Yesterday when she didn't get what she wanted, my 8-year-old exploded in frustration. In my mom role, I easily recognized my daughter's anger as a reflection of her own emotions and that her outburst was nothing against me personally. But when an adult lashes out or throws an off-hand comment, I more often hold the comment and let it weigh me down, seeing myself reflected rather than the person’s own emotions and perceptions.
Not taking things personally is something I have been trying to practice for a few years. But the lesson didn't seem to seep into my consciousness until I read Laura Munson’s memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is. Munson's book begins when her husband of several years declares that he doesn't love her anymore and is not sure that he ever had. It's not that Munson "stood by her man." It's more that she saw his declaration for what it was: a reflection of his issues rather than hers. Through the summer she (amazingly, bravely, steadfastly) gives her husband the space he (doesn't even know he) needs to figure out what's really going on, while she tries basically to ignore him and to live each day for herself.
The things I try not to take personally are far less serious than Munson's marital earthquake. Yet the reality is the same: I can't make anyone do or say anything. Other people's reactions are out of my control; it’s not me being reflected in the outbursts and off-hand comments, it's the other person's emotions and perceptions. Ultimately, it's up to me whether or not I let others' perceptions affect my life.
The key to a more fulfilling life, writes don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements, is to make four specific agreements with yourself. The second agreement? "Don't take anything personally." As we grow up learning to accept responsibility, explains Ruiz, "we learn to take everything personally." And taking things personally holds us back from true happiness.
Sarah Susanka, in The Not So Big Life, reminds readers that while there is only one reality, there are multiple perspectives of the world. If I take something personally, I'm accepting the other person's worldview. If I don’t take something personally, I am holding on to my own perspective of the world. Life coach Christine Kane emphasizes that not taking things personally leads to self-awareness and clarity.
It all boils down to choosing to accept that everyone sees the world differently, as if reality is a lake full of multiple worldviews. Not taking things personally means leaving the buoys of compliments and the weights of insults back on shore. Not taking things personally means swimming confidently through the lake by my own power, following my heart's own clear path.
No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.