Back in 1997 a book written by Don Miguel Ruiz was published that one would normally pass by as another piece of pop psychology written by a supposed Toltec to litter the “self-help” section of bookstores for a short period of time. It would then disappear into the dusty back room of used book stores. However, the wisdom between its pages was so simple and yet so profound that it continues to endure and influence lives eighteen years later. Whatever the origins of the wisdom, it is hard to dispute the value of applying the Four Agreements in one’s personal and professional life. I am going to attempt to take these agreements and apply them to the work that we do as advocates for domestic and sexual assault victims.
The Four Agreements are:
Be impeccable with your word;
Don’t take anything personally;
Don’t make assumptions; and
Always do your best.
The 1st Agreement: Be impeccable with your word
Ruiz defines the word impeccability as meaning “’without sin. And sin is anything that you do which goes against yourself. You go against yourself when you judge or blame yourself for anything. When you are impeccable, you take responsibility for your actions, but you do not judge or blame yourself.” In addition we don’t use our words against others in the same way. Criticizing, blaming, or gossiping about the people with whom we work (other advocates and/or survivors) is not honoring the agreement to be impeccable.
Honoring our commitments is also considered to be a part of being impeccable in our word. When we make a commitment to a survivor or a co-worker we must make sure that we are able to follow through on that commitment. We should not make promises we can’t keep. It is more honorable to say “no” that to make a promise that we eventually will have to break. It is important that we be aware of our limitations and the scope of our services so that we do not make empty promises.
The 2nd Agreement: Don’t take anything personally
This seems to be one of the most difficult agreements for advocates, especially when they feel they are doing everything they can for someone and then the person becomes angry and seemingly ungrateful for what has been done for them. Don Miguel Ruiz puts it very succinctly, “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of them.” So when someone is angry at you or if someone is talking bad about your agency recognize that it has more to do with them and how they are feeling than it does to do with you. Especially if you have been keeping the 1st agreement! The agreements build on each other.
The other side of this is that even when someone is saying wonderful things about you and telling you that you are the best advocate in the whole world and they could never have done it without you – well, don’t take it personally. It is still about them and how they feel about themselves. They feel great and the whole world feels wonderful. Just reflect back to them what an awesome job they did and let it go. We don’t need to fill our heads with a scrapbook of all the good things that people said about us. It is about them.
The 3rd Agreement: Don’t make assumptions (or if you do, assume everyone is following the 4th Agreement!)
Ruiz says “the way to keep yourself from making assumptions is to ask questions. Make sure communication is clear. If you don’t understand, ask. Have the courage to ask questions until you are as clear as you can be.” Often I find advocates making assumptions about how institutions should respond to domestic violence and how survivors should be responding to their circumstances. This creates more drama and angst. By asking questions of other service providers we can find out what their limitations are and maybe open communication enough to be able to find out what can be done within their system or create a relationship in which change can be created. Assumptions build walls of misunderstanding. By communicating we can tear down those walls.
When we work with survivors we often make assumptions about how they are feeling or what they are doing based on how we would feel or what we would do. By asking questions we learn more, we find out with what barriers they are fighting, and we learn more about their inner strengths and capabilities. We become more victim-center when we do not make assumptions.
The 4th Agreement: Always do your best
Doing our best is what maintains our commitment to the first three agreements and keeps us focused. Don Miguel Ruiz states: Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next (italics mine). Everything is alive and change all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good.” As I said above, it if we are going to assume anything about someone else, it is that they are also doing their best.
The level of our best is going to rely on self-care. If we don’t take care of ourselves our best will not be very good and our ability to follow any of these agreements will be less than optimal. When we find ourselves unable to follow through on our commitments, gossiping or blaming, taking things personally, or making assumptions, there is a good chance that our personal well of compassion has run dry because we haven’t maintained good positive self-care. And, on the other hand, following the Four Agreements is a means of self-care that doesn’t require taking a day off or backing off on commitments. Once we stop and take a breath, focus back on where we may not be keeping the agreements, we can then move forward with integrity and focus on victim-centered services.