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Don’t Blame the Messenger!

Phillip Moffitt
October 19, 2022
 min read

In most difficult situations in life, there is almost always a message to be discovered about something you need to learn or a habit you need to abandon. A difficult situation may signal unskillful behavior, weak judgment, poor boundaries, sloppy thinking, inadequate planning, or inferior communication or listening skills on your part. Understanding the message redeems the situation from simply being a bad experience. However, we sometimes receive our most important messages from hurtful messengers and the messages are hidden in upsetting forms of communication. Then it becomes emotionally difficult to separate the message from the messenger, and the message from the form it takes.

For example, imagine you’ve been fired from your job due to what management calls a “bad attitude.” Maybe you believe you are the only person in the organization that fights for what is right. While that might be true, you may have created a lot of unnecessary suffering by being divisive and undermining morale. In this situation, the form of the message is getting fired, the messenger is your boss, and the real message is that you have not learned to stay mindful of your inner experience when you are triggered by external factors at work. However, it is possible to train yourself through mindfulness to “remember” that you are more interested in receiving the message than giving into the emotional resistance that arises.

How to Separate the Message from the Messenger and the Form of the Message:

1. Stay with the experience without getting lost in judgments or comparisons, or getting caught up in endless “what if” mind games. Practicing compassion and loving-kindness toward yourself is extremely useful in helping you stay with the unpleasant experience.

2. Identify the form of the message. So often we are simply overwhelmed by the form the message takes—such as being left by a spouse, being overlooked for a promotion, being severely criticized, or being taken advantage of in some fashion—and we fail to identify the message.

3. Re-frame the messenger. Usually, it is clear who the messenger is—an unhappy spouse, a friend who won’t return your calls, or a sibling who always takes advantage of you. However, it is critical that you re-frame that person as the messenger rather than getting lost in their shortcomings or your history with them.

4. Listen to the messenger, but never give away your authority. You’re being given a message from life—only you can receive the message and know what it means. Sometimes you have to wait for your emotions to settle before you can receive the message. Also, it’s not unusual for there to be more than one message. The message may reflect a pattern of behavior or a series of shortcomings in you that causes similar problems to occur repeatedly.

5. Cultivate a true desire to know and grow in wisdom. Receive the message with humility, knowing that you do not know everything about yourself, and accept your own imperfection.

6. Ask a friend, a psychotherapist, or coach to help you identify the message. Before you take any feedback, tell that person what you think the message is after telling them the story. Often just saying it out loud to someone else helps clarify the message.

7. And be patient. In my own life, I can recall situations where I was quick to get the message and how empowering that was, even though I was feeling bad. I also recall other situations where it was months—even years—before I could comprehend the message.

For Your Reflection:

1. Think of a current of past difficult situation in your life. Try to separate the message from the messenger, and the message from the form the message takes.

2. What do you think you need to learn or abandon or understand?

3. Do you find yourself in similar difficult situations time and again? Is there a message you are not receiving from these experiences?

For Further Study:

Listen to Phillip’s talk on separating the message from the messenger and the form of the message.