How many times has someone said to you “don’t take it personally”? You have probably heard it so many times that the phrase has lost all meaning. Yet, the truth is that almost nothing is truly personal. Further, not taking things personally allows us to experience self-compassion and compassion for others.
We suffer when we believe in a solid sense of “I.” This is the fundamental tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Developing an understanding of this First Noble Truth is the key to the experience of freedom and ease. Believing in the true existence of “I” is commonly referred to in Buddhism as ego-clinging. It can also be called self-importance.
Everything is a Projection
People do not see things in exactly the same way. Rather, what each of us perceives is a projection, based on numerous factors, such as habits, assumptions, culture, values and preferences. In fact, the only things the eye directly sees are colors and shapes.
I often help my clients develop their understanding of projections by looking at a plant in my office. I ask them what they see. They may say they see a pretty philodendron. When we analyze that, we realize that “pretty” is an evaluation and “philodendron” is a label. So, what is seen under the labels and evaluations? All that the eye truly registers on the optic nerve are colors and shapes.
Seeing mere colors and shapes does not satisfy our busy brains. We take the color and shape and add labels, evaluations, stories, and on and on until it becomes an epic novel. For example, from the color and shape, we label the plant and then evaluate it. Unless we are mindful about our proliferating thoughts, we may go on and think about the last time the plant was watered and if it needs pruning. We may even go further and judge ourselves for not having a green thumb.
It is the same when we see another person. We don’t stop with what we see directly. Rather, we go on to project all our own “stuff” on that person: good person, bad person, fat person, fit person, attractive person, unattractive person and on and on. Of course, human connection is far more nuanced than mere colors and shapes. However, an understanding that what another sees is his or her particular projection is helpful when we are feeling judged or criticized. This does not mean that constructive criticism is to be ignored. What we should remember, however, is that it is your behavior that is being critiqued, and not who you actually are.
Not taking things personally as the key to compassion and harmony
Not taking things personally is also a key to effective and responsible communication. When we put aside our ego-clinging and self-importance, we can better hear what another is actually saying. Behind every criticism or judgment is a need that is not being expressed in a compassionate manner. Instead of defending our position and taking what is being said personally, take a breath or two before automatically reacting defensively. Feel what your body is telling you. For example, does that clenching tightness in your gut feel like anger or hurt? When you understand what you are feeling, you can more ably discern how to respond, and even whether to respond at all.
For example, if a partner says, “you never wash the dishes,” what he or she is likely expressing is a request that you do the dishes. A typical kneejerk reaction would be to defend yourself, responding “that’s not true. I washed the dishes last Tuesday.” A defensive reaction such as this is likely to create more tension. Instead, we can respond with compassion, both for what we feel and for what our partner is asking.
If what is being said is intentionally mean or verbally abusive, it may be best to disengage in order to feel safe. Responding defensively may escalate an already difficult situation. By disengaging in those situations, you can best contemplate and choose the best choice of action for yourself under the circumstances.
Not taking things personally may take practice, patience and mindfulness in order to let go of our need to be right or defend our position. The result is a more kind and compassionate relationship, both with ourselves and with others.
© 2016 Beth S. Patterson. All rights reserved.