Last week, I had lunch with a freelance writer who is interviewing me for a regional women’s magazine. Before the interview began, she related a situation that has left her drained and unhappy about a non-profit program she founded. As I listened, it became apparent that each of the people involved took each other’s miscommunications personally. Then, they told their “story” to other people who believed it. Those people continued the stories by passing them along to create a full-blown drama.
We’ve all done this. Some of us can catch ourselves taking things personally. And some of us don’t know how to shift it. We wonder why we take things personally and how we’ll ever get out of that mindset.
Though I’m far from being fully detached, I’ve come a long way on this path. Compared to where I once was, I feel like the Buddha. There’s nothing like the entertainment business to teach you – in a big way – how to not take things personally.
The Benefits of Not Taking Things Personally
The biggest benefits of not taking things personally are self-awareness and clarity. Being centered and grounded while knowing that only you can dictate whether or not you’re on track or whether or not you’re successful is a reward in and of itself. Anyone who has experienced this state of being knows how good it feels. Once you get a taste of it, you’ll strive to be in that state more often. Even when you get thrown off, you’ll relish the knowledge that you get to choose whether or not to remain stuck. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”
Your Story is Rarely Correct
The first step in breaking the habit of taking things personally is to observe the stories you tell yourself. These stories have nothing to do with facts. They’re all about your translations. Do you spin a self-righteous tale about how you’re doing good things in the world and the evil right-wingers are closed and greedy? Do you have a good victim story about how you’re the sensitive one and people are cold and hurtful to poor souls like you? Do you feel rejected by situations that aren’t at all about rejection? Begin noticing if there are recurring threads woven throughout your personal stories. Begin asking yourself if there’s any truth in them at all. And ask yourself how you’d behave if they simply weren’t true.
Once you begin to notice the stories you tell yourself, breaking the habit of taking things personally can happen through some simple practices and courageous actions.
How to Not Take Things Personally
1 – SWSWSWSW
This stands for “Some will. Some won’t. So what? Someone’s waiting!” It means that some people are going to love what you do. Then, there will be those who visit your blog, look at your paintings, listen to your songs, read your poems, review your resume – and they’ll shrug and say, “Yea, not so much.” So what? Somewhere out there someone is waiting for your gift. And if you have to keep working on your craft, or wait a little while, that’s okay!
2 – Remember that people are busy
People are busy. They may not have time for you. Young musicians complain because they try to book a venue, but their emails weren’t answered. They give up. And they get resentful. I tell them the same thing: People are busy. It’s not personal. They just don’t have time to answer every email. (Revisit #1.)
3 – Email is instant. Use accordingly.
Email creates fabulous opportunities to take things personally. (Blog comments, too.) The quickness of our culture has removed much of the etiquette that some of us would normally expect. Most people just “fire it off.” If you get an email that hurts or feels personal, take an hour or so to chill out. Then re-read the email in a kind narrator’s voice. Be careful with the temptation to over-dramatize someone else being in a hurry with his email or comment. For some people, email is quick and easy. It is simply a tool – not a way to make you feel okay about yourself!
4 – Begin each day with presence and proactive-ness
How you begin your day often sets the tone for the day. If you start the day by opening your email and launching your browser, you are opening yourself up to external stuff – some of which may trigger you. Start instead with creative and proactive activities. Some possibilities: meditation, yoga, going to the gym, writing a blog, writing a song/poem, doing morning pages, writing down goals and intents, creating your day in advance. Start with a strong foundation of honoring yourself each day.
5 – Create a “Good Mojo” file
Create a “Good Mojo” folder in your email. Create a file called “Good Mojo” in your file cabinet. Fill these files with kind emails and loving cards from friends or co-workers or fans. If you’re taking things personally, you may as well rummage through these files to find the good messages, the words and cards from people who love what you do. Start keeping this folder and use it when you need it.
6 – Be willing to look like an idiot: Communicate
Recently one of my best friends and I planned to meet each other at a certain time in city we were both visiting. I called her when I was on the way, and in the conversation she said that I could “just go shopping outside of her hotel and she’d come down and meet me later.” Every part of my being shouted, “She’s blowing me off!” I hung up the phone feeling hurt. My drama-queen story-tellers were in the wings putting on their costumes. Before they got on stage, I called her back and I said, “Okay, I’m not trying to be pushy or weird here, but I feel like we had these plans and I don’t understand what happened.” She interrupted and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called back to clear that up! I got the sense that you needed time and space, and I was trying to let you to have that!” Because I got a little brave and was willing to look a bit needy, we both got to laugh at our miscommunication.
If something feels strange or out of balance, check in with the other person. Take the responsibility. Say, “This may sound strange, but…” Or “I’m afraid I may have said something out of line. Is that possible?” Most people – not all – will be grateful that you cared enough to clear the air.
Note: This is not an appropriate technique in certain professional situations. If, for instance, someone has rejected your work for a gallery or a showcase, refer to #1 above. Don’t call a gallery owner (or promoter or record producer) back and say, “I sense you had some hostility towards me and I’m just checking in because it really hurt my feelings.” Not good.
7 – Beware of collusion
In the situation above, I could’ve chosen not to call my friend back. I could’ve called another friend and vented. I could’ve said, “I’ve come all this way to meet her and what does she say…?” The other friend could get hooked into my story, and we’d waste a whole tonage of energy investing in it. Not worth it. TAKE NOTE: Colluding is the best way to perpetuate the pattern of taking things personally. It takes a deep and committed discipline to shift out of this pattern. That’s because much of what we call friendship in our culture is little more than disliking the same people and staying stuck in our own versions of the truth and requiring that our friends agree with us. Collusion is rounding up people who believe your own illusions. Stop it.
8 – Make a list and move to the next thing
Many of us strategize for the one big thing that will be our “saving grace.” This is a veritable petri dish for taking things personally. You apply for a scholarship to one MFA program. You send your article off to one magazine. You ask only one producer to make your CD. There’s a better way here. Before you send yourself out into the world – be it resume, scholarship, grant, producer, publication – make a list of many options. List all of the publications, grants, employers, options, etc. Move down the list if someone says no. Find that someone who’s waiting.
9 – Shut up and listen
When you listen and quietly observe, you often find that you had it all wrong. You may actually see humor in how you can take everything so personally. Sit down on the floor, lean against a wall and quietly listen to your own breathing. Or, when you’re in a conversation with someone else, stop and listen. Really deeply listen. Try practicing this in every day conversations that aren’t emotional. This will prepare you for moments when you are taking something personally.
10 – Use unemotional language when you communicate
Phrases like “Well, you’re the one who…” and “You took that all wrong!” are inflammatory and do little to help a situation. Try to use language that’s not about the emotions and not about pointing fingers. “I think I didn’t communicate this well so let me try again.” Or, “I’m not sure I understand you. Can we discuss this on the phone?” The challenge is to communicate with unemotional language. Kind of a “here’s the facts ma’am” approach. Write out your desired outcome for the conversation. Get clear inside yourself, and then talk with the other person.
11 – Eat enough. Sleep enough.
Being tired or hungry will always make you more sensitive or irritable. Don’t try to function well if you’re hungry or if you haven’t slept well.
12 – Let the deeper goal be what motivates you
Who you become on your journey is far more meaningful than what happens to you. If you learn how to get beyond taking things personally by witnessing and then choosing a different response, you will eventually become unshakable. You can lose all your money; you can get rotten reviews of your recent work after being lauded for the last one; you can get fired tomorrow – but you can’t lose who you are. You can’t lose your essence. When you become someone who is clear and centered, you will have the tools to move through life no matter what happens externally.