Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ask Asha: Reacting to Others' Nervous Habits

[You can ask your own question here.]


Dear Asha,

I feel very stressed whenever a person exhibits a nervous habit: foot tapping, gum chewing, hair twisting, nail biting, etc. Soon I will be visiting my son and daughter-in-law. I like my daughter-in-law but have difficulty being with her because she bites and chews on her nails most of the time, including while driving, walking, at restaurants, riding in the car, at home, etc. My strong reaction really interferes with being with her. I want to have a relationship with them both, but I dread going there because of my problem.

Do you have a suggestion for dealing with this? I don't seem to be able to handle it.



Dear S.P.:

Whenever I find myself in the company of people who upset my inner peace, for whatever reason, I find if I can turn my attention away from own feelings, toward God and praying for them, I can change my attitude.

At the same time, because I am inwardly disturbed, connecting to God and getting my mind off myself is not always easy.

The solution came to me when surrounded by a group of beggars in India. For many reasons, it was not appropriate to empty my wallet into their outstretched hands. Among other reasons, I didn’t have enough rupees to satisfy all of them, and to give to some and not others would have made the situation even more chaotic.

Besides, I have to say frankly, even if they were needy, I didn’t like their consciousness and didn’t feel inspired to give them the money they were asking for.

Still, they were clearly unhappy, and I wanted to do something for them. Looking calmly into the eyes of those nearest to me, inwardly I prayed intently, “Divine Mother, bless us all.” The beggars had their reason to be agitated and I had mine. We all needed Divine Mother’s help. After just a few repetitions of this prayer, I could feel a divine peace descending on me and radiating through me to the beggars around me.

I wasn’t giving the beggars what they asked for, but I was giving them something they needed. They, too, calmed down and seemed to some extent satisfied.

Since then I have found this to be an ideal prayer in many circumstances. I use it when confronted by angry, homeless, or mentally deranged people, or anyone who makes demands of me that I am not able to satisfy.

Of course the power of the prayer depends on how sincerely and deeply I repeat it. I hope it is as effective for you as it has been for me.

Now, let us consider this from another angle. Why do you feel this way and is there anything you can do about it?

What if it were your son who had this nervous habit, not his wife? Would your love for him overcome your aversion to his mannerism? In other words, can you imagine loving someone so much that the habit wouldn’t bother you?

What if it was involuntary, a twitching that resulted from a stroke, for example? What if you developed such a disorder? How would you want your husband, your son, and your daughter-in-law to respond? And how would you feel if, instead of acceptance, they turned away from you?

Is your aversion to the habit itself, so that even if it were involuntary it would elicit from you the same strong reaction? Or is it judgmental, annoyance at what you consider to be weakness? Is your thought, “Why can’t she control herself?”

If it is the latter, isn’t it interesting that you can’t control yourself, but you are upset because she can’t control herself?

No one is saying that these are nice habits. They are unpleasant to be around and even worse for the person acting them out.

But there is a world of difference between observing impartially -- “Poor soul, so nervous all the time” -- and the kind of response you are describing.

What we judge in others is always a reflection of what we find distressing in ourselves. Our anger at our own weaknesses causes us to react intensely when we see the same weaknesses in others. Even though it makes no sense, we imagine that if we can expunge this quality in someone else it will also disappear from inside ourselves. Alas, it doesn’t work.

Perhaps you don’t have the specific manifestations that you speak of, but what do these habits represent to you?

A great deal is at stake here. Your poor daughter-in-law is not only driven by her inner compulsion to chew constantly on her fingernails, but she also has a mother-in-law who judges her for doing so. You dread visiting her. I suspect the feeling is mutual.

And how do you think that makes your son feel? And if his wife becomes so upset by your attitude toward her that he is forced to choose between his mother and his wife, who will he choose?

You say you can’t get rid of your reaction. I ask you, how much are you willing to risk in order to hold onto it? Perhaps you can use your helplessness in the face of this to create compassion and understanding for others who are also out of control.

Yes, it is difficult to overcome these deep-seated aversions. But God sent this woman and her annoying habit to you as a gift to help you grow spiritually. Your relationship with your son could also be at stake. If that doesn’t motivate you, what will? Sooner or later you will have to expand your heart and develop the compassion to accept others as they are. This seems like a good place to start.

Divine Mother, bless us all.

Nayaswami Asha

[Questions and answers from other Ananda ministers worldwide can be found on the Ask the Experts page of]

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