When I used to work in downtown Nashville, I would walk by the same homeless man each morning and exchange pleasantries.
One morning, as I was walking across the street toward him, he exclaimed loudly, “That skirt was a bad decision.” The sidewalk was crowded and several turned to look. I was humiliated. My gut reaction was to go home and change. Instead, I tried to be invisible and sneak into the office unseen. I then proceeded to discretely ask my office friends if my skirt looked bad.
As one friend pointed out, if the man didn’t dress in a manner that I personally considered fashionable, why would I possibly care what he thought of my skirt? Fair point. He didn’t seem to be fashion-forward or have my same sense of style, so why did I take his comment to heart?
From as far back as I can remember, I have always taken things personally.
If someone said I was great, I believed them.
If someone said I was bad, I believed them.
It didn’t matter if they were a stranger, family member, teacher or friend. Their opinion of me reigned supreme.
A few years ago, a friend and spiritual teacher recommended I read the book The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. It’s a simple, easy read but the principles are profound. Ruiz says that if you want a more peaceful life, you must keep four agreements with yourself: (1) be impeccable with your word, (2) don’t take anything personally, (3) don’t make assumptions and (4) always do your best.
As for the second agreement, Ruiz encourages, “Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally.” He suggests that even if someone says their actions or comments are about you, that’s not true. You might trigger a response from them, but their response is about really about them, not you.
As you might expect, I really struggled with this concept so I knew it was something I needed to work on.
Here’s how I tackled the problem:
1. I tried to become more aware of when I would take things personally. I started a daily log of each time I was offended or felt hurt and rejected. I hate to admit that it was a surprisingly long list…
2. I wrote down how I felt and considered why I was taking something so personally. I discovered there was a lot of anger, comparison, self-pity and the need to be right.
3. I tried to see things differently by considering the other person’s perspective. I would write different scripts as to why it was about them and not me (i.e., maybe they got in a fight with their spouse, maybe they don’t trust women of my age, maybe they suffer from a mental disorder). It was actually kind of fun to write the different stories as to what might really be going on with the other person.
The truth is that everyone experiences a different reality. Even twins growing up in the same household have different personalities, values, beliefs, strengths, traumas, motivators, fears, weaknesses and so on. If you take this foundational programming and then add on all the highs, lows, emotions, stressors and issues that come up in everyday life, our realities become even more distinct.
With this new insight, I started to take things less personally. The words and actions of others didn’t change, but my perception of them did. I no longer needed others to validate my personal reality or self-worth.
If I’m being honest, my initial knee-jerk reaction is still to take things personally, but because of the work I’ve done, I can usually catch it pretty quickly, shift my thinking and choose a reasoned response that allows me to keep my serenity.
If I disagree, I may choose to dismiss it and let it go or try to have a productive conversation with that person. If I agree, I may choose to accept it as feedback and take steps to improve. If it’s offensive, rude or disrespectful, I may choose to no longer have a relationship with that person or use better boundaries.
In each scenario, however, I choose my reality without the need to take on someone else’s or have them validate mine.
If you struggle with taking things personally, I encourage you to follow these same steps. You’ll be amazed at how much relief you will feel when you begin to let go of what others say and do.
So what are your tips for releasing what others think about you? Leave a comment below.