Our beliefs are driving our behavior. Our beliefs define who we are. Yet, we have not chosen those beliefs. It is the culture we live in, the home we grew up in, our parents, teachers, and peers who helped shape our beliefs. That is why we tend to blame the world around us for who we are and for our misfortunes. It is a global conspiracy that doesn’t let us be great. What can we do?
Quite a lot. You have not chosen your beliefs, but you agreed to them. Maybe you don’t realize you agreed, but you agreed nonetheless. That is why you take it so personally when someone tramples all over your beliefs, and that is why it is so difficult for you to challenge them and realize that maybe some of your views hold you back or are plain wrong. Yet, because you agreed to these beliefs, you can choose to change your mind and let them go while adopting beliefs that will benefit you.
In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills point out four of these healthy agreements that we can make with ourselves. When truly lived, these agreements will transform you and your life in a more positive and fulfilling way.
These agreements are nothing new. There is no surprising 21st-century formula to happiness. They have been around for millennia, and you would find them in some form in many religions and ancient philosophies. Ruiz and Mills based them on an old Toltec wisdom, but I have found them, for example, in my favorite philosophy, Stoicism.
Whenever you hear a new opinion about the world, and you chose to believe it, you are making an agreement with yourself. You have just decided to change a bit your belief system.
The first agreement is to be impeccable with your word. Sounds simple? Don’t be so fast. It may sound simple, but it is challenging to achieve consistently. Your words shape the world around you, and they shape the world in your mind. By using the right words, you can take any event and create a more positive or negative spin on it. You can use your words to hurt others, and you can use your words to hurt yourself.
If I get angry with you and use rude language, I’m hurting you. But I’m also hurting our relationship, and I’m therefore hurting myself. You will hate me for my anger. Our friendship will be strained. That is not good for either of us. I used my words in a way that is causing lots of harm.
I could choose a different approach and decide to show you kindness and love, even if I believe you have done something bad. You will, of course, respond in kind. If I’m more understanding with you, you will be more understanding with me. If I show that I care about you, you will care about me.
We tend to believe that people mean what they say. That is why gossip or fake news work so well. If you hear some crazy story and pass it on to me, I may decide that I trust you implicitly, and if you are saying it, it must be true. I may trust my friends on social networks. I may trust the media. I may trust the politicians. I may trust many people who ultimately have no idea what they are talking about. Instead of verifying whether what they are saying is true, I may believe that they are impeccable with their words. But very few people are. Learn to trust, but verify.
I love the example Ruiz and Mills give. Imagine that you enrolled at school in a new class. On the first day, someone who took the class the previous year tells you how bad the teacher is. Instead of making your own judgment, your glasses are already colored negatively. The behavior of the teacher you wouldn’t even consider before suddenly leaps at you as unacceptable. So you start spreading the negative word. Ultimately you drop out of the class because of the negative atmosphere, and you blame the teacher.
In reality, it was you and your word that caused all the trouble. Maybe there is nothing wrong with the teacher at all. Perhaps the person spreading the poison failed the class last year because of his incompetence. Maybe the teacher did the right thing. Perhaps it is you, your gullibility, your faulty perception of reality, that caused you to drop out. Be impeccable with your word, but don’t expect others to be too.
The second agreement is, don’t take anything personally. Words uttered by others can’t hurt you unless you allow it. If I tell you that you are fat, there is no need to be offended. As the Stoics would say, either it is accurate, and you are overweight, and then there is no reason to be annoyed with someone who just stated the truth. Or you are not fat, and that means I don’t know what I’m talking about, and you can ignore it. There is no scenario in which you should be angry with me for saying that you are fat. You get offended because, deep down, you believe I’m right but don’t want to admit it to yourself. You are not angry with me but with yourself.
This is extremely visible in situations when I don’t even direct my words at you. I would make a generic statement that you decide to turn towards yourself. This is the ultimate level of personal importance or selfishness when you expect everything in the world revolves around you.
Don’t take things personally. Even if I tell you that you are fat or stupid, it says more about me than about you. It describes my reality and how I chose to see the world and interact with it, in this case, be rude to others. It shows what my belief system looks like, it represents the type of programming I went through during my life, and it manifests my choices. It says nothing about you. Your response to my statement says who you truly are and what your belief system is.
