In his pivotal book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz wrote about the idea that nothing is personal. Yes, you read that correctly. No matter what someone says to you or does to you, it only tells you about them, it doesn’t tell you about you. Of course, your response to them tells you about you. And, this is where you have the opportunity to become more empowered. Focusing on what you have the power to control, your responses.
As you sit with that, consider a situation where you felt upset with how you were treated. What do your responses telling you about you? Typically our anger or upset speaks to places where we have let someone cross a boundary. Maybe we have an unmet expectation, and we need to explore if the expectation is a. fair, or b. clear and well communicated. In How to have an Empowered Life in 5 Steps, I write about Locus of Control. This is a great place to get curious, are you focused on external things that you may be concerned about and still have no control over? Or, are you focused on what you say, think, or do, which is where you actually do have control? What would you need to shift for you to empower yourself?
Letting go of Personalization
When we take things personally, we are ultimately giving power to another person. “You hurt my feelings,” “Why did you do this to me?” “You’re mean.” The world is filled with people too busy worrying about themselves. Honestly, they don’t have the interest or the bandwidth to give a flying flip about anyone else but themselves; and the small group of people they align with.
- Consider what benefit does giving anyone the power over your “sense of self,” do for you?
- What is at risk, if you put too much stock in other peoples opinions of you?
If this is true, that most of us are too busy with our own situations. And, that we aren’t even conscious about the needs of others when we make most of our decisions. Ask yourself, what benefit do I get by taking anything you say, think, or do, personally?
In fact, the very process of personalizing another person’s opinions or actions means that your focus is not on your own growth, needs, or empowerment. So, letting go of personalization and worry, frees up space and energy for you to focus on what matters to move you forward in life.
This idea was difficult for me when I first started thinking about it.
When someone dumps a load of anger or is generally snarky, short-tempered, demanding, or condescending, I don’t enjoy it…. Do you?
And yet, what if it’s still not personal? When our new boss is micromanaging us, our neighbor hates us, or when someone cuts in line or traffic, or even runs us over, either metaphorically or in all actuality, what if it’s not personal? The longer I have sat with this idea, the more capacity for letting go of my own anger I have had. It’s like my personal mental freedom.
to empower yourself
focus where your power is
When I was about nine, I had an interesting conversation with my grandfather. I was arguing with him because I was mad about how someone had treated me and he told me, “let it go.” Well, that sparked my indignation, “Let it go!? No, they were wrong!” He said something that shocked me, “Who cares? They were wrong, you were right, it doesn’t matter. Let it go because you clearly care too much and it’s hurting you, not them.” “What?”
Somehow I had become the bumper sticker: Let go, or be dragged.
This isn’t an easy concept. Letting go asks us to show up differently with ourselves and others. This takes courage and determination so that we may transform our relationship to the story we are telling ourselves. You know the one, about how much power you are willing to give others.
Find Your Power
The only power I had in any situation was to choose my path forward, and all I was in control of was my response to the circumstances. I could let it go, move on, select different friends, or sit in misery and anger. These were my choices. The big AHA was I could choose, either way, to give my power away or take it back and empower myself.
The work of depersonalizing happens when we begin separating ourselves from the idea that someone else’s behaviors and actions reflect on us. I am not saying I like every behavior or opinion that someone might toss to me. Those actions may, in fact, hurt me. But, what if I begin recognizing that those behaviors and actions reflect on the person doing them, not on the person receiving them.
I may need to cut ties and move on, but I do not need to take ownership or give any of my emotional energy to the personalization of the events. In fact, the more I personalize things, the more likely I am to spin around the “WHY?” Why do people act like that, why are they treating me this way, why are they such a jerk, why don’t they see my perspective, why don’t they like me? And, this is a waste of time and energy.
Personalization often keeps us stuck feeling unworthy, unappreciated, unaccepted. These are not great places to be feeling stuck. What would the benefit be to empower yourself and let go of the personalization altogether?
Getting Past Why…
Not taking things personally doesn’t mean that we limply navigate life, accepting lousy behavior, and becoming rugs for people to wipe their feet on. No, it is absolutely not about that. I am a red-headed, Irish, Leo, I will not be walked all over; it’s not in my nature.
How many times in our lives do stay, circling the drain about the past? I know most of my own depression in my life has come from staying stuck in the past. No matter how much I might wish it, a backward focus doesn’t making moving forward easier.
Instead, what would happen if I use my energy to solve a problem? Taking care of my own feelings and working to change my world, instead of wallowing in the opinions of someone I might not even like or respect. The more I focus on what I can do, the more energized I often feel. Facing forward is the only way to move in the direction you want to head.
When I was in Graduate School, I lived in a house with a woman and her boyfriend. We weren’t super close, but we were friendly when we saw each other. The woman, Sue, who owned the house, was in a problematic relationship with her boyfriend, Dan. I knew they were fighting, I didn’t realize how destructively they were fighting. This all came to a head one day while I was in my room studying. Hearing shouts and cries and things breaking, I ran out of my room, and Dan was beating Sue. It was traumatic for her and for me. Sue was bleeding, there was broken furniture, and I was stunned.
Rushing into the fray, I begged Dan to stop and let me take Sue to the hospital. He told me to leave, and instead, I went to my room to call 911. He followed me, breaking my bedroom door in the process, and threatening to hit me if I didn’t hang up the phone. Sue was crying, “Don’t hurt Lyssa,” and I was saying, “Please, let me take Sue to the hospital.” He wouldn’t. So I left, went and got help, came back, and then I took her to the hospital.
The Point of the Story
I spent a lot of nights after that event with Sue, getting to know her better. She circled around the story that Dan’s behavior, his physical abuse, was her fault. She had internalized and personalized his story of her. She had looked at someone as they passed in another car, she had smiled at someone, or talked to a co-worker, whatever. Her behavior had incensed Dan, playing on his insecurity and jealousy. She was personalizing his behavior by believing the story he was telling her about what kind of person she was. She was the problem.
He soon came to think I was another problem, a bitch who was ruining his relationship. I had to remind myself that I had nothing to do with his ruined relationship. His behavior created that mess.
Sue asked if he could move back in, and I was really clear that I wasn’t going to live in a house with violence. I was paying, he wasn’t, so I stayed. During the last 6 months of living there, Sue began to get some clarity around how she had been personalizing Dan’s beliefs. She thought maybe she was a bad person, she was hurting him, instead of seeing the issue for what it was, he was hurting her. In fact, her personalization, and internalization, of his story, was allowing the violence to continue to happen.
After I moved, he moved back in for a while, but something had fundamentally changed in Sue. I spoke to her a year or so later, and she caught me up, he had moved back in for a few months, then they broke up and got back together a few more times, but finally, the relationship had ended. She wasn’t willing to go back to the old story, and she wasn’t going to take responsibility for his behavior anymore. Sue turned a corner and stopped defining herself by his perspective. Sue empowered herself by shifting the story she had, and she decided to stop personalizing and start choosing a new narrative. She became her own Superhero.
Choose a New Narrative.
I am genuinely sorry that people come along and dump on you, anger you, or hurt you or hurt your feelings. I am equally sad when you chose to take any of it personally. Nothing another person says or does is a reflection of who you are.
It is a lot of power to give to people—control over how you feel, how you perceive yourself, and even more importantly, how you experience your worth.
My question to you is: When you give your power away, who is the puppet, and who is the puppet master? Who is pulling strings, and who is dancing the tragic dance of bullshit? Here is one of my favorite super-secrets of the universe; I want you to hear it and to sit with it until it seeps into your very bones: No person on this planet can define your value. I make this promise to you: You are the only one capable of determining your worth, and you have my permission, and I hope you give yourself authority, to control + alt + delete anyone’s opinion of you that doesn’t resonate with your sense of self. Empower Yourself!
I would LOVE to hear from YOU!
- What triggers you to take something personal?
- What’s might change if you let it go?
All Photo copyright retained by photo owners, everything else ©2014-2022 Lyssa deHart
article originally posted on Dec 2, 2019. Updated April 23, 2023.