Years ago, I was walking Tiger in the neighborhood when I had a rather unpleasant encounter. A woman was walking her two small dogs on the opposite side of the street. Her dogs, which couldn’t have been more than ten pounds apiece, pulled against their restraints, barking wildly, in a determined attempt to get to my hundred-pound pit bull. My dog, meanwhile, simply kept walking, maintaining his eyes on the street ahead.
“I can’t believe they allow pit bulls in this neighborhood,” the woman hissed towards me.
I was shaken that day. I kept wondering what this woman had against me or my well-behaved dog. I put it aside, but her words continued to resonate whenever I had Tiger out in public (which was often).
Just recently, I was walking Kazh, our new, smaller pit bull who is learning to be as well-behaved, when I again encountered this woman. This time, her small dogs were unleashed in her front yard and one sprinted towards Kazh, barking all the while. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here we go.” I readied myself for Kazh’s response to the encroaching potential threat and the woman’s response to yet another pit bull allowed in the neighborhood.
Kazh sniffed curiously at the small, loud dog and immediately demonstrated that he simply wanted to continue his walk. I used him to attract the loose dog back to its yard, where the woman was able to scoop him up.
“What a beautiful dog,” she exclaimed, reaching down to pet Kazh.
As we talked, I learned that her adult daughter had once rescued a pit bull that she then surrendered to her parents. They tried, but were unable to train and integrate the dog into their home and finally had to make the difficult decision of finding it a new home.
During that conversation, I realized that when the woman had made the anti-pit bull comment, she was still dealing with the frustration and feelings of failure she experienced with her daughter’s dog.
Her comment had nothing at all to do with me, with Tiger or really even about pit bulls.
Her response was entirely borne from her own pain and defeat.
I know better. Yet I do it anyways.
When my husband is short-tempered, my first inclination is that I did something to cause his frustration.
When a student grumbles about something, I examine my lesson for reasons for the poor attitude.
When an internet stranger sends me a message informing me that my message is awful, I begin to question all of the work that I have done.
And when my first husband decided to abandon me in favor of another wife, I fixated on how he could do that to me.
In every case, I’m making the same cognitive error. I’m assigning causation where there is only correlation.
Inevitably, I discover that my husband had a rough day at work. I remember that I teach teenagers and they are contractually obligated not to express pleasure in anything their parents or teachers do for them. I recognize that people who read my writing or watch my videos are usually in great pain and sometimes they lash out at whoever is available. And I remind myself that my ex husband is a scum bucket (and also was experiencing his own crisis).
The reality is that somebody’s action or response always says more about them than it does about you.
When you take things personally, it muddies the emotional waters, stirring up the intensity of the feelings and making it difficult to proceed calmly and rationally.
The following are three easy tricks to help you remember to not take things personally:
1 – If it wasn’t you, would it still have happened anyway?
Maybe you’re struggling trying to come to terms with how your spouse could have cheated on you. Or you’re trying to calm down after a particularly nasty customer or client went off on you. Perhaps your ex flaked on picking up the kids. Again.
Take yourself out of the equation for a bit. If it wasn’t you, would it still have happened anyway?
This is a powerful question that can help you distinguish between those things that you have some agency over and those things that are truly somebody else’s problem.
If you realize that it would have happened in the same way without you, then it’s really not about you at all and it gives you permission to let it go. If you discover that you have a role in the situation, then you also have some power over changing it.
2 – Why else could they have been motivated to undertake this action?
Part of the reason that we have a tendency to take things personally is that it’s an easy conclusion to reach. It’s neat. It’s tidy. It’s direct.
And yet that doesn’t make it true.
It’s amazing how much of our responses are tied to assumptions born of past experiences rather than the present reality. Before you conclude that this was because of you, examine some other potential causes for the action or reaction.
Remember too that life is rarely black or white, either or. Just because a part of this may be yours to own, it doesn’t mean that you’re responsible for the entire package.
3 – Can you avoid receiving negative responses?
Take a moment and think of someone you greatly admire or a book or movie or restaurant that you absolutely love. Then, go to an online review site and look to see how many one-star reviews this person, production or place has received.
I bet there is no shortage.
It’s a potent reminder that nobody and nothing is right for everyone and that even the best are sometimes told that they’re awful. And that everybody is always viewing the world through their own lens, clouded by their own experiences and beliefs.
Taking things too personally is both a selfish and a self-sacrificing act. It implies that you’re the center of the action and also makes you responsible for the well-being of those around you. It leads to unnecessary pain and frustration and distracts from root causes and possible solutions.
It’s important to remember that you’re not always the intended target. Sometimes you’re just collateral damage.