Don’t take things Personally

Thought for the week: Don’t Take Things Personally

This past weekend I spent time with friends who have teenage boys. They were complaining about the attitudes, the lying, the video games – general overall behavior. As I listened to them express their hurt and disappointment, I knew immediately the topic for today:  Don’t take things personally. Over the years I’ve given this advice to clients, parents and friends, usually receiving a similar response; “It involves me, it’s about me, how can I not take it personally?!”

First it helps to identify some examples of when most of us take things personally:

~ Children breaking your rules and/or lying.

~ Employees don’t do their job.

~ Addiction behaviors (your loved one doesn’t stop drinking, smoking, taking drugs)

~ Gossip (you find out others are talking about you)

~ Rejection (you don’t get the job, the part, the position, the partner)

~ Direct Comments about your looks, performance, clothing, etc.

~ Favoritism (Someone sits next to another and not you, or calls your other friend or asks them to join them, your teen wants to hang with friends instead of family)

~ People you live with making a mess after you’ve just cleaned up. (Don’t they realize how much work you just did?)

~ Your partner forgetting to tell you they had a meeting that evening. (Aren’t you important to them?)

The list goes on and on.

When our brains are developing in childhood, we move from limited, concrete understanding (I am the center of the universe, everything I see is what others see) to the ability to grasp the notion of the abstract (things exist beyond what I see, the world doesn’t always revolve around me, and people have different experiences and perspectives). So if we grow out of the initial concrete phase, why do we still expect that others see things the same as we do? Why can we still feel so hurt, betrayed, angry, disappointed?

Part of the reason we can be reactive to certain events is because we aren’t mind readers and it isn’t always easy to understand where another is coming from. Another reason is because even though we are one age, we carry within us remnants of experiences from earlier years. These remnants, like the rings in the trunk of a tree, although hidden inside, are a permanent part of who we are. When scenarios occur in our current life that are similar to previous experiences, our brains make the connections for us, conscious or not, and we find our selves in a reactive state all over again.

Not to worry. Our brains have neuro-plasticity, meaning they continue to change throughout our lifetimes. We can catch ourselves in moments of reactivity and redirect our emotional efforts towards healthier, broader thinking. Part of the ability to do this comes from the willingness to move away from the “I” or “Me” in the situation. “How could they say that about me?” becomes “I wonder what is going on for them that they felt the need to criticize”.

A golden rule to remember: People’s words or behaviors, while they might be about you, reflect back to themselves as much, if not more, then they are directed at you. For Example:

~ Your child is lying stay out of trouble, to get what they want, to practice their autonomy from you or for any number of reasons then simply just to hurt your feelings.

~ Your employee was late because they didn’t get up early enough, not because they wanted to anger you. Your partner sided with another partner because it worked best for him/her, not just to abandon you.

~ Your partner, spouse of child started using drugs or alcohol again or refused to stop because they can’t deal with the world sober – not because you aren’t important enough to them.

~ Someone commenting negatively about how you look or what you are wearing, or whatever, may be worried about you or feel they don’t look good enough to stand next to you, etc..

~ The person hiring for the job, part or position may have liked you, but chose another for any number of reasons: the sound of another’s voice reminded them of their beloved mother, someone was from the south where they grew up, they have an insecurity about being short and won’t hire anyone taller than they are…..

~ Your teen got the tattoo for their own reasons (again, autonomy, self expression, peer influence) not to embarrass you.

While we can’t always understand the decisions others make, we can try to understand our reactions and make informed decisions about how to respond. I love the commercial of the guy in a car following a slow car in front of him. He has an entire conversation, by himself in his car, reacting to what he assumes the driving in the other car is “doing to him” by going so slow. Turns out, after feeling tormented and messed with, when he has the chance to pass the other car, he sees an old lady in her own little world out for a Sunday drive, oblivious to his existence.

Someone passing too closely on the highway at high speed isn’t necessarily trying to cut you off, take over “your piece of road” in front of you, prove their car is faster or that they are a better driver. In this, you are assuming you know what they are thinking. You are better served by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of this, then you would be to speed up and “give them a dose of what they gave you”. Their driving had nothing to do with you. For whatever reasons, they had a need to go faster, cut sharper corners, etc. You may not know what those reasons are and even if you did, you may not agree with them. It doesn’t matter.

Rather than suffer by falling victim to the potentially misunderstood actions or words of others, move away from taking things personally, put your trust in yourself, the person you have control over.