Let me share three quick stories and some life-changing lessons with you…
- This morning at a train stop near the hospital, a man and his three young kids got on. The kids were loud and completely out of control, running from one end of the train car to the other. An annoyed passenger sitting next to me looked over at the man and asked, “Is there a reason you’re letting your kids go nuts right now?” The man looked up with tears in his eyes and said, “The doc just told me their mother isn’t going to make it. Sorry, I’m just trying to think before we all sit down at home to talk about this.”
- Two of my ex-coworkers actually laughed at me last year when I told them I dreamed of opening my own hair salon. When I spoke with you and Angel on a coaching call that same day, Angel said something like, “We’ve known quite a few people who went after their dreams and succeeded. One thing they all had in common was they got laughed at in the process.” That advice really pushed me forward. And I’m proud to say I opened my salon almost six months ago, and business is really taking off. But to think I almost didn’t do it … I almost took my ex-coworkers’ negativity to heart!
- Today one of my regular customers, a really grumpy elderly man who has been eating in our diner every morning for the better part of five years, left me $1,000 in cash for his $7 breakfast. Alongside the cash he left a small note that read, “Thank you, Christine. I know I haven’t been the brightest smile in your life, but your smile and hospitable service over the years gave me something to look forward to every morning after my wife passed away. I wanted to say thank you. I’m moving eight hours down the road this afternoon to live with my son and his family. May the rest of your life be magical.”
These stories have been transcribed with permission from coaching sessions we’ve recently conducted with three of our course students. And if there’s one thing these students’ stories have it common, it’s the importance of not taking things too personally.
The father on the train wasn’t deliberately trying to annoy other passengers—he was thinking through one of the hardest realities of his life. Those ex-coworkers weren’t really laughing heartlessly—they were simply acting from within the boundaries of their own limited visions. And that grumpy elderly customer was just a humble, heartbroken man. In each story, the subject’s words and actions were all about THEM, not others. And while the people around them might take their annoying, naysaying, grumpy behavior personally, there’s nothing personal about it. Think about it…
How often have you taken things too personally?
If you’re anything like the rest of us—and that’s OK—it’s probably been quite often.
Why do we always take things personally?
There are quite a few viable and valid answers to the question of why we take things personally. But the one Angel and I have found to be most common through a decade of one-on-one coaching with our course students is the tendency we all have of putting ourselves at the center, and seeing everything—every event, conversation, circumstance, etc.—from the viewpoint of how it relates to us. And this can have all kinds of adverse effects, from feeling hurt when other people are rude, to feeling sorry for ourselves when things don’t go as planned, to doubting ourselves when we aren’t perfect.
Of course, we are not really at the center of everything. That’s not how the world works. It just sometimes seems that way to us. Let’s take a quick look at a few examples…
Someone storms into the room in a bad mood, huffing and puffing, and addresses us in a very rude way. Immediately we think to ourselves, “What’s going on here? I don’t deserve to be treated like this. They should know better!” And we are left agitated, offended, and angry. But the truth is the other person’s behavior has very little to do with us. They got mad at something outside the room, and now they’re reactively venting their frustrations. We just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This reality doesn’t justify their rude behavior, but it needs to be consciously acknowledged so we don’t waste all our mental energy positioning ourselves at the center of the situation and taking everything personally.
Now, let’s assume for a moment that a person’s actions actually do seem to relate to us directly—we inadvertently did something that annoyed someone, and now they’re reacting very rudely to us. A situation like this might seem personal, but is it really? Is the magnitude of their rude reaction all about us and the one thing we did to trigger them? No, probably not. It’s mostly just a statement about the other person’s reactions, snap-judgments, anger issues, and expectations of the universe. Again, we’re just a small piece of a much longer story.
And likewise, when someone else rejects us, ignores us, doesn’t call us when they said they would, doesn’t show they care, etc. … these reactions have much less to do with us than they have to do with the other person’s history of personal issues.
But because we see everything through a lens of how it affects us—a lens that does a poor job of seeing the bigger picture—we tend to react to everyone else’s actions and words as if they are a personal judgment or statement about us. Thus, other people’s anger makes us angry. Other people’s lack of respect makes us feel unworthy. Other people’s unhappiness makes us unhappy. And so it goes.
If you’re nodding your head to any of this, it’s time to…
Remind yourself of the truth!
What other people say and do, and the attitude they carry, rarely has anything to do with you. People’s reactions and behaviors are about their perspectives, wounds and experiences. Whether people treat you like you’re amazing, or act like you’re the worst, again, is more about them and how they are viewing the world at a given moment in time.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting we should completely ignore all the feedback and insight we receive from others. I’m simply saying that a significant percentage of the emotional pain, disappointment and sadness in our lives comes directly from our tendency to take things too personally.
In most cases, it’s far more beneficial and healthy to let go of other people’s beliefs and behaviors and to operate with your own intuition and wisdom as your guide.
And that takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.
The key is in reminding yourself to gracefully deflect the senseless negativity around you. When you sense negativity coming at you, give it a small push back with a thought like, “That remark (or gesture) is not really about me, it’s about you.” Remember that all people have emotional issues they’re dealing with (just like you), and it makes them defiant, rude, and downright thoughtless sometimes. They are doing the best they can, or they’re not even aware of their issues. In any case, you can learn not to interpret their behaviors as personal attacks, and instead see them as non-personal encounters (like a dog barking in the distance, or a bumblebee buzzing by) that you can either respond to gracefully, or not respond to at all.
But again, this doesn’t come naturally—NOT taking things personally is a skill to be honed.
To help you practice, I recommend storing the following reminders in an easily accessible location (perhaps by bookmarking this article in your smart phone), and then reading (and re-reading) them whenever you catch yourself taking things personally.
- Calmness is a superpower. The ability to not overreact or take things personally keeps your mind clear and your heart at peace.
- Even when it seems personal, rarely do people do things because of you, they do things because of them.
- You may not be able control all the things people say and do to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
- There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you detach from other people’s beliefs and behaviors. The way people treat you is their problem, how you react is yours. (Angel and I discuss this further in the “Self-Love” chapter of our book.)
- Oftentimes people do things and say things because they’ve been conditioned to, not because they consciously want to.
- You can’t control how people receive your energy. Whatever someone interprets, or projects onto you, is at least partially an issue or problem that they themselves are dealing with.
- Take constructive criticism seriously, but not personally. Weigh what you hear from others against what you know in your heart to be true.
- If you’re willing to view the behavior of other people as indicative of their relationship with themselves, then you will inevitably take things less personally.
- If you truly wish to improve your self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth, stop allowing other people to be responsible for them. Stop allowing other people to dominate your emotions. (Angel and I build powerful self-confidence rituals with our students in the “Love and Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
- All the hardest, coldest people you meet were once as soft as a baby. And that’s the tragedy of living. So when people are rude, be kind, be mindful, be your best. Give those around you the “break” that you hope the world will give you on your own “bad day” and you will never, ever regret it.
Before you go, let me ask you a quick question:
- Which point above resonates the most with you right now?
And how might reminding yourself of it, daily, stop you from taking things personally?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.