Let’s start off with a simple question:
Why do we always take things so personally?
There are admittedly quite a few viable and valid answers to consider. But, the one Angel and I have found to be most common through a decade of one-on-one coaching with our course students, coaching clients, and live event attendees 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 on a personal level. 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 exactly 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 universe works. It just sometimes seems that way to us. Let’s consider a few everyday examples…
Someone storms into the room in a really bad mood, huffing and puffing, and addresses us in a 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 in front of us. We just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This reality doesn’t justify their behavior, but it needs to be consciously acknowledged so we don’t waste too much of 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 them, and now they’re reacting very rudely to us. A situation like this might seem personal, but is it really? Is the magnitude of this person’s rude reaction all about us and the one thing we did to trigger them? No, probably not. It’s mostly just a statement about this person’s reactions, snap-judgments, long-term anger issues, and expectations of the universe. Again, we’re just a smaller piece of a much larger story.
And likewise, when someone else rejects us, ignores us, doesn’t call us when they said they would, doesn’t show they care, or flat out disrespects us… these reactions have much less to do with us than they have to do with the other person’s history of personal issues. We can learn to silently respect them and their pain without taking their words to heart.
But, again, because we see everything through a lens of how it personally relates to us and ONLY 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 attack. 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 start gracefully deflecting 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, or whatever) is not really about me, it’s about you (or the world at large).” Remember that all people have emotional issues they’re dealing with (just like you), and it makes them rude, rambunctious, 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, of course, this doesn’t come naturally — NOT taking things personally is an ongoing daily practice…
“Notes to Self” for NOT Taking Things Personally
Like you, I’m only human and I still take things way too personally sometimes when I’m in the heat of the moment. So, I’ve implemented a simple strategy to support the practice of watching my response. In a nutshell, I proactively remind myself NOT to take things personally. Anytime I catch myself doing so, I pause and read the “notes to self” displayed below to myself. Then, I take some fresh deep breaths…
If you’d like to practice along with me, I recommend stealing my notes (some of which are excerpts from our books), tweaking them as you see fit, storing them in an easily accessible location, and then reading and re-reading them whenever you catch yourself taking things personally. (Note: For the sake of not being tediously redundant, I only wrote “Note to Self” as a precursor on the first note below.)
Afterthoughts… on Directly Addressing Offensive People
When someone insists on foisting their hostility and drama on you, just keep practicing — reading your “notes to self” and being an example of a pure existence. Do your best to respect their pain and focus on compassion. Communicate and express yourself from a place of peace, from a place of wholeness, with the best intentions.
With that said, however, sometimes handling offensive people directly is, well, necessary! As mentioned earlier, Angel and I have worked with hundreds of course students and coaching clients over the past decade who were struggling through this very predicament. And gradually, we guided them through several smart yet simple strategies that work wonders. I want to briefly review a few of these strategies with you here, in hopes that you find value in them too…
- Take positive control of negative conversations. – It’s okay to change the topic, talk about something positive, or steer conversations away from pity parties, drama, and self-absorbed sagas. Be willing to disagree with difficult people and deal with the consequences. Some people really don’t recognize their own difficult tendencies or their inconsiderate behavior. You can actually tell a person, “I feel like you ignore me until you need something.” You can also be honest if their overly negative attitude is what’s driving you away: “I’m trying to focus on positive things. What’s something good we can talk about?” It may work and it may not, but your honesty will help ensure that any communication that continues forward is built on mutually beneficial ground. (Angel and I build honest, mindful communication rituals with our students in the “Love and Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy Course.)
- Proactively establish healthy and reasonable boundaries. — Practice becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Note the times and circumstances when you’re resentful of fulfilling someone else’s needs. Gradually build boundaries by saying no to gratuitous requests that cause resentfulness in you. Of course, this will be hard at first because it may feel a bit selfish. But if you’ve ever flown on a plane, you know that flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to others, even their own children. Why? Because you cannot help others if you’re incapacitated. In the long run, proactively establishing and enforcing healthy and reasonable boundaries with difficult people will be one of the most charitable things you can do for yourself and those you care about. These boundaries will foster and preserve the best of you, so you can share the best of yourself with the people who matter most, not just the difficult ones who try to keep you tied up.
- Make extra time for yourself. — Difficult people who wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions are obviously hard to handle. They want others to join their 24/7 pity party so they can feel better about themselves. And you may feel pressured to listen to their complaints simply because you don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a compassionate ear and getting sucked into their emotional drama. If you are forced to live or work with a difficult person, then make sure you get enough alone time to relax, rest, and recuperate. Having to play the role of a “focused, rational adult” in the face of relentless moodiness can be exhausting, and if you’re not careful, their toxic attitude can infect you. So remember that even people with legitimate problems and clinical illnesses can still comprehend that you have needs as well, which means you can politely excuse yourself when you need to. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of our “1,000 Little Things” book.)
- Let them know that you, respectfully, do not care. — This one is essentially a last resort. If you’ve tried your best to communicate respectfully with a difficult person, or to gracefully distance yourself from them, but they insist on following you around and attacking you for whatever reason, it’s time to speak up and tell them that their words are meaningless. In such situations, I challenge you to make this your lifelong motto: “I respectfully do not care.” Say it to anyone who relentlessly passes public judgment on something you strongly believe in or something that makes you who you are.
- If their offensive behavior becomes physical, it’s a legal matter that must be addressed. — If you’ve survived the wrath of a physical abuser in your family, and you tried to reconcile things… if you forgave, and you struggled, and even if the expression of your grief had you succumb to outbursts of toxic anger… if you spent years hanging on to the notions of trust and faith, even after you knew in your heart that those beautiful intangibles, upon which love is built and sustained, would never be returned… and especially if you stood up as the barrier between an abuser and someone else, and took the brunt of the abuse in their place – you are a HERO! But now it’s time to be the hero of your future. Enough is enough! If someone is physically abusive, they are breaking the law and they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.
And obviously, this is just one short blog post that doesn’t cover every possible scenario.
If you’re feeling up to it, we would love to hear from YOU.
Which reminder — or “note to self” — mentioned above resonates with you the most today, and why?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.
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