Take Nothing Personally

August 29th, 2012

Zig Ziglar said, “Every obnoxious act is a cry for help.” Wow! What an amazing way to reframe being attacked. It’s not easy, mind you, in the heat of the moment. But imagine how different life would be if we lived with that sort of compassion.

About twenty five years ago, I was physically attacked in a case of mistaken identity. At the time I was working as a youth worker on the streets of inner Sydney. This enraged guy held me up against a wall with one fist around my neck and a knife pointed at my jugular. He demanded his money back. I told him I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he wasn’t buying it.

Something amazing happened in that moment. Among the many emotions I had, the strongest was sadness. I thought to myself, “This guy must be in trouble to be acting like this.” I spontaneously relaxed my whole body. It went so limp that his hand fell off my neck like water. After a little more argy bargy, he finally gave up and said that the guy he planned to kill looked just like me. It was a happy ending, at least for me.

It struck me that this is a metaphor for not taking things personally. Anger is almost ALWAYS a case of mistaken identity. Everything that annoys or enrages us in other people is something we haven’t faced in ourselves. Getting involved in other peoples’ anger is like the Irishman who found two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?” Another person’s anger is NOT your fight.

It’s like the sign at the zoo, “Don’t feed the lions.” Don’t feed anger. It’s a misplaced primal scream. Feed the real hunger, which is a plea for understanding. It’s their cry for help. The question is how we answer the cry. It starts with compassion. I’m not talking about pity, or pop psychologizing someone in the heat of their rage. That will make it worse. I’m talking about genuinely feeling compassion for the other person, and hearing their pain.

You can’t take away someone else’s pain, but it’s amazing how much compassion helps. Next time you are attacked you have a choice. You can attack back and end up in a smack down of mistaken identity, or you can feel compassion.

A Course In Miracles says, “Every communication is either an extension of love or a call for love.”

Treat every interaction this way and there will be so much less suffering.

Every attack is a cry for help. Make your every word an extension of love.

Don Miguel Ruiz sums it up perfectly in The Four Agreements,

Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

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  1. Pippa says:

    I have struggled for the past 18 months or so with being the object of my sister’s anger and hatred – or that  is what it feels like, in the aftermath of our father’s death and as we try to sort out his affairs. It really helps to understand her words/actions as being about her stuff and not me, hard as that is sometimes. With distance and lack of contact, I can feel compassion and understanding for her – but when she is in my face it is very different and leaves me feeling psychically very threatened and vulnerable – which is no doubt about my stuff too. I cannot imagine any kind of relationship persisting between us once the legal/financial stuff is sorted once and for all – and that represents a huge loss of  “family”  and history – though one which at this precise moment I cannot help but look forward to. Wish I had come across this site at the beginning of these troubles!

  2. Bill Lawton says:

    How wise and what a goal to seek M

  3. Keith Laidler says:

    Holy Crap!  Lives end every day somewhere from decisions made in anger.  Did you have nightmares for a time?  How hard was it to go back out the next day to do your street ministry?  Did you ever see your attacker after that? 
    Don’t answer these ?’s if this story is in your coming book; I’ll read it there. 
    You are so right about whose problem it really is when someone erupts at you.  Trouble is the small window of time one has in which to make the right response. 

  4. Te Ratahi says:

    I love how Don Miguel Ruiz sums it up. I have gotten through so many things by understanding this. Sometimes people do horrible things to you and you wonder what you’ve done to deserve it. When you believe that its all about that person and nothing about yourself, its way easier to move on from it.

  5. These are some great reminders, and a great example of how you, Ian, didn’t take an attack personally.  You really walked your talk.  It reminds me of the work of Marshall Rosenberg, who does work with non-violence communication – http://www.cnvc.org.  

  6. Tara says:

    This, and the Four Agreements, should be required reading for being alive. Very well said.

  7. This is so soulful and beautiful! I am tweeting it and posting it on pinterest. You have so spoken the TRUTH. And eloquently.
    We have a song called Whatever that says exactly this. I teach it to kids, tweens, adults and they swear it saves them in those tricky moments where they are confronted with another person’s misplaced anger. I even have a lesson plan for teachers for it as I have learned this lesson is that important. btw It has been the trickiest lesson I have ever learn in my own life.

  8. Isabel Hansen says:

    I taught my 3 1/2 year old son these principles when he was being bullied at childcare. Now at 5 years old I can see what a great decision I made. He applies it in many areas without my guidance and is a very happy boy who always treats others with compassion!

  9. Shelley says:

    Wise words, and truth…♥

  10. Linda Gillis says:

    Synchronicity at its best! This morning during my morning meditations I picked up my copy of “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz and read the same words you quoted about not taking things personally. I thought about using to them as a base for one of the sessions I will be doing at a national conference for church support staff. Now, I’m sure I’ll be using them! Thanks for the great post.

  11. Bravo on another meaningful, clear entry on how best to respond to a major problem in today’s world. This is a lessons worth learning for all of us. Thank you.

  12. Ian,What a fascinating story. Lots of wisdom to glean from it. Thanks for sharing it.-Valerie Brookswww.ValTheSpaGal.com

  13. Jill says:

    Loved this.  Thank you.

  14. Rhana says:

    Love this: “Another person’s anger is NOT your fight.” Powerful message,  Thank you Ian. 

  15. […] Zig Ziglar said, “Every obnoxious act is a cry for help.” Wow! What an amazing way to reframe being attacked. It’s not easy, mind you, in the heat of (Every communication is either an extension of love or a call for love.  […]

  16. Hazel says:

    Beautiful message. Thank you Ian !!!

  17. Such wisdom shared in this blog! Thank you so much for the reminder. How many times we forget and take things people say personally. It is only by seeing it from this perspective so well expressed in the Course of Miracles that we can step back and react differently, with compassion and understanding. Peace can come to this earth when more people will act this way. it takes all of us to make that shift.

  18. Relationships are built upon common ground, but the only way to get there is through understanding.  And the only way to get THERE is by listening, which you can’t do if you’re busy reacting to the other person’s anger.  Compassion takes work and discipline, but it’s worth it. 

  19. Wylie says:


  20. Nate says:

    So you’re telling me that when I saw a man beat his girlfriend & then I kicked his ass it wasnt personal? Him hitting his girlfriend was what caused me to act which is something he did and what I did to him was quite personal.

  21. Nate says:

    Or what if someone that wants your bf/gf and hates you and starts flirting with them. Id say that it quite personal. You cant apply this article to every aspect of life because people will make things personal regardless.

  22. Nellie Lareena says:

    Awesome.. Very helpful.. thanks

  23. Maxyna says:

    This is wonderful. very meaningful and … truly lovely

  24. lee harth says:

    excellent words! Love the zoo sign bit but whole post was super read.

  25. foniker says:

    I wonder how many times a day a scammer can fake-rage attack somebody with a knife screaming for their money back and what percentage of times people will just throw money at him to leave them alone. & then if the cops r called & he is caught he wud just say it was an honest mistake. Hmmmm?

  26. Bharathan Rajaram says:

    I understand where you are coming from, but I disagree that this kind of response is appropriate every time. The basic principle holds, so following it while using different approaches certainly makes sense.

  27. I like this and agree it would be helpful to treat anger with compassion, the difficulty is how to do so in the heat of the moment, much easier said than done. Practice I guess 🙂

  28. Mireille says:

    But what