Almeida_Júnior_-_Moça_com_LivroA popular New Age view that rankles me is that we create our own reality — and that we become what we think or believe. A related view is that we’re responsible for everything that happens to us.

If our relationships aren’t fulfilling, or if we’re struggling with financial hardship, or if caregiving for an elderly parent is souring our mood, we need only make an attitude adjustment to deliver us from suffering to joy. If we simply practice positive thinking and visualizations, we’ll be rewarded with peace of mind and enduring happiness.

The belief that our thoughts create our reality is as seductive as it is misleading. It would be nice if we had unlimited power to change things, but we don’t have total control over life. Other people have free will and make decisions based upon their own needs and predilections. We delude ourselves if we think we can control others’ choices and all the environmental forces that inevitably affect us.

Try telling a family member whose parent or child died in the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, which still has not been located, that the deceased created this reality for themselves. Could it be that someone or everyone on the plane were having negative or unhelpful thoughts that led to the plane’s demise? Pretty ludicrous, right?

Children often believe that they create all the bad things that happen around them. If their parents divorce, they may think that they are responsible for it. The narcissism of children often creates much suffering for them. Wise and caring parents make it clear that they are not responsible.

If we make the following small adjustment in the belief that we create our own reality, we come closer to the truth: we often participate in creating our reality. This view recognizes that often we’re not helpless victims. Unseemly things happen, but we often have more choice than we realize over how we deal with what happens to us, including our attitude about it.

For example, perhaps our lack of understanding or empathy toward our partner led to their decision to end the relationship. We may have participated in this unwanted outcome by our lack of sensitivity and kindness. Perhaps we were clinging to hurtful criticisms of our partner rather than sharing the more vulnerable feelings that were difficult for us to access. Or, if we’re rejected by someone we’re dating, we might have concluded that we’re basically flawed or that we’ll never find a suitable partner, rather than considering:

  • It just wasn’t a good match.
  • We can’t expect to be the perfect partner for everyone.
  • There are things we can learn from the rejection, but it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us.
  • There are other people out there who may be a better match for me.

We don’t have total control over what happens to us — in fact, often we have no control at all. But we have considerable control over how we relate to what happens to us. We can be mindful of our feelings and hold ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can accept what life brings us, rather than fighting life or always trying to fix or change ourselves. We can be more mindful of our inner critic and gradually replace it with an inner caregiver.

There’s a big difference between being responsible for what happens to us versus being responsive to what happens. We can use what happens to learn and grow from our experience. We have the capacity to grieve, heal, and move on, even if it takes time.

A more self-affirming attitude can safeguard us from sliding into a pit of shame. Maybe we could have acted differently or expressed ourselves more clearly, kindly, or skillfully. But not having done so doesn’t mean we’re defective. It simply means we’re human. A reflective attitude toward unpleasant experiences can deepen our wisdom.

Embracing our human grief and sorrow can deepen our compassion and empathy for others. If we reduce everything that happens to us to unhelpful thoughts, we bypass our feelings and our humanity. We plant ourselves firmly in our heads rather than bringing our heart and soul to our human experiences — embracing the joys and sorrows of being alive and recognizing our felt connection with each other and with life.