In his pivotal book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz wrote about the idea that nothing is personal. Yes, you read that correctly, no matter what someone says to you or does to you, it only tells you about them, it doesn’t tell you about you. Of course, your response to them tells you about you. And, when you sit with that, what are your responses telling you about yourself? What would need to shift to empower yourself?
Letting go of Personalization
When we take things personally, we are ultimately giving power to another person. “You hurt my feelings,” “You did this to me,” “You’re mean.” The world is filled with people who are too busy worrying about themselves, and honestly, they don’t have the interest or the bandwidth to give a flying f*ck about anyone else but themselves and the small group of people they align with. What benefit does giving anyone the power over your “sense of self,” give you?
If this is true, that most folks are too busy worrying about their own selves, and are not concerned with your needs, feelings, interests, or whatever, what benefit do you get by taking anything that they say, think or do, personally? In fact, the very process of personalizing their opinions or actions means that you don’t have time to care about anyone other than yourself either.
This idea was difficult for me when I first started thinking about it. Given that when someone dumps a load of anger or is generally snarky, short-tempered, demanding, or condescending, I don’t enjoy it…. Do you? And yet, what if it’s still not personal? When our new boss is micromanaging us, our neighbor hates us, or when someone cuts in line or traffic, or even runs us over, either metaphorically or in all actuality, what if it’s not personal? The longer I have sat with this idea, the more capacity for letting go of my own anger I have had. It’s like my own mental freedom.
focus where your power is
When I was about nine, I had an interesting conversation with my grandfather. I was arguing with him because I was mad about how someone had treated me and he told me, “let it go.” Well, that sparked my indignation, “Let it go!? No, they were wrong!” He said something that shocked me, “Who cares? They were wrong, you were right, it doesn’t matter. Let it go because you clearly care too much and it’s hurting you, not them.” “What?”
The only power I had in any situation was to choose my response to the situation; I could let it go, move on, choose different friends, or sit in misery and anger. These were my choices. The big AHA was I could choose, either way, to give my power away or take it back and empower myself.
We can work on depersonalizing by separating ourselves from the idea that someone else’s behaviors and actions reflect on us. I am not saying that I like every behavior or actions someone might toss to me, and those same behaviors and actions may, in fact, hurt me, but it is about recognizing that those behaviors and actions reflect on the person doing them, not on the person receiving them. I may need to cut ties and move on, but I do not need to take ownership or give any of my emotional energy to the personalization of the events. In fact, the more I personalize things, the more likely I am to spin around the “WHY?” Why do people act like that, why are they treating me this way, why are they such a jerk, why don’t they see my perspective, why don’t they like me? And, this is a waste of time and energy.
Personalization often keeps me stuck feeling unworthy, unappreciated, unaccepted and these are not great places to be feeling stuck. What would the benefit be to empower yourself and let go of the personalization altogether?
Not taking things personally doesn’t mean that we just limply navigate life, accepting bad behavior and becoming rugs for people to wipe their feet on. No, it is absolutely not about that. I am a red-headed, Irish, Leo, I will not be walked all over, it’s not in my nature. On the other hand, depending on the situation, I would rather use my energy to solve a problem, or take care of my own feelings, or change the world, not wallow in the opinions of someone I might not even like or respect. The more I focus on what I can do, the more energized I often feel.
When I was in Graduate School, I lived in a shared house with a woman. We weren’t super close, but we were friendly when we saw each other. The woman, Sue, who owned the house was in a difficult relationship with her boyfriend, Dan. I knew they were fighting, I didn’t realize how destructively they were fighting. This all came to a head one day while I was in my room studying, I heard shouts and cries and things breaking. I came out of my room and her boyfriend was beating her, she was bleeding, there was broken furniture, and I was stunned. I rushed into the fray, begging him to stop, and to please let me take her to the hospital. He told me to leave and instead, I went to my room to call 911. He followed me, breaking my bedroom door in the process and threatening to beat me too. Ultimately he let me leave, all the while, she’s saying “Don’t hurt Lyssa,” and I am saying, “Let me take Sue.” He wouldn’t so I left, went and got help, came back, and then I took her to the hospital.
The point of the story is this. I spent a lot of nights after that event with Sue, getting to know her better. She circled around the story that Dan’s behavior, his beating her, was her fault. She had internalized and personalized his story of her. She had looked at someone as they passed in another car, she had smiled at someone, or talked to a co-worker, whatever. Her behavior had incensed Dan, playing on his insecurity and jealousy. She was personalizing his behavior by believing the story he was telling her about what kind of person she was. She was the problem. He soon came to think I was another problem, a bitch who was ruining his relationship. Well, I had nothing to do with his ruined relationship. He behavior created that mess. I was really clear that I wasn’t going to live in a house with violence. I was paying, he wasn’t, so I stayed. During the last 6 months of my living there, Sue began to get some clarity around how she had been personalizing Dan’s beliefs. She thought maybe she was a bad person, she was hurting him, instead of seeing the issue for what it was, he was hurting her. Her personalization of his story was allowing the violence to continue to happen. After I moved, he moved back in for awhile, but something had fundamentally changed in her. I spoke to her a year or so later and she caught me up, he had moved back in for a few months, then they broke up and got back together a few more times, but finally, the relationship had ended. She wasn’t willing to go back to the old story and she wasn’t willing to take responsibility for his behavior anymore. She wasn’t going to define herself by owning his perspective, she empowered herself by shifting the story she had and she decided to quit personalizing.
I am truly sorry that people come along and dump on you, anger you, or hurt you or hurt your feelings. I am equally sorry if you chose to take any of it personally, as though what the person said or did was in some manner a reflection of who you are. It is a lot of power to give to people—control over how you feel, how you perceive yourself, and even more importantly, how you experience your worth.
My question to you is: When you give your power away, who is the puppet, and who is the puppet master? Who is pulling the strings, and who is dancing the tragic dance of bullshit? Here is one of my favorite super-secrets of the universe; I want you to hear it and to sit with it until it seeps into your very bones: There is no person on this planet who can define your value. I make this promise to you: You are the only one capable of defining your value, and you have my permission, and I hope you give yourself permission, to control + alt + delete anyone’s opinion of you that doesn’t resonate with your essence. Empower Yourself!