My last post dealt with the very real consequences to you of the bad habit – and it is a bad habit – of taking things personally. If you tend to take things personally, others around you will notice and will take care to either avoid sensitive topics or avoid you all together. Either way you lose.
This post is meant to offer some tips on how to not take things personally? It’s clear that knowing that it’s not in your best interest to stop doing something doesn’t mean that you will, just ask smokers or overeaters. If you tend to take things personally you are likely to continue doing so for some time to come. The good news is that you will be able to notice when you do, be able to let go of feelings of hurt and move on.
Here are the steps:
Notice and ask questions
I’ve often said the most basic skills of living your life as a practice are the skills of noticing and asking questions. Notice yourself taking something personally and then ask questions like:
- “Why am I reacting this way?”
- “What beliefs/stories are being triggered or threatened that are causing me to react this way?
- “Why is this person behaving this way?”
- “What possible reasons/beliefs/situations could be driving this person to behave this way?”
- “Is this really a big deal?”
- “What can I learn from this?”
- “What can I take responsibility for?
The mere act of asking these questions will allow you to breathe and relax. Asking these questions is a sign of your being willing to accept partial responsibility for the situation you are upset about, about your willingness to learn, and about your compassion for others. Asking these questions is a sign of your maturity, indeed of your adulthood.
Focus on the big picture
Give yourself some time to deal with your emotional reaction (an hour tops) and get on with your life. Remember or rather refocus on what your life is about, your mission, purpose, ambition and get back to work. You’re a big boy/girl.
Be in communication – Resist the urge to shut down or close up
Many times just going through the steps above is enough for you to stop taking something personally and move on.
For those times when it is not, resist the old pattern of shutting down and separating yourself from your perceived ‘attacker.’ This is best avoided as it leads to a tendency of passive, and not so passive aggression, that can become truly destructive. Get into communication with them about what triggered your reaction.
Consider this; have you ever discovered that someone was hurt or offended by something you said or did, and you can’t even remember the incident?
People often do what they do, and only when something breaks do they come back and think about why certain things were said or done. See my post “Humility Producers.” Sometimes the ‘transgressor’ is not even aware they broke something, and will act swiftly to kiss it better once they are made aware of the damage they inadvertently caused. Your relationship with your transgressor may also become stronger because of your being in communication.
It’s silly to take things personally when you stop to consider this. Often just sharing how something occurred for you, a careless remark or action, will elicit profuse apologies as the person either never intended to hurt you, and can readily explain that it had nothing to do with you. But you’ll never learn this truth if you close down upon your perceived attacker.
Establish or communicate rules
As part of being in communication, you might consider communicating your boundaries or rules that cause you to take offense at some behavior. Once other parties are clear about your rules and boundaries they are less likely to break or step over them.
If someone continues to break your rules after you have communicated them, you may not have established agreement. If you’re sure that you have then you have a choice: either tolerate it and carry on or move on.
Even more effective is to distinguish which rule is being broken for you, what is taboo e.g. conversations about abortion, your competence at something, your weight etc., and give it up. Go back to your practice of asking questions and ask why these areas are so sensitive for you and choose to engage and learn rather than avoid.
Cultivate strong networks
We all need teachers, coaches, mentors, teammates, confidantes etc. that will educate and provide the help and support we need to live a great life, however we define that. Having someone that will not entertain your stories of victimhood, and refocus you on what’s important is essential to your practice of not taking things personally.
A true friend, mentor, coach or teacher will give you that proverbial slap across the face when you become emotional and irrational, when you are focusing on the small stuff.
Such relationships take care and attention and are a tribute to who you are. Much like the care and attention you give to a beautiful and well-attended garden. Make sure you cultivate such relationships in your life.
A practice of meditation reduces stress, centers the mind, and facilitates wisdom and patience to exude from the practitioner. Whatever your religious belief, a practice of meditation can help you get closer to whatever higher power you believe in.
A regular practice of meditation helps you sleep better and helps you to withstand daily irritations and frustrations. You are also less likely to “sweat the small stuff” or take things personally.
Whenever the topic of forgiving comes up with a friend of mine, she goes into automatic resistance mode. Someone close to her committed such serious transgressions that they are beyond forgiveness. Since she is a Roman Catholic I offer her the Lord’s prayer “Forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
She has so long practiced taking things personally that she can’t imagine forgiving this person, and others.
As always, the problem is not inherently with her but with her narrative about forgiveness. Many people have been taught to look at forgiveness as some sort of ‘get-out-of-jail free’ card for the other person and not as something that they do for themselves. My friend has come to confuse forgiveness, with justice and punishment.
Be very clear that forgiveness is a practice you do for yourself not for a third party. It is a gift to yourself of giving up resistance, hatred and bad feeling. When you hold grudges, harbor hatred – all symptoms of a habit of taking things personally – the only person suffering
not the subject of your ill will. Notice what happens to you when you hold on to such feelings; you’re no fun to yourself. Forgiveness creates the space for love, happiness and prosperity to enter your life.
Forgiveness also has no requirement to re-embrace your transgressor in your life. Indeed they may be dead. You can forgive a transgressor and still have them separate from your life because they have not the maturity to accept responsibility for their actions and cannot be trusted.
Your forgiveness is something you do for yourself it does not automatically confer freedom from consequence to the other party.
A Note on compassion
A practice of not taking things personally is part of a larger practice of compassion. To be compassionate is to empathize without judgment; it is the Jesus quality. Even if you’re not spiritual or religious you can be compassionate by understanding narratives – stories and beliefs – as the driving force of human behaviour.
We all live from narratives, some passed down from our elders, others we created ourselves. Narratives about superior race drove apartheid and slavery. Narratives about equality and dignity drove the civil rights movement and the birth of India.
You also have narratives about gender, politics, religion etc. Can you imagine how your narrative about an issue can cause you to take things personally? Perhaps it is a conversation about abortion, an ideology or your competence in your job. Someone may have a valid point to make in any of these areas yet you immediately take their view as an attack.
Seeing behavior as driven by narratives allows you to separate the inherent good that is in every person – including yourself – from their behaviour. A person may be lashing out at you because they are in pain, desperate and fearful, and it’s hard to take their action personally when you see this.
It’s hard to take something personally when you understand that a person can do no other than act out their narrative in the same way that a computer must execute it’s native operating system.
Summary (also from the post before)
You should not take things personally because:
- It is painful and unnecessary. It is a choice like smoking that becomes a bad habit.
- It separates you from people and destroys relationships
- It distracts you from getting on with your life.
A practice of not taking things personally might include:
- Noticing when you do and asking questions like “Why am I reacting this way?” or “What else could be driving this behavior?”
- Focus on the big picture – what’s more important? Where you’re going or the speed bump you just hit?
- Be in communication – do not shut down
- Cultivate strong networks