people have more conflicts with those close to them than they do with acquaintances…because when they are upset, they are more likely to share it and not hide it.
This should not be overplayed…remember that when upsetness is played, it still has a cost to the other person. So someone who gets upset all the time because they’re close to someone has to remember that they are throwing a burden on the other person’s shoulders.
But going back to it: If someone is engaging in honest communication about their feelings, it is healthy. If someone is weaponizing their emotions and preferences to move someone else to action or control someone, there is cause to counteract. This is for a whole new blog post about the power of wisely creating conflict, but for now, here’s what I want to say: Someone who is whining and then expecting you to fix it does not have to control you.
In fact, you can flip the script in these scenarios.
I believe that one of the reason people get in and stay in either majorly destructive relationships or stressful frustrating relationships is low self-esteem. Insert plug for martial arts training: Yes, I know I sound biased, but I literally don’t care because I’m passionate about this topic: I believe the saying “If you want a happy eternity, choose the right Savior. If you want a happy life, choose the right spouse.” (Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not advocating for the “There is just one out there for you” theory. Who you make a covenant with, that’s the one. However, choosing the wrong relationship can derail one’s enjoyment of life and dramatically increase how stressful one’s life is. I don’t think anyone would disagree with this.) Early in the relationship, it is so important to express and communicate how you require others to treat you. This can FILTER out toxic people and help you find out if they either treasure you, or are willing to treasure you.
In order to do this, you have to decide that you are worthy and deserving of being treasured. Christians: Throw that worm theology in the trash. You were created by God and bought by the blood of Jesus. Humility does not mean debasing yourself…Humility just means remembering that you are not more important than other God-created beings. Please see yourself with the value that God sees you with.
If you need empowerment in this area, take up martial arts. Do it. Kick a target. Yell with a confident voice. Find out what you’re really capable of.
If they are not happy with your requirements…it is okay for them not to be happy. Distance yourself.
It’s powerful for leaders. Real leaders.
(Before we continue, I’m going to get political. The great thing about healthy democracy is that by giving the people power, it keeps the government’s power in check. The bad news about democracy is that as long as our leaders are elected by a “popularity contest”, our politicians are followers. Not leaders. There. I said it.)
I have noticed that leaders of large, profitable companies often upset others. Steve Jobs was known for being very “My way or the highway.” In my own martial arts organization, Grand Master Bill Clark and his student Chief Master Sergio Von Schmeling are well known as the builders of huge, profitable, powerful multi-school businesses. I think of martial arts consultants like Fred Mertens and Michael Parrella.
Here are a few things that I’ve noticed:
- For each of these people, I have heard lots of criticism. What someone doesn’t like about their approach.
- For each of these people, I have noticed that you don’t want to speak out of turn in their class. They do not mind calling you out.
- In my experience, despite the criticism, I have found that these people have many followers who say that they deeply care, and have changed their lives.
My hypothesis in short: I have discovered that effective high-level leaders do not subject themselves to the social expectations of every Joe and Sally. In fact, if you try and throw a social expectation at them, they will break it almost out of principle.
In fact, there is a degree of arrogance in ANYONE saying “You fall short of my social expectations.” So they do not let themselves be controlled by these. Rather, they are guided by their vision, and their like-minded mentors. Not their critics.
They also don’t waste time trying to change their critics’ minds. Gary Vaynerchuk gives a speech about how “I can’t hear you…the positive or the negative. You all need to be putting out 10x the amount of social media content that you are. But you’re not. The reason? You’re too scared of what everyone else thinks.”
Great leaders are able to drown out the noise. Early in the game they decided…it’s okay for people not to like me. It’s okay for people to be upset.
Whether personal or professional, I am convinced that the words “It’s okay for you to not be happy” are powerful words that can free many people from chains they were never meant to be in.
This does not mean that we live with no moral code. Rather, this just frees us from trying to live by EVERY SINGLE PERSON’S moral code.
Christians: Knowing that Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” helps drown out the noise. People’s expectations of you will contradict…people can’t make up their mind! But what Your Creator and Redeemer wants from you…that’s a different story. “My yoke is easy and My burden is light…”