It was one of those moments you never forget, a betrayal so deep you can’t rebound. I hung up the phone after hearing the news, disgusted by what my friend had admitted, sick with rage and disbelief that a woman I trusted and loved, who I thought would be my friend forever, had become, in five short minutes, someone I never wanted to speak to again.
Ordinarily, in a case like this — when someone did me profoundly wrong — my impulse would have been to struggle to fix it. Now, for the first time, this thought did not cross my mind. After a lifetime of fixing, rescuing, life-preserving, keeping relationships together come hell or high water, I had no desire to work things out, talk it through, process the pain or communicate my deepest feelings. I just wanted her out of my life.
This was a revelation to me. In my former life, I would have lost weeks of sleep, repeated ad nauseam the appalling story to anybody willing to listen, and been unable to relax fully till we’d managed to reconcile somehow, however inauthentically. Those days were finally over. I did not need to make things OK. I did not need to fight and hold on. I did not need to attack this person; nor was I compelled to forgive her. My former compulsion to go down fighting was replaced by a simple, straightforward intention not to further engage.
I wanted no drama in my life. That was the bottom line. I’d been through every infernal season when it came to relationships — romantic and other — health scares, family disasters, job collapses, you name it. My childhood had been a Greek tragedy. I was overdosed on histrionics, superfluous conflict, extravagant pathos, futile strutting across the stage of every idiotic drama du jour. Life did not need to be so Sophoclean. Sometimes it could be Louis C.K.
I wanted to lighten up. Like a friend of mine says about getting older: More happens, less matters. This isn’t an excuse for apathy; it’s more like knowing better with age. Everything matters when you’re young. Everything appears to be important. Then serious stuff starts to happen to you — births, deaths, losses, pain — and the small stuff isn’t worth engaging with. Life is too short. Energy isn’t endless. Wisdom trumps theater; peace trumps bathos; acceptance trumps struggle; surrender trumps will. A natural winnowing happens with time. We choose our battles differently because now the big ones are choosing us.
If you’re ready to live a drama-free life, here are ten rules that have worked for me.
1. “No” is a complete sentence. Most drama comes from waffling, people-pleasing and denying what we actually feel. If you’re someone who lives for others’ approval, start telling the truth and let the chips fall where they may. “Never complain and never explain,” in the words of Disraeli. If the answer is no, just say so and make life easier.
2. Say no to sociopaths. Many of the problem people in your life are sociopaths or on the sociopathy spectrum (check out Hare’s Sociopathy Checklist), though you probably don’t know it. Sociopaths are self-absorbed folks who can’t feel empathy, believe ends justify means and are generally unavailable. These people are like catnip for drama addicts. They are ever unattainable, ever desirable and are fodder for endless, repeating conflict. Enough already.
3. Stop telling the story. This is an inside and an outside job. When bad things happen, watch how your mind turns situations into repeating tales of dramatic proportion. Commit to distracting yourself from this diatribe as quickly as possible (the best way I’ve found is to tell my mind to shut the hell up). When dealing with others, resist the urge to keep telling and retelling the dramatic story, which endows it with false gravitas. Your friends can help by telling you to shut up.
4. Never have sex after the breakup. This seems obvious yet is a specialty of drama addicts who refuse to let go, convincing themselves that one more time won’t hurt anything, or, more calculatingly, that one more time might jumpstart the failed relationship. Sex never ends a drama. It makes things worse, every time, tightening bonds that should be broken. Find someone else to sleep with.
5. Spend no more than three consecutive days with your family of origin. You love them, they love you, but don’t overdo it. If you’re forced to spend more than three days with your family, find some way to escape at regular intervals. Do not attempt to fully re-burrow into the lives of people in your nuclear family. Remember that you left for a reason.
6. Remember that nothing is your business. As a teacher of mine likes to say, there are three kinds of business in the world: your business, my business and God’s business. Most of what we believe to be our business absolutely isn’t. Be radically honest about when you’re being nosey and stop it. This principle applies equally to other people minding your business (and you thinking they deserve an opinion. See #1). Ignore them or tell them to butt out.
7. Remember that almost nothing matters. Aside from the big things, loyalty, sincerity, honesty, empathy, telling the truth and keeping commitments, almost nothing in relationships matters enough to struggle over. Today’s big deal is tomorrow’s fossil. Be cautious when it comes to stirring the pot and take the long view when you can.
8. Not everything needs to be said. Related to #7. Despite what we’ve learned in our communication-happy, analysis-addicted, romance-deluded culture, not everything needs to be said. Unless we’re being asked our opinion, it’s best to keep our mouths shut. Few things deserve to be dissected after the fact. Nor, in relationships, is it necessary to be 100% understood by the other. Agreeing to disagree is the best way to show respect.
9. Get over yourself. Remember what a jerk you can be. This will stop you from being self-righteous. Drama feeds on believing we’re right. Regardless of how perfectly right you think you are, remember that you are also wrong. Close examination will reveal cracks in your perfection. If you find yourself standing on top of a soapbox, kick it away. As a friend from Texas used to say about self-righteous people, “Get down off your trapeze and get down here in the sawdust with the rest of us.”
10. Put out your fire first. The most important step of all. Know your demons, cravings and conflicts. Know that till you’ve resolved your own battles, you’ll make drama everywhere you go, painting the world with your unfought crusades. Turn down the fire raging inside you and notice that the world cools off, too. The word “nirvana” comes the Pali verb meaning “to cool off,” like a hot skillet removed from the flame. Once we’ve cooled off inside, we’re not interested in getting overheated.
It’s so much better to be cool.