Deb Sofield


It’s not what happens to you

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It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Epictetus

There is no easy way to say it and no need to sugar coat the truth that for many could be life-changing, so I’ll hit you straight up and remind you that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

You know this to be true, and yet it is so hard to let offenses, real and imagined, go without a fight or at least a great put-you-in-your-place-amazingly-smart-aleck comment.

Recently, I was speaking at a leadership luncheon, and I used a quote from Jim Rohn, who was considered one of America’s foremost business philosophers and one of my favorite motivational speakers. And he has a variation on this ancient quote by Epictetus; he says, “It’s not what happens that determines the quality or quantity of your life, and the reason is because what happens–happens to about everyone. The sun went down on all of us last night–a common event–and it is true that the same thing can happen to two different people, but one gets rich, and the other stays poor. Why is that? It’s not because of what happens but rather what you do about it.”

Let me say that again. It is not what happens… it’s what you do that makes the difference in how your life works out.

“What happens is about the same for everybody it’s what people do that makes the difference. Some people say, “But you don’t know the disappointments I’ve had.” Come on, everyone has disappointments. Disappointments are not special gifts reserved for the poor. Everybody has them. The question is, what are you going to do about it?” (From The Art of Exceptional Living Videos)

And that is always the question that most people want to hide from. They don’t want to make a decision that might disrupt their life story of past hurts that resulted in current failures and mistakes. Why? Because admitting that they were part of the problem by their poor reaction to the situation, shifts the story to something not quite as interesting.

I hear from clients who want to give me a song and dance about how their disappointments are special. They have crafted elaborate stories in which they are always the victim, the injured party or the wounded soul of some hurt or comment or slight, and since that event, they have chosen not been the same.

Seriously, you and I know people who can point to one event in their life, usually in the past, and they cling to that event for every issue as a crutch or excuse of their failure in life.

Let me give a caveat. I am not speaking about abuse–that is completely different and needs to be dealt with by a professional who can offer a path of healing and wholeness so the injured party can move forward in their life.

What I am concerned about is how easily we react and blame others instead of admitting a mistake, or at the very least, owning up to our part of the problem. And, yes, others may have caused pain and made mistakes, but that story is old and over, so now why are you still clinging to your past instead of consciously choosing to react in a different manner to move forward? 

Friend, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. Whether the incident was yesterday or years ago, you need to make a choice to change your reactions to the pain of your past because you are in control of the outcome of your life…and you always have been.

Recently we were amused by a story of a guy who 50 years later still holds a grudge against his step-father because, once when he was making a cake, he wouldn’t let him lick the beaters. He claims that he let “his son” have first dibs, and to this day he still holds that childhood hurt like a badge of honor to show that he was hurt and, in his mind, unloved as a child over one incident. And, yes, I said 50 years later. I, for one, cannot fathom that an adult is so mentally feeble that they cannot and will not stop telling that story. And whether it is true or not, they steadfastly refuse to let it go, so they can use it as a battering ram to hit anyone who criticizes them for their immature behavior as an adult.

Without a doubt, you have heard, or you can tell similar tales of woe and pain that your friends have told you of things that happened to them in childhood, and to this day some of them choose to react with self-satisfying pain.

I am beginning to think that staying stuck in life because of the words or actions of others is becoming a national pastime of some of our friends and colleagues who cannot and will not let bygones be bygones, so they have something to point to when life doesn’t reward them the way they want.

Instead of accepting that others were not good or kind or loyal (or whatever other issue that burns a hole in their soul and psyche and allows them to muddle through life with a chip on their shoulder), and instead of tossing those old emotional issues in the trash, holding on to them will be the undoing of our friends who just can’t get over it, whatever “it” is. Their unwillingness to choose to react differently by forgiving and forgetting will dim their bright future to a muted light as they walk their life’s path.

My theme today is focused on the hard truth that “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” And the amazing thing is that every day you have the opportunity to choose to release the past and move into the future. That should be the best day of your life. It’s true that it doesn’t matter where you’ve been; it only matters where you are going, and the good news is you are the captain of your ship. So, as Mark Twain once said, “… throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

The week before last I wrote that you shouldn’t be complaining about things you are not willing to change and that one of the biggest issues, which seems never to go away, is the blame list that we all have.

We all love to blame others for our problems because it appears to take away the responsibilities that we should be shouldering. I’m not sure where that type of thinking comes from, but it is not true. Blaming others does not fix a thing in your life.

If you find yourself still hurt and angry by the actions of others, let me share the following story so you can see from a different perspective how it is hurting you.

This hypothetical story is from Danny Fine.

“Two people go through the same event (a minor traffic accident perhaps). One emerges from his vehicle wielding an iron bar, frothing at the mouth, screaming obscenities and threatening violence, while the other calmly searches for a pen and paper to exchange insurance details. The psycho gets arrested for attempted assault and battery with a weapon, while Mr. Calm drives home with a small scratch on his car, kisses his wife and kids and carries on with his happy life. Rather than learning a lesson from the experience and vowing to change his ways, the angry psycho gets even angrier at the cops, the judge, the legal system, the government and the rest of the world for victimizing him. Following his arrest and conviction, he continues to stumble from one (self-created and perpetuated) drama to the next. Never realizing that in the middle of all these catastrophes, he is the common denominator. He is the reason. He is the creator of the mayhem. He is the problem. And the solution; should he choose to be. If only he would learn to manage the events of his life differently (react differently), his life experience (his reality) would change dramatically. But as long as he continues to do the same (react poorly), he will continue to produce the same type of negative, destructive outcomes.”

I would not be surprised if you know someone just like this. We all do, as sad as it is to admit. What concerns me more than us knowing this person, is that some reading today work for this type of person, have family members who are like this or are in a relationship with this type of person. I wish I could tell you that they will change, but from my experience and time watching them act like this, I hold out no hope for a changed heart, I am sad to say.

This type of person doesn’t believe my theme for today because they choose to cling to and believe that they are not in control of their reactions. They choose to believe that life is not “fair” (whatever that means) and that others on the outside, who no longer know their name or care about them one iota, still control their lives.

If they could accept the truth that it’s not what happens to them, but how they react to it that matters, it could heal their heart and mind and change their life forever. Instead, many refuse to change their life story because their fragile existence would be exposed as a fraud; they would be seen as a faker and an imposter if they ever admitted that it’s how they reacted to what happened to them that mattered most.

Listen, I know today’s theme is on the hard side, but please hear me: too many good people are choosing to live an angry, volatile, unstable life that will in time affect their health, their family and their future. And the thing of it is that it doesn’t have to be that way if they will just own up to life’s responsibilities and learn to react as well as anyone can to the situation instead of blaming others.

The hard and deceptively simple truth is that it is not what happens to you, but what you do about it that makes the difference in how your life works out.

Deb Sofield

Deb Sofield is a Keynote Speaker, Author of the book, Speak without Fear – Rock Star Presentation Skills to get People to Hear What You Say and Encouragement For Your Life ~ Tough Love Memos to Help You Fight Your Battles and Change the World, Radio Talk Show Host in the Salem Network, Podcaster and President of her own Executive Speech Coaching Co., which trains women and men for success in speaking, crisis communications, presentation skills, media and message development in the U.S. and abroad.

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