Nothing is Personal

February 20th, 2012

While standing in front of the mirror the other day, I said to Meg “I’m feeling ugly and out of shape. I need a compliment.” She replied, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your eyesight.”

Ouch! I got what I asked for, but strangely didn’t feel any better. Actually, that situation didn’t happen at all. In fact, on the contrary Meg has taught me so much over the years about acceptance. She has endured all the rises and falls of my weight and body shape with equanimity. She says nothing when I put weight on and nothing when I lose weight. I am afflicted with a disease of the ego, a condition that affects many people, whereby my self perception swings like a pendulum. My condition is so delusional that I can convince myself after a single workout that I’ve lost weight, and after missing a single workout that I’ve put weight on.

Because this delusion is so insatiable, I look everywhere to reinforce the belief. While I fish for compliments, Meg just waits for the pendulum to swing back again, hoping that I don’t knock her down with the weight of my needs.

She neither praises me for losing weight, nor criticizes me for gaining weight. This drives my ego crazy as you can imagine. But in my saner moments, I have undying appreciation for her acceptance. If only I could see myself with the same acceptance, my suffering would end.

I’m writing in this series about taking things personally. Life is full of opportunity to take things personally, at both ends of the pendulum. We do this when we make events, comments, praise, criticism, sideways glances, body language and countless gestures etc etc etc mean something about us.

Someone greets you a little less enthusiastically than you would like, and you imagine that it means that they are upset with you. Conversation shifts when you walk in a room, and you imagine that people are gossiping about you. You’re not invited to a gathering, and assume it’s because you aren’t wanted. Your friend forgets to call you, and you take it to mean that they don’t care. Someone is distant, you assume it’s because they are angry with you.

Or conversely, you ARE invited to the cool party, and you make it mean that you are a COOL person. Someone looks in your direction and you assume that it’s because you are so attractive. All eyes turn in your direction when you walk in the room, and you decide that it means you are VERY important.

Either way, the meaning you make from these events is full of assumptions, the desire for approval can never be fulfilled outside of yourself and the way you feel about yourself swings from one extreme to another with little basis and no resting place. The power of not taking things personally is that you force yourself to find inner acceptance, to take responsibility for the meaning you place on situations, and ultimately to find an inner resting place that keeps you centered while all around you, and much of what happens within you, such as emotions and thoughts, rises and falls. (read on for more about taking things personally)

What sort of things do you take personally? Conflict, difference of opinion, silence, different beliefs, humor, politics? This tendency seems to be at the root of so much unnecessary suffering. Why do we do it?

We seem to need drama to validate ourselves or maybe drama makes us feel more alive. Have you ever had a pain in your body, and found yourself flirting with it? You twist your body up into a pretzel shape to see if the pain is still there, almost chasing it, searching for it. We have some unconscious dependence on pain. Even other people’s drama is enticing. An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?” We go out of our way to get involved in other peoples’ dramas.

Maybe we have a need to feel that life is all about us. You think that other people are going out of their way to cause you pain. Most of the time, people are so busy bending themselves into their own pretzel shaped drama, searching for their own pain, that it probably has very little to do with you. People don’t usually cause you pain, but they do remind you of your own pain, intentionally or not. They remind you of pain that may have decades of history behind it, and it’s too painful to really address, so you imagine that this most recent drama has caused the pain. You react out of your own pain and remind another person of their pain, and so the cycle continues.

We had a conversation with our 12 year old son recently. He was being teased by some boys because he doesn’t play football or like guns. It was really getting him down, and he was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with him. I shared with him that when I was his age I DID play football and was even quite good, but I still got teased for being too shy and not exactly fitting the mould of the way a football playing boy is supposed to act. Normal is an endless spectrum and conformity is a moving target. But conformity will always look for a target, and whoever dares to stand out could end up in its crosshairs.

Some kids are just plain mean. They are mean because they are desperately trying to win society’s dog eat dog battle for supremacy, with its inbuilt impossible standards, that are drummed into them from birth. They will find a way to put you down, in order to feel better about themselves, and they will keep doing it until they either destroy you or else heal themselves and feel truly comfortable in their own skin.

As adults, we have subtle (and not so subtle) ways of doing the same thing as we continue to search for peace with ourselves. Even if people are trying hard to make things feel personal, it’s not. It’s all about them. So you might as well be yourself, live a life that gives you joy and give others the space to find their own way. There is ALWAYS more to come, and the bully will one day come face to face with his own pain, and the bullied will one day see his light.

The battle is ultimately won in your own mind as you come head to head, literally, with your own beliefs. Once you win this battle, people can praise you or criticize you, build you up or put you down, belittle you or put you on a pedestal, and at your essence you stay centered because you know how fickle these opinions and games are.

The author Byron Katie put it like this-

You think they think there’s something wrong with you. You think that other people think there’s something wrong with you because you think it. So by gaining their approval, you’ve been trying to stop them from thinking what you’re thinking. The worst that can happen is that they are just like you! It’s their job to think what you’re already thinking, until you question it. When you question what you think, the truth will make you laugh. And when you laugh, they laugh too. Everybody does their job all the time. That’s why meeting your thought system is so much fun!

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  1. nyc#1mom says:

    Thank you for this.  It could not have come at a better time.  Namaste.

  2. Thank you so much for all,it’s really helpfull to me…in some ways,i love this site so much! (^_^) I agree with the thoughts of the author,and in my opinion, there’re more than 7 billions people in our world;if someone always be affected by others so how that person can live.You just need to be yourself,do your best,treat well with others by your kindness and keep the balance between your inner peace of yourself  and outsider world…so on!It’s too enough to live well,because the worthiest thing in life is “Happy”…

  3. Tamara Epps says:

    This is so true and something I am constantly having to remind myself.  Since I’ve stopped taking things so personally, I have been free to help others with their pain as well as cut a lot of energy-sucking drama out of my own life.

  4. Belinda Federl says:

    I loved your blog espeically as my son had the same problem at 12 as well!  ~Acceptance of yourself is important and going through cancer of all things that has eventually done this for me. I do, however, think instinct has be looked at too especially if you feel someone is upset with you and although I think myself paranoid at times, 9 out 10 times I am right. Body lanquage can speak volumes and can subconciously give out communication that can be picked up on.  Its how you deal with it within yourself that matters.

  5. Gopi Menon says:

    I agree that lack of Self-Acceptance is a huge problem for almost everyone.  Personally I found that when I finally learned to fully accept myself (warts and all), then I was able to accept others as they were!  I used the ‘Mirror Exercise’ persistently to achieve this self-acceptance.  Once this was achieved, I was no longer worried about what others may be saying or thinking about me. 
    Best of all, on learning self-acceptance, I was able to stop judging others and this led to happier relationships with my wife, children, friends and colleagues!

  6. Kat Russell says:

    Long ago I realized that other people could only concentrate their thoughts on me for about 45 seconds before they got back to thinking about themselves.

    I decided that I had to live my life for myself, not for someone else’s 45 seconds.

  7. Keinya says:

    Wow, this is SO on point and is really resonating with me.  Not only am I even more motivated to keep this at the forefront of my mind as I interactr with others, but I can’t help wondering how awesome it would be to get our children thinking in this way.  I really want to model this philosophy.  Thank you for posting.  :o)

  8. Margaret says:

    How easily we can lose ourselves in the focus of what other people are thinking about us, and so lose our own soul and self.Then that cuts us off from the very people we seek to relate to. Thank you for all your wisdom and truth and Namaste

  9. Angela Stanford-Butler says:

    Thanks Ian.  As always, great insight and a wonderful reminder.  This is something that I want to share with the kids.  Something worth remembering at every age.

  10. Amy says:

     These gems of wisdom do stand the test of time for all generations. The philosophy that echoes in my soul (thank goodness it reminds me when I get off track) is equanimity, grace, acceptance of all that enters my path. When I look at and read of The Dalai Lama, monks, spiritually minded individuals-no matter the faith (it is their Spirit I see), I am reminded of their unwavering faith and peace in the midst of life’s joys, sorrows, and inevitable changes. I try to model and follow these approaches and live as an example for any other fellow traveler I have the privilege of encountering. Thank you for being my reminder for my day. Now I will go and ‘pay it forward’. Peace.

  11. Yvonne says:

    This one used to have me in it’s clutches but not anymore!
    I only wish my beautiful niece would stop hating her looks
    just because the other kids tease her about her cute freckles.
    If only we could all come from a state of allowing and love instead
    of playing out insecurities over and over again!!

  12. Tohana says:

    Very “real”! I spend so much time wondering what others are thinking, I have stopped thinking for myself & what makes me happy. This need to be accepted is infectious & we do pass it right along. Hmmph…. I think I’ll work on that.


  13. [...] week I wrote about not taking things personally. My interest in writing on this topic is to encourage ALL people to feel things deeply and [...]

  14. kyra says:

    Well Ian what another fabulous piece of work you have written. Thank you so much for being so genuine and personal through the words you write.This is my favourite blog out there on the web-o-sphere and I have gained so much from following….Keep up the Good Thoughts….and Keep Sharing them Of Course. 

  15. Tawnya says:

    I want to personally thank you for writing this article. I have spent almost most of my life thinking about what other people thought of me. I was reinforcing the thought that I was unwanted and unlovable. I know in my 32 year old head the truth but for some reason I couldn’t let go of the idea that someone had to make me feel loved and not just once but ALL THE TIME. And that is too much to ask of any person.  Reading this article and the others puts the truth right before my eyes. My husband I am sure would love to thank you because we argued a lot about things he said that I would twist around and make about me. Looking for him to reaffirm that even though he married me, he still somewhere deep inside did not WANT ME. Thank you again. I will have to remind myself and reprogram my thoughts but you have put me on the right direction.

  16. roberta says:

    Seems that you read my mind. Always read what I need at the moment. Thank You for your wisdom

  17. Gianna says:

    over all I totally agree, still it strikes me there needs to be balance here lest one not be capable of hearing feedback and become an ego maniac! when we are truly comfortable with ourselves then we can also hear feedback that may help us grow. 

  18. I love your message, and sent it to my 16 nad 19 year old daughters who deal with bullying better and better every day, as their self confidence increases

  19. Kristen says:

    If everyone believed this way, bullying would not be as much of an issue.  The book Mindset is another great read and goes along with this positive thinking.

  20. Marney says:

    Thank you for helping me realise that I need to accept myself. 

  21. eLena says:

    Thanks 4 this post. We are really spending too much time & energy to fight for “nothing” that stands between Real me and Teached me. Acceptance of one self is the only way to stop this wastful life stile.  

  22. Dan McCallum says:

    Thank you for your wisdom.

  23. Nancy says:

    This one is  must be shared. Wonderful. 

  24. Johnb247 says:

    Enjoyed examining this, very good stuff, thankyou . While thou livest keep a good tongue in thy head. by William Shakespeare. eeacfccaekde

  25. […] it personally. I know this is almost impossible to do, one of the best blog posts I read was “Nothing is Personal.” Many times these people are scared of losing the “old you” or worried that your new […]

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