The third agreement is, don’t make assumptions. Similar to the previous agreements, we make assumptions about everything around us. These assumptions are based on our cultural background, what we consider normal, what our belief system is, and past experiences. Assumptions help us to simplify the world around us.
The problem with assumptions is that we believe they represent the truth. They don’t. But because we believe our assumptions, we then build a story around them. Then we have an emotional reaction to that story that we just created. And ultimately, we react based on the emotions we created. And we say something that we would never say if only we didn’t assume at the very beginning.
Ruiz and Mills show this on an example of a typical relationship. You come home, and your spouse is angry with you, and you have no idea why. He or she made some assumptions, and without telling you what they want, they assume that you know them long enough, so of course, you know what they want and why they are angry. He or she gets angry because you are not meeting their expectations. In turn, you get mad, too, as you feel like a victim or a player in some surreal play. A fight starts between people who may otherwise love each other.
The fourth agreement is, always do your best. No more, no less. If you do less, you don’t use your potential, and you get left behind. You will feel like wasting your life. You will lose self-confidence, get frustrated, feel guilt. You won’t find satisfaction and happiness, and you won’t achieve your life goals. If you try to do more, you deplete your energy, get overworked, burn out, and essentially work against yourself and ultimately won’t achieve your goals.
I find this agreement incredibly powerful when setting goals. As I mentioned in Set This Type Of Goals To Be Happy, we often set goals for ourselves that are not entirely under our control and are disappointed when we don’t reach them. Some outside force prevented us from reaching the goal. If you always set your goals to have them entirely under your control, you have a higher likelihood of actually achieving them. The way to do it is to frame them using the words “do my best.”
If you set your goal to “I will win the next tennis match,” you are setting yourself for failure. What if your opponent will be vastly superior? You may have the best match of your life, and you still won’t beat that person. Defeat is guaranteed, and you will feel bad about it as you won’t fulfill your goal. If you set your goal to, “I will do my best to win the next tennis match,” you have it totally under your control. You will make sure you prepare well and then give it all you’ve got on the tennis court. You will still lose, but you will feel good about it. You did your best. You had a great game. You achieved your goal. You will be more motivated to do your best the next time.
This applies to every single activity you do every single day. In Active Questions As A Way To Trigger Change, I mentioned that Marshall Goldsmith, a famous executive coach, and author of numerous books, considers it a good coaching technique.
There are many more agreements you made with yourself over the years. Think about them, put them on paper, and think about them again. How do they impact your life and the lives of those around you? Wouldn’t it make sense to change some of these agreements?
To give you an example. I was raised in the belief that you don’t leave food on a plate. You put on your plate only as much food as you can eat, and you eat it all. The rationale is that you don’t want to waste food. I implicitly made this agreement with myself that I always eat everything that is on a plate. I even expanded it a bit to eat everything available, so it is not wasted. It took me many years to realize how damaging this agreement was to my health. I just kept overeating and then justify it as waste prevention. One day a couple of years back, I made a new agreement with myself. I decided to do my best to put on a plate only what I can eat so the food is not wasted, but it is also okay to leave food on the plate if I had enough. My health is more important than wasted food. I stopped overeating pretty much overnight.
Putting it all together
The four agreements I presented are the fundamental ones that each of us can make with ourselves. It is only up to you to choose to make these agreements and keep them or keep breaking them. As I illustrated, there are many more small agreements that you unknowingly made with yourself that impact everything in your life.
Only by unearthing them and understanding how damaging they are to you, your life, or the people around you can you choose to change them. These agreements have often turned into habits that are firmly ingrained into who you are so that the change won’t be easy. Replace the old bad agreements with new ones, and as long as you care about the change, you will keep them. Your new, better agreements with yourself can have a profound impact on your life satisfaction and happiness.
What are your thoughts on the topic? What sort of harmful agreements have you made with yourself in the past without even realizing it? What helpful agreements would suggest to others to adopt? Do you even believe that you have the power to change the internal agreements you made with yourself?
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