One of my favourite authors Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book called “The Four Agreements.” It is a short book packed full of wisdom. I have found that these four simple tenants of life can have a great impact if you begin to truly understand and practice them. I have also found that although they are fairly simple in nature, the more your life evolves, the more these insights take on newer and deeper meanings. One of the agreements is “Don’t take anything personally.” On the surface this statement seems to make sense, but upon closer examination I have come to find that truly practicing this philosophy can be very challenging. (Especially since many of us have trouble admitting that we are taking things personally, even when we are).
Why do we take things personally? Maybe because we think everything in life is about us. Why is that? Is it because we are constantly struggling to prove to the world that we are worthy? In my personal journey of self-discovery I have spent a lot of time and effort working on trying to feel really good about myself. I was raised to be hard on myself and to be critical of my shortcomings. I think this is true for many people. I was taught that I had to be the best. I thought life was a race and I was in it to prove my worth. If I were to “succeed” in life I had to be smart, good looking, popular, hard working, honest, considerate of others, and strong. I was taught that I had to be “perfect” if I were to be valued. So, I was so focused on trying to be good enough that I lost track of who I really was. While working as a coach I have found that most people are struggling to feel good about themselves in some way or another. In many cases, people don’t even recognize their inherent lack of self-worth. They simply assume that what they are feeling is normal.
What happens, however, is that these feelings become buried deep inside, and only come out subconsciously when we respond to someone or something around us. Have you ever had someone make a seemingly innocent comment about what you are wearing or how you look and the next thing you know you are in an argument? Have you ever had someone tell you, in a casual way, what he or she thinks you should do and find yourself responding with anger and resentment? Have you ever received an email that was meant to be funny, but you interpret it as rude and become angry with the sender? It is my belief that through our conditioning we have come to feel unsure of ourselves and have lost the inherent sense of self-worth we were born with. As a result, we tend to be very sensitive about what other people say to us. In other words, we tend to take things personally even when they are not meant to be personal at all. When we do this, a simple comment or reaction can be taken the wrong way and blown completely out of proportion.
We tend to think everything is about us because we are so sensitive about how others perceive us. When a comment or reaction is taken personally it has the ability to change the energy of a conversation or a relationship completely. It can leave you feeling angry or upset with someone for days or even months. And, it can leave you feeling terrible about yourself. We tend to become defensive when we think that something has been said about us or done to us. When we are busy taking things personally, we lose out on the ability to step back and really understand the situation for what it is. How can you truly comprehend another person’s perspective when you are only seeing things from your point of view?
Throughout my life there have been many occasions when I’ve misinterpreted people’s reactions and taken them personally. And, admittedly, there are times when I still do this even today. What I know intellectually is often overshadowed by emotions or feelings that tend to get the best of me. For example, during a slow week I have caught myself thinking: “Why am I not busier? Do people not like my coaching? Am I not good enough at marketing myself? Should I not have a full practice by now? What am I doing wrong? In fact, it’s probably just a slow week and things are about to pick up, but my ego takes control and starts to make me feel terrible about my perceived lack of success. I take this downtime personally and assume that no one likes me and or wants my services. The reality is simply the ebb and flow of running your own business — sometimes things are slow and other times you’re so busy you don’t know what to do with yourself. Taking things personally only takes into account one side of the equation. I lose out on the opportunity to grow as a person when I only see things from my perspective.
Awareness is the first step in discovering when we are taking something personally. I found that taking things personally was deeply engrained in me. So often I would argue back with someone who on some level was challenging what I perceived as my worthiness. As I was arguing I did not realize what I was doing, until I started to reflect on these situations after the fact. You see my life had become about proving my worthiness and I didn’t even realize it. How could I not take things personally when someone was challenging my worth? I needed to constantly be proving I was good enough. The sad thing is I didn’t even realize what I was doing.
Luckily, what I have discovered is that the better I feel about myself, the less likely I am to take things personally. As I worked through the issues in my life that made me feel unworthy I started to take things much less personally. My perspective began to shift. When someone said something to me that on the surface seemed hurtful, I began to realize that it wasn’t actually about me at all.
If you stop and think about it, what we say is merely a reflection of what we are feeling on the inside. My journey of self discovery lead me to understand that life is not as it is, but how we see it; and we always see it through our own eyes and interpret it through our own life-experiences. If we are happy we will probably say nice things to others. If we are frustrated, angry or overwhelmed, we will say things that reflect these lower and slower emotions. So, what I say to others is a reflection of how I am feeling at the time. Why, then would anyone take anything personally? There is a subtle difference between something being about you and something merely being directed at you.
I believe we take things personally because we think something is about us when it is actually just directed at us. When someone is angry with you, are they really angry “at” you or are they merely expressing an anger that is within themselves? If we come to realize that everything that others say to us is merely a reflection of how they are feeling at that moment, then we can finally stop taking things personally. In order to do so, we would also have to realize that the way we react to others is just a reflection of how we are feeling. When we have done our inner work to bolster our self-worth, it becomes easier to accept how we are feeling and give ourselves permission to feel the lower and slower emotions when they come up within us.
If we follow this line of thinking it would mean that the better we feel about ourselves the better we will treat others. When we feel good, we say nice things to others. When we feel loving toward ourselves, we say loving things to others. When we are kind and tolerant toward ourselves, we are more likely to be understanding and tolerant of others. When we realize that what others say or do is merely a reflection of what is going on in their world, then we can realize that what we say or do is merely a reflection of what is going on in our world. When we finally do the work we need to do in order to boost our own self-worth and feel good about ourselves, then and only then will we truly be able to not take things personally.