“We often add to our pain and suffering by being overly sensitive, overreacting to minor things, and sometimes taking things too personally.” – Dalai Lama
Last night, I took Indian food to a friend’s house for dinner. It was a chaotic meal, with her four kids requiring varying degrees of attention (and employing tactics from screaming to tears to yelling “Mom” in a rapid-fire stream of syllables from the top of the stairs). In other words, a normal evening with a growing family.
Eventually, everyone began to quiet down. My friend and I moved from the kitchen to the living room at the urging of her three-year-old, who wanted to cuddle with her mom on the soft furniture. After a few minutes, during a lull in conversation, the little girl looked me directly in the eye and said, “You go home!”
Both my friend and I burst out laughing. My friend said, “Honey, that wasn’t a kind thing to say!”, but the little one was unrepentant, whining, “But I’m tired and I want everyone to go to bed!”
So I left, chuckling to myself about the directness of a three-year-old.
As I drove home, I thought about how silly it would have been for me to take the little one’s order to leave personally, because even though it was directed at me, it wasn’t about me. She was just trying to make her needs known to the adults in the room. I was glad that her mother’s correction was gentle.
People who have known me all my life, most notably my siblings, will tell you that I haven’t always been so able to let things roll off me. In fact, for much of my life I’ve tended to take most things personally. As a kid, it was hard for me to see something good happening to or for someone else as anything but a slight to me. If someone said, “Boo!” to me, it hurt my feelings. The occasional instances of true injustice left me sputtering with nothing to say but, “That’s not fair!”
Over time, though, I’ve been learning to adjust my perspective. If I catch myself thinking thoughts that overly-personalize the nonpersonal – like traffic or weather patterns – I can now laugh at myself and stop that thinking in process. No, every slow or timid driver does not have a vendetta against me which leads them to somehow cut in front of me. No, it doesn’t only rain because I have outdoor plans. No, that complaint about “some people” I walked in on at work wasn’t about me. Learning to put these nonpersonal issues into perspective has helped me begin to see that even things that feel or are, perhaps, intended to be personal are often not about me, either.
Once, a friend sent me a scathing email, accusing me of nefarious intentions and intentionally cruel behaviors. I was devastated. My immediate reaction was to sit down and write a tearful, point by point rebuttal to prove that these accusations weren’t true. After reading what I had written, I erased it. It somehow felt wrong – I had said, repeatedly, that the things I was accused of were complete fabrications and bore no resemblance to me, my intentions or my behaviors. But wouldn’t a friend know this?
The longer I sat with this situation, the more it became clear to me. Most of my friend’s email actually revealed her fears and her implicit (and unchecked) assumptions. Most of it truly had very little to do with me. Once my perspective shifted and I realized that the email projected onto me what she feared or was insecure about, I was able to respond in a less defensive way. I waited 48 hours or so before responding. I took time to question myself about each part of her accusations – what pieces were actually about me? what was fair? were there parts that I needed to own? what required direct response from me? how could I phrase my response such that it expressed my concern, compassion, and truth without projecting my insecurities back at my friend? I could not control her feelings or her response, but I hoped to move our conversation back onto level ground, where we could both remember that we were friends – that our intentions toward one another were positive, despite our human failings to express those perfectly in either words or deeds.
I have been thinking about this tendency to take things personally a lot lately. As social media and other forms of public discourse have taken a more incendiary and adversarial tone, it behooves me to remember that much of what is being posted, re-posted, commented upon, is coming from someone elses’ worry, fear, or insecurity (or, in the case of some outlets, purposely playing on those). When my friends are rude or incendiary, is it their intent to hurt me? When I am those things, is it my intent to wound the very people I care most about? I hope that I will be able to answer these questions in the negative – my friends are not purposely hurting me, nor am I purposely hurting them. So, how do we proceed?
I know I don’t have the answers. What I am trying to do is not take anything personally if it isn’t addressed to me personally. So, I assume that general postings/repostings on someone else’s social media wall or feed aren’t about me. They may certainly speak to me, but aren’t intended to hurt me specifically. I try to be sensitive about posting blasting rants full of name-calling and wild invective (sometimes, I’m not a good judge of this when I am emotionally reacting to news, but I am trying). Whenever possible, when I start to feel hurt or attacked, I stop and question my response – is this really about me?
The thing is, for some, all of this discord is nonsense. (We’ve all seen the posts asking Facebook to go back to being a place for feel-good news.) For others, politics IS personal. Often, the dividing line is how directly you see some opinion or legislation impacting your own life or lives you care about. Or how directly it touches on your most deeply held values and beliefs. This is true for most of us, regardless of political leanings. If one person believes that they are fighting for their life, while the other believes they are having a philosophical argument, that unequal amount of “skin in the game” will have a direct impact on the interaction – and it almost ensures that feelings will get hurt. For me, it remains important to recall that I am talking to, am in relationship with, a fellow human being about whom I care. A close second point to keep in mind: none of us, me included, has perfect insight.
The times I can avoid taking the other person’s comments, postings, statements as deeply personal – then see my way clear to a compassionate yet truthful response – are the times when real communication happens. Getting to that level is vitally important to moving forward as opposed to ending in an invective-filled, anxiety-inducing, tear-producing stalemate of an argument.
As I prepare to post this reflection, I’m aware that some readers will disagree with me or take issue with something I’ve said. I’m prepared for that every time I post to this blog. But please know that I am deeply willing to engage in respectful dialogue – even difficult and gut-wrenching discussion of our beliefs – with you. Please accept that my intent is positive and motivated by care. Also know that I am trying not to take our differences personally; rather, I hope to find in them an opportunity for personal and collective growth. I can’t help but believe that this is what our world needs more of right now.