The people in this video talk about how we need to remember that what happens outside of us isn’t our responsibility and that we should only care about what happens inside of us. We should, in other words, not take things personally. And that’s really good advice.
But why do we take things personally in the first place? Why can’t we just be zen about everything?
Consider this. Back when the most advanced technology we had were pieces of stone and wood, we lived in small hunter gatherer groups. In these groups everybody around you mattered. After all, you could share food with them, hunt with them and depend on them when times got rough. Similarly, before refrigeration other people’s stomachs was the best place to keep the extra food you couldn’t eat yourself, as then when they got more than they needed they would share it with you.
Naturally, this means we evolved to pay a lot of attention to the relationships around us. So it isn’t at all surprising that we take things personally at work, in the street, or on the internet. In fact, through the prism of our entire history what is strange isn’t that we take things personally but that some people find it so easy to just brush things off!
How do they do that? With these tricks:
1. Gain clarification
“I used to take everything personally. I remember once when somebody asked ‘did you get your hair done’ and I blew up at them. I thought they were being snarky. Turns out it was me who was being presumptive.”
The first thing you want to do when you feel offended is to try and understand why they did what they did. They might have a perfectly good reason for what they did and there might be forces at play that you are entirely unaware of.
Even better, when you ask for clarification you often push a person to stop and think about what they’re doing. This is often enough to make them realize they’re being dicks and apologize.
Something to consider, when asking for clarification it’s important to avoid the word ‘why’. In English, this is often interpreted as an attack. Why did you take my cookie? Why didn’t you invite me to your party?
That might just escalate the situation. And that’s the opposite of what you’re after.
2. How important is the situation or person to you?
“In the past, when I would spend days stressing out about what other people said. I don’t do that anymore. That’s raising them up on a pedestal. Nobody deserves to have that much power over me. Particularly somebody I don’t like.”
Another thing to remember. When you take something personal what you’re doing is elevating that person and making them important. Is that really what you want? Should that person really have power over you? If you think about it, they probably don’t matter enough for you to give them such a profound effect on your mental and emotional landscape.
So, when there is someone or something that gets under your skin frequently, make sure that when you’re away from them you consider the actual power you want to give that person. If you realize you’re giving them far too much, then promise yourself that you will give them less in the future.
Do realize that won’t actually be that easy. This is down to something called the hot cold empathy gap. What this means is that when you’re not feeling an emotions, it’s incredibly hard for you to consider how you would act when you are feeling that way.
Interestingly, this is also why we find quitting smoking so much harder than we imagine it to be – we just can’t imagine what it will be like to really want a cigarette when we’ve just satisfied our nicotine craving. Similarly, we might rubbish the idea that we’ll get offended by somebody’s words, only to go red hot the moment they say ‘hi’ in the corridor.
The best way to fight this, is to take the time to actively imagine your way through such situations. If you fully visualize the experience and how you should deal with it, then this will make it far easier to keep to your script when the situation actually arises. The more accurately you try to visualize the experience (including trying to go through what emotions you’d feel and where you’d like to end up) will make it more likely that you’ll succeed.
“I am not my emotions. That lesson has changed my life. It means that when the anger, frustration or annoyance wells up in my, I can take a step back and say, ‘wait, where is this coming from? Do I really want to feel this way?’ Often that’s enough to let it go again and deal with the situation more constructively.”
By far the most effective strategy to not take things personally, however, is to practice mindfullness. In case you’re not familiar with the term, psychology today says that mindefulness is:
a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future.
Mindfulness actually goes in two directions. You can be aware of why you’re doing the things you’re doing and you can be aware of why other people are doing the things they’re doing. Both of these facets benefit you immensely when you’re trying to avoid taking things personally.
When you have a better understanding of why other people do the things they do, this means that it becomes easier to understand where they’re coming from. This might help you understand that they snapped at you because they themselves are under stress. Or that they didn’t invite you to that meeting because they simply forgot. This will make it far easier for you not to take what they say personally.
When you have a better understanding of yourself, then it is often much easier to understand where your own emotions come from. This will allow you to detach from them and realize that while your emotions come from you, they are not you. You can let them go.
It will also allow you to see more deeply into where these emotions originate. Often, we think that certain emotions originate in a moment, but in fact they’ve been building for a while and the moment they surface is just the final straw. This, in turn, can let you take steps to unwind these emotions before they break and deal with the root cause rather than giving people who only bear a small part of the responsibility all the blame.
Mindfulness is quite easy to learn. The best way to do so is to start meditating and incorporate into your life zen techniques. This will allow you to focus more on the moment and get a better understanding of your mindset and where emotions come from.
If that’s not something you’re all that keen try, then follow these steps:
- When you have a few minutes of spare time, don’t grab for your phone. Instead just pay attention to the world around you. Every time you feel yourself floating away, pull yourself back. Do this often enough and it will get easier and easier to stay in the moment.
- Really try to feel something. When you eat an apple or a cake, focus exclusively on that. So no talking with other people and again, no checking your phone. Really experience the textures, flavours and ideas.
- Sit still and breathe. Just that. Don’t use this time to daydream, but instead just focus on what it’s like to breathe. Try to regulate them and have them be about the same comfortable length.
- Note your judgements. When you feel anger, disdain, frustration or any other emotion rise, take note of them, consider where they came from, then let them go again. You feel your emotions but you don’t need to be your emotions. Do note that this is not easy. Anger feels righteous. Frustration feels justified. Nonetheless, if you can start letting go then it will become easier over time.
All these strategies will give you a better understanding of why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling. From there, it then becomes easier to understand how other people feel as well.
It’s a process
If you easily get angry at other people or find yourself easily taking things personally, then that’s not something you will change in a day. You have to work at it step by step. Every day you have to try to get a little bit better. That means that you have to keep trying to actually get anywhere.
What it also means is that you shouldn’t get too upset with yourself if you occasionally backslide. That’s part of the changing process. Just take note of what you’ve done, remind yourself that it’s a process and try to do better next time. In that way, it’s far more likely that you’ll actually go the distance and change for the better.
If, on the other hand, you’re too hard on yourself then there is the chance that you’ll end up deciding that change is impossible. That kind of thinking is entirely self-defeating (and also blatantly not true). So cut yourself some slack and keep trying. That’s the best any of us can do.