I can’t think of much personal advice that we hear more frequently than the idea of not taking things personally, and still, despite being told repeatedly and even being committed to it, we rarely know how to implement it. Why is it so difficult, and is there any clear practice that can help us get better at it?
Why We Take Things Personally
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is quite simple. It’s because everything reinforces the sense that whatever is being said is indeed about us – both from without and from within.
After a while I stepped in, because it was clear neither of them was able to hear the other. I wanted to see, first, if I could hear what she was saying. I asked her if what she wanted was to have some sense of trust that people on the team would come together to hold accountability for the whole instead of advocating for their own departments. She breathed a sigh of relief, and said that was exactly what she was trying to express. That wasn’t, however, how she had expressed it. Instead, her language was full of expressions about the other manager. So I was entirely unsurprised when, at one point, he exclaimed that he didn’t want to be blasted each time he spoke with her. I said to him that I was hearing something different, and repeated what I had said previously. I added that I can see that he could take it as an accusation, whereupon he said: “It was an accusation.”
The net result is that, as adults, we so easily fall prey to habit. We take things personally, and we either defend or collapse. The capacity to hear through the words of another who is speaking of us, and to imagine that their words are placeholders for deeper human needs and wishes that are not articulated – that is simply beyond the reach of most of us without extensive and ongoing practice to overcome the habit.
It was a huge stretch for the manager in question to fully take in that he was the one doing the interpreting. This was a meeting, not a context in which people ordinarily are open to doing healing work, and so we agreed that I would meet with the two of them to continue. I do believe, or hope, that the two of them got at least that much: that how we speak and how we hear what others say has a lot to do with how much suffering we incur.
A Two-Part Practice
Shifting our focus in this way, being open to multiple interpretations, creating a distance between the words and our own experience, can be a very tall order. I think of it as a major spiritual accomplishment and a practice that can take years. All the more reason to get started, one small step at a time, because I do believe that we get better over time.
Story: Rejection by a Sister
I imagine that most people reading this story now can completely and easily identify with Donna. One of the core principles I use in working with anything – within me and with others – is to question the obvious and self-evident. So I probed deeply into what exactly was upsetting for Donna. This is what any of us can ask ourselves when faced with a situation in which we take something so personally and deeply: “Why is this upsetting me? What am I telling myself about this situation? What is the meaning I assign to it?”
In this particular case, the storyline was one of the quintessentially painful human stories: “My sister doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.” This is the story we know as “rejection.” So much pain can be encapsulated within such a story, that we can literally disappear into it. This is why creating some distance is so essential, so that we can be available to reflect, connect with ourselves, and have some choice. With Donna, this happened through an additional question, an invitation to her to imagine what, deep down and underneath the anguish of the “rejection,” she would want to have with her sister. It wasn’t so hard for Donna to find: she wants to have a close relationship of trust with her sister, for her efforts to count, and for her love to matter. When we are able to articulate and make emotional contact with what we really want, then we can sink into it, and find ourselves in a deep place that has nothing to do with what anyone else says about us. This longing for connection with the sister is purely about Donna’s heart and needs. As odd as it sometimes seems to some people, our own needs and longings, if we are not fighting them, are a source of strength and energy, not a weakness. It’s the innermost core of our being, the purest expression of our humanity, our open heart. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to get to know ourselves more fully.
After Donna relaxed into her needs for a bit, I had some trust that we could broach the more difficult task, which is the one that creates the freedom: finding a different way of making sense of what the person could possibly have meant. In this case, after some back and forth, we were able to come up with a simple and sad theory: that her sister is so desperately wanting to feel independent, to trust her own capacity to attend to her life and issues, that it was shameful for her that she needed to rely on Donna’s help. I wish I knew what the end of the story was, and that rarely happens for me in the way that I work with people. I was, however, touched to see how much willingness Donna had to explore things with her sister after being previously so hesitant to engage with her at all.
Story: Being Asked to Change
In hindsight, I have some wistfulness that I skipped this entire part when talking with them, and instead went directly to the second part. Why did I choose that? In part because I wasn’t even sure that Lisa’s heart could open to herself wide enough to make a difference, and in part because I know how much Lisa wants to walk the path of nonviolence. It is my hope that Lisa is reading this and perhaps receiving some empathy in seeing my understanding of her pain. Perhaps David, too, will find some meaning in this.
With all my wistfulness, I am also aware that I want to remember the option of this “shortcut” – going straight to the attempt to re-read the expression of the other person, finding a different interpretation, and thereby releasing some of the pain, because its source is the interpretation, not what the other person says in and of itself.
And so this is what I asked Lisa: “If, indeed, David wants you to change and be different, why would he want that? What would it give him?” It took some effort to get there, and it was worth the effort. Ultimately, what she came up with is that David wants peace of mind within the relationship. Then, the next part of the “emotional surgery” I offered her was to compare the effect of these two different interpretations on her inner well-being. I literally asked her to shift her attention back and forth between the idea that David wants her to change, and the idea that David wants peace of mind within the relationship, and see how it affected her. Needless to say, the latter was significantly less stressful. The final freedom comes from recognizing that, once we get to that deep level of imagining what the other person truly wants underneath the part that is personally about us which is superficially expressed, it’s rarely the case that we would have any opposition to it. Why would Lisa not want David to have peace of mind? Only if she believes it’s at cost to her, which, sadly, Lisa was indeed believing. As we managed to separate out that last piece, she could see that, in principle, she would want that for him.
In HumilityWith this piece, I am starting the 4th year of my blogging. Wow. I think I may have never been as detailed in presenting a practice on this blog as this time, and I am sitting here with the hope that this may actually serve people in attending to their lives. My heart is a little broken thinking about all the pain we suffer and bring to others by this deeply entrenched habit to take things personally and to encourage that in others by how we speak to them. Who am I to speak, anyway? I am far from free. I fall into the trap of taking things personally far less often than I used to, and yet when I am in it, it’s just as consuming as it’s ever been. I almost want to pray, despite there being no god in my life: may we all find relief, may we all learn to see our own and others’ core humanity, regardless of outward presentation.
Click here to read the Questions about this post, and to join us to discuss them on a conference call: Tuesday March 5, 5:30-7 pm Pacific time. This is a new way that you can connect with me and others who read this blog. We are asking for $30 to join the call, on a gift economy basis: so pay more or less (or nothing) as you are able and willing. This week, as Miki is doing workshops in Europe, Newt Bailey (of BayNVC and the Communication Dojo) will be taking her place.