The Lesson of the Lamp

Full disclosure: I can’t take full credit for this blog post. The Lesson of the Lamp comes from my own therapist (yes, therapists have therapists, too!), and I found it incredibly useful in understanding my own personal work around caring what people thought of me.  In my practice, I find that most of my clients spend some significant time thinking about how others perceive them, and then allow those perceptions to dictate their self-worth.

Enter: the Lesson of the Lamp.

A lamp sits on a table. You can ask 20 different people about this lamp, and you’d receive at least 20 different responses. One person doesn’t like the shade, another doesn’t care for brass. A third thinks it’s too tall for the room, and a fourth is fine with the height, but finds the switch to be too stiff. Maybe a fifth doesn’t like the lamp but can’t really tell you why. Still another hates it because it reminds them of the time they broke a similar-looking lamp playing indoor nerf basketball as a kid and their mom grounded them. Whatever these 20 people say about it, you still don’t actually know anything about the lamp.

And guess what? You’re the lamp.

Remember the Lesson of the Lamp the next time you feel criticized. Your husband doesn’t like your new haircut? Fine. That still doesn’t say anything about you, or your haircut. Your girlfriend just dumped you? That’s ok. Their assessment says nothing about you, and everything about them (in ways that you could never begin to guess, so don’t even try). Taking their opinions as truth (you don’t look good in short hair/you are too emotionally “needy”—whatever that means/you’re awkward in social situations/you’re unworthy of love and happiness) is choosing to carry a burden that’s not actually yours to own.

Other people’s feelings and opinions are never about you. Your feelings of shame, anger, jealousy, sadness and joy are never about them. No one can make you feel judged or guilty. This is where good, compassionate self-examination can come in: go into that attic in your mind and start sorting through boxes. This is only the second-hardest thing you can do. The hardest is not doing it, and having to live with it.

Tell me about your lamp. I’d love to learn about it. Send me a message:

Illustrations by Jon Ehinger