Sources: Nerves And Common Sense
IF you want to know the true answer to this question it is "because
you are unwilling that Mrs. Smith should be herself." You want her
to be just like you, or, if not just like you, you want her to be
just as you would best like her.
I have seen a woman so annoyed that she could not eat her supper
because another woman ate sugar on baked beans. When this woman told
me later what it was that had taken away her appetite she added:
"And isn't it absurd? Why shouldn't Mrs. Smith eat sugar on baked
beans? It does not hurt me. I do not have to taste the sugar on the
beans; but is it such an odd thing to do. It seems to me such bad
manners that I just get so mad I can't eat!"
Now, could there be anything more absurd than that? To see a woman
annoyed; to see her recognize that she was uselessly and foolishly
annoyed, and yet to see that she makes not the slightest effort to
get over her annoyance.
It is like the woman who discovered that she spoke aloud in church,
and was so surprised that she exclaimed: "Why, I spoke out loud in
church!" and then, again surprised, she cried: "Why, I keep speaking
aloud in church!"--and it did not occur to her to stop.
My friend would have refused an invitation to supper, I truly
believe, if she had known that Mrs. Smith would be there and her
hostess would have baked beans. She was really a slave to Mrs.
Smith's way of eating baked beans.
"Well, I do not blame her," I hear some reader say; "it is entirely
out of place to eat sugar on baked beans. Why shouldn't she be
I answer: "Why should she be annoyed? Will her annoyance stop Mrs.
Smith's eating sugar on baked beans? Will she in any way--selfish or
otherwise--be the gainer for her annoyance? Furthermore, if it were
the custom to eat sugar on baked beans, as it is the custom to put
sugar in coffee, this woman would not have been annoyed at all. It
was simply the fact of seeing Mrs. Smith digress from the ordinary
course of life that annoyed her."
It is the same thing that makes a horse shy. The horse does not say
to himself, "There is a large carriage, moving with no horse to pull
it, with nothing to push it, with--so far as I can see--no motive
power at all. How weird that is! How frightful!"--and, with a
quickly beating heart, jump aside and caper in scared excitement. A
horse when he first sees an automobile gets an impression on his
brain which is entirely out of his ordinary course of
impressions--it is as if some one suddenly and unexpectedly struck
him, and he shies and jumps. The horse is annoyed, but he does not
know what it is that annoys him. Now, when a horse shies you drive
him away from the automobile and quiet him down, and then, if you
are a good trainer, you drive him back again right in front of that
car or some other one, and you repeat the process until the
automobile becomes an ordinary impression to him, and he is no
longer afraid of it.
There is, however, just this difference between a woman and a horse:
the woman has her own free will behind her annoyance, and a horse
has not. If my friend had asked Mrs. Smith to supper twice a week,
and had served baked beans each time and herself passed her the
sugar with careful courtesy, and if she had done it all deliberately
for the sake of getting over her annoyance, she would probably have
only increased it until the strain would have got on her nerves much
more seriously than Mrs. Smith ever had. Not only that, but she
would have found herself resisting other people's peculiarities more
than ever before; I have seen people in nervous prostration from
causes no more serious than that, on the surface. It is the habit of
resistance and resentment back of the surface annoyance which is the
serious cause of many a woman's attack of nerves.
Every woman is a slave to every other woman who annoys her. She is
tied to each separate woman who has got on her nerves by a wire
which is pulling, pulling the nervous force right out of her. And it
is not the other woman's fault--it is her own. The wire is pulling,
whether or not we are seeing or thinking of the other woman, for,
having once been annoyed by her, the contraction is right there in
our brains. It is just so much deposited strain in our nervous
systems which will stay there until we, of our own free wills, have
yielded out of it.
The horse was not resenting nor resisting the automobile; therefore
the strain of his fright was at once removed when the automobile
became an ordinary impression. A woman, when she gets a new
impression that she does not like, resents and resists it with her
will, and she has got to get in behind that resistance and drop it
with her will before she is a free woman.
To be sure, there are many disagreeable things that annoy for a
time, and then, as the expression goes, we get hardened to them. But
few of us know that this hardening is just so much packed resistance
which is going to show itself later in some unpleasant form and make
us ill in mind or body. We have got to yield, yield, yield out of
every bit of resistance and resentment to other people if we want to
be free. No reasoning about it is going to do us any good. No
passing back and forth in front of it is going to free us. We must
yield first and then we can see clearly and reason justly. We must
yield first and then we can go back and forth in front of it, and it
will only be a reminder to yield every time until the habit of
yielding has become habitual and the strength of nerve and strength
of character developed by means of the yielding have been
Let me explain more fully what I mean by "yielding." Every
annoyance, resistance, or feeling of resentment contracts us in some
way physically; if we turn our attention toward dropping that
physical contraction, with a real desire to get rid of the
resistance behind it, we shall find that dropping the physical
strain opens the way to drop the mental and moral strain, and when
we have really dropped the strain we invariably find reason and
justice and even generosity toward others waiting to come to us.
There is one important thing to be looked out for in this normal
process of freeing ourselves from other people. A young girl said
once to her teacher: "I got mad the other day and I relaxed, and the
more I relaxed the madder I got!"
"Did you want to get over the anger?" asked the teacher.
"No, I didn't," was the prompt and ready answer.
Of course, as this child relaxed out of the tension of her anger,
there was only more anger to take its place, and the more she
relaxed the more free her nerves were to take the impression of the
anger hoarded up in her; consequently it was as she said: the more
she relaxed the "madder" she got. Later, this same little girl came
to understand fully that she must have a real desire to get over her
anger in order to have better feelings come up after she had dropped
the contraction of the anger.
I know of a woman who has been holding such steady hatred for
certain other people that the strain of it has kept her ill. And it
is all a matter of feeling: first, that these people have interfered
with her welfare; second, that they differ from her in opinion.
Every once in a while her hatred finds a vent and spends itself in
tears and bitter words. Then, after the external relief of letting
out her pent-up feeling, she closes up again and one would think
from her voice and manner--if one did not look very deep in--that
she had only kindliness for every one. But she stays nervously ill
How could she do otherwise with that strain in her? If she were
constitutionally a strong woman this strain of hatred would have
worn on her, though possibly not have made her really ill; but,
being naturally sensitive and delicate, the strain has kept her an
"Mother, I can't stand Maria," one daughter says to her mother, and
when inquiry is made the mother finds that what her daughter "cannot
stand" is ways that differ from her own. Sometimes, however, they
are very disagreeable ways which are exactly like the ways of the
person who cannot stand them. If one person is imperious and
demanding she will get especially annoyed at another person for
being imperious and demanding, without a suspicion that she is
objecting vehemently to a reflection of herself.
There are two ways in which people get on our nerves. The first way
lies in their difference from us in habit--in little things and in
big things; their habits are not our habits. Their habits may be all
right, and our habits may be all right, but they are "different."
Why should we not be willing to have them different? Is there any
reason for it except the very empty one that we consciously and
unconsciously want every one else to be just like us, or to believe
just as we do, or to behave just as we do? And what sense is there
"I cannot stand Mrs. So-and-so; she gets into a rocking-chair and
rocks and rocks until I feel as if I should go crazy!" some one
says. But why not let Mrs. So-and-so rock? It is her chair while she
is in it, and her rocking. Why need it touch us at all?
"But," I hear a hundred women say, "it gets on our nerves; how can
we help its getting on our nerves?" The answer to that is: "Drop it
off your nerves." I know many women who have tried it and who have
succeeded, and who are now profiting by the relief. Sometimes the
process to such freedom is a long one; sometimes it is a short one;
but, either way, the very effort toward it brings nervous strength,
as well as strength of character.
Take the woman who rocks. Practically every time she rocks you
should relax, actually and consciously relax your muscles and your
nerves. The woman who rocks need not know you are relaxing; it all
can be done from inside. Watch and you will find your muscles
strained and tense with resistance to the rocking. Go to work
practically to drop every bit of strain that you observe. As you
drop the grossest strain it will make you more sensitive to the
finer strain and you can drop that--and it is even possiple that you
may seek the woman who rocks, in order to practice on her and get
free from the habit of resisting more quickly.
This seems comical--almost ridiculous--to think of seeking an
annoyance in order to get rid of it; but, after laughing at it
first, look at the idea seriously, and you will see it is common
sense. When you have learned to relax to the woman who rocks you
have learned to relax to other similar annoyances. You have been
working on a principle that applies generally. You have acquired a
good habit which can never really fail you.
If my friend had invited Mrs. Smith to supper and served baked beans
for the sake of relaxing out of the tension of her resistance to the
sugar, then she could have conquered that resistance. But to try to
conquer an annoyance like that without knowing how to yield in some
way would be, so far as I know, an impossibility. Of course, we
would prefer that our friends should not have any disagreeable,
ill-bred, personal ways, but we can go through the world without
resisting them, and there is no chance of helping any one out of
them through our own resistances.
On the other hand a way may open by which the woman's attention is
called to the very unhealthy habit of rocking--or eating sugar on
beans--if we are ready, without resistance, to point it out to her.
And if no way opens we have at least put ourselves out of bondage to
her. The second way in which other people get on our nerves is more
serious and more difficult. Mrs. So-and-so may be doing very
wrong--really very wrong; or some one who is nearly related to us
may be doing very wrong--and it may be our most earnest and sincere
desire to set him right. In such cases the strain is more intense
because we really have right on our side, in our opinion, if not in
our attitude toward the other person. Then, to recognize that if
some one else chooses to do wrong it is none of our business is one
of the most difficult things to do--for a woman, especially.
It is more difficult to recognize practically that, in so far as it
may be our business, we can best put ourselves in a position to
enable the other person to see his own mistake by dropping all
personal resistance to it and all personal strain about it. Even a
mother with her son can help him to be a man much more truly if she
stops worrying about and resisting his unmanliness.
"But," I hear some one say, "that all seems like such cold
indifference." Not at all--not at all. Such freedom from strain can
be found only through a more actively affectionate interest in
others. The more we truly love another, the more thoroughly we
respect that other's individuality.
The other so-called love is only love of possession and love of
having our own way. It is not really love at all; it is sugar-coated
tyranny. And when one sugar-coated tyrant' antagonizes herself
against another sugar-coated tyrant the strain is severe indeed, and
nothing good is ever accomplished.
The Roman infantry fought with a fixed amount of space about each
soldier, and found that the greater freedom of individual activity
enabled them to fight better and to conquer their foes. This
symbolizes happily the process of getting people off our nerves. Let
us give each one a wide margin and thus preserve a good margin for
We rub up against other people's nerves by getting too near to
them--not too near to their real selves, but too near, so to speak,
to their nervous systems. There have been quarrels between good
people just because one phase of nervous irritability roused
another. Let things in other people go until you have entirely
dropped your strain about them--then it will be clear enough what to
do and what to say, or what not to do and what not to say. People in
the world cannot get on our nerves unless we allow them to do so.