zen habits : breathe

Mindfully Free of Wanting People to Be a Certain Way

By Leo Babauta

One of the biggest sources of difficulties for every single human being is the desire for people to be a certain way.

We can’t seem to help it: we want the world to be the way we want it. Unfortunately, reality always has different plans, and people behave in less-than-ideal ways.

The problem isn’t other people. It’s our ideals.

Yes, I think it would be great if people stopped killing animals for food and fashion, and became vegan instead. But that’s not the reality I’m faced with, and it’s not going to happen for quite some time, if ever.

Yes, I think it would be great if my kids behaved perfectly all the time, but that’s not the reality of kids. Or any human beings, for that matter.

Yes, it would be great if my wife always agreed with me, but that’s not going to happen.

So the problem is:

This is obviously not great.

We have a couple options:

  1. Stick rigidly to the way we want people to be, and be upset when they don’t meet those ideals.
  2. Stick rigidly to the way we want people to be, and try really hard to make them be that way. (This pretty much never works.)
  3. Let go of the ideals and be happier and less frustrated.

When we think about it this way, it’s obvious that option 3 is the best route. We’ll talk about this option soon, but let’s talk about a couple objections first.

Objections to Letting Go

When people are confronted with the idea of letting go of their ideals about other people, they usually have a few objections:

So these objections are all about wanting to change people’s bad behavior. This article is about inner acceptance of “bad” behavior (or what I think of as “not ideal”) … but once you have inner acceptance, you can take appropriate external action. That might be helping, being compassionate, getting to safety, talking calmly and lovingly to someone, reporting abusive behavior, getting counseling, or many more appropriate actions that come from a place of love, compassion and understanding rather than frustration and anger.

Letting Go of Ideals

So how do you let go of wanting people to be a certain way?

First, reflect on how these ideals are harming you and others. This wanting your way, this wanting a specific version of reality … is making you frustrated, unhappy, angry. It’s harming your relationship. It’s likely making the other person unhappy as well. This is all caused by an attachment to expectations and ideals.

Next, reflect on wanting yourself and others to be happy. If the ideals and expectations are harming yourself and others … wouldn’t it be nice to stop harming yourself? Wouldn’t it be nice to be happy instead of frustrated? Think about the desire to have a better relationship with other people as well, and for them to be happier in their relationship with you. This is your intention, and it is one of love.

Third, notice the ideals and frustrations as they arise. See when someone else is frustrating you, and reflect on what ideal you’re holding for them. How do you want them to behave instead? Don’t get caught up in your story of why they should behave that way, but instead just take note of the ideal. See that this ideal is harming you. Decide that it’s not useful to you.

Also notice your mental pattern of resentment when someone doesn’t meet your expectations, and decide to try to catch it early. It’s a pattern you can be aware of and catch early, and decide to change your pattern.

Next, mindfully observe the tightness. Turn your attention to your body, the tightness that comes from holding on to this ideal. Pay attention to how it feels, the quality of the energy in your body, where it’s located, how it changes. In this moment of observing, you are awake, rather than being stuck in the daydream of your story about why this person should be behaving differently.

At this point, you can decide to try a different pattern.

A Different Way

So now, you can practice a different way of being.

Here are some ideas I’ve found useful:

These are some practices. Try them, practice them over and over. I think you’ll be happier for it, and every relationship will be better.



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