Don’t Take Anything Personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering. – From The Four Agreements don Miguel Ruiz
We take things so personally. If someone likes us, we tend to like them and feel good about ourselves. If someone dislikes us, we generally dislike them and can have our sense of well-being and personal peace disrupted. If the world and the events around us are playing out in ways we favor, we are generally happy. If the world and events around us are playing out in ways we do not favor, our happiness and well-being are typically affected negatively. This can be in regard to something as clearly impersonal as the weather, yet we make it personal. When it involves another person or groups of people, when it involves our personal desires and ambitions, we tend to take it very personally.
You might ask, “Shouldn’t we care what others think of us and shouldn’t we care if life is the way we want it to be?” And the answer has to be yes and no. Caring is one thing. Personalizing is another. To care means that we are taking circumstances and people seriously, and we care whether some sense of greater good is being served in how events are unfolding. Personalizing means we are being a weathervane for every wind that blows, and there can be some very cruel winds in this world.
It is not uncommon for people to be having real difficulty with another person. It may be that for whatever reason someone has targeted them and is behaving in a bullying and intimidating manner, or it may be that someone is being disrespectful to them, or ignoring them, or manipulating them. There are so many ways that people behave that can be taken as assaults on our dignity, autonomy and value. Likewise, the events of the world and the circumstances of our lives can turn distinctly to our disliking and personal disadvantage.
Should we care? Yes. We should care to understand what is happening and why, and we should care to do what we can if a situation can be addressed so as to bring about some greater understanding and we can address its effect in a way that minimizes harm and increases general benefit. Should we personalize and find our own sense of well-being and balance dependent on people and events being the way we want them to be? Of course not. When we have our sense of balance, well-being and confidence dependent on events and persons outside of us, we have no real balance, well-being and confidence at all.
As for interpersonal difficulties, don Miguel Ruiz’s advice in the Four Agreements is very wise. It resonates with a maxim from the Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Perls who offered the observation, “Thou art projection.” Human beings most often have a sense of themselves and the world that is not what is real and true, but rather is the amalgam of psychological, social and cultural conditioning creating a virtual reality of what they believe to be real, and they project this virtual reality onto others and the world. In a very real sense, we are projection screens for others and they are projections screens for us. Everyone is projecting their own assumptions and personal history and neurotic tendencies onto each other. So it clearly cannot be wise to invest our sense of balance, security and well-being in this multi-plex of movies that is any gathering of people or set of circumstances.
I like to offer in illustration that we could take ten random people off the street and have them experience a person for a day, and then interview these ten people and we would get a breakdown of opinion that would roughly have three of them really liking the person, three of them not particularly liking the person and the other four pretty much indifferent. Consider this when the next person out of ten is giving you a hard time and your whole sense of balance is being thrown by that person.
As for circumstances, it is important to pay attention to how everything can be going along just fine and then something “goes wrong” – and we become completely taken over by what we are judging to have gone wrong. There are several lessons to be learned here. The first is that we pay very little attention to what is going right – just like we give very little mental energy to the people who like us or have very little opinion of us. That’s because these circumstances and people are not feeding into the insecurities of our ego.
A sad truth is that most people have really very insecure egos. It’s kind of the state of affairs in our society. It isn’t our fault and it doesn’t make us bad. We are all shaped and conditioned by those psychological, social and cultural factors I mentioned earlier, and in our society, it is quite rare for a person to be raised in a manner that results in them being calmly confident and relatively free of depending on circumstances for their sense of well-being. So, circumstances and other people’s behavior and opinions play a very great role in a person’s confidence and well-being, and in this matter, we tend to be a bit paranoid, that is, looking for the circumstances and people that shake our happiness and confidence. And of course, we will find them, for life is everything and all kinds of people and all kinds of circumstances. If we allowed all the things that go right and all the nice people who treat us quite well to register with the same importance we give to the problematic situations and people, we would not tend to get shaken so readily.
The second factor is this issue of what’s good and what’s bad for us. There is a truth in psychological and spiritual teachings that difficult situations and people are really beneficial to us, for they give us the opportunity to see where our conditioning needs some attending, where our skill-set with life could use some development and improvement. All of us can relate that there are times in our life that have been difficult and we would have absolutely preferred not to have gone through them, yet we can also look back and realize that often these times were ones when we learned a great deal about ourselves and about life. They were times when, although difficult, we perhaps achieved some real growth, became more skillful, more discerning and more compassionate. They were times when perhaps we became more discerning at the difference between compassion and codependence, perhaps more confident in our ability to handle the travails and setbacks of life, and learned better what to value and what not to, and which people to trust and which not to trust. We may even have learned how to not trust someone compassionately, that is, to realize it is only their conditioning that has them behaving in this untrustworthy manner, so there is no need to dislike or hate them, that it is simply not wise to take them into our zone of trust, and certainly not wise to take their opinions and behavior personally.
There is a Zen saying that “obstacles do not block the path, obstacles are the path,” and it is that saying that applies here. What is important is whether we will take these “difficult” times as opportunities, or whether we take them personally as set-backs and defeats, as confirmation that we are somehow defective, inadequate and not up to the challenges of life.
Life is perfect. It is perfectly all things, and we are expressions of life, and so, we too are perfect, capable of facing all challenges if we hold our center knowing we are expressions of life. If we face our challenges with curiosity and compassion rather than fear and projection, we can manage anything and anyone. Another Zen saying says, “You may kill me, but you cannot defeat me.” Not when I truly know who I am, and live in the unshakeable sense of “I am,” for that is what we are. Not “I am this or that,” but rather simply and unshakably, “I am.” Our spiritual and psychological journey is arriving in this unshakeable realization of who we are as a Being that is an expression of the Universe just like a bear or a bird that takes nothing personally and just lives the life it is given as skillfully as its faculties will allow. Nothing is personal. It’s just another thing to be understood and engaged in the great and sacred cosmic dance of life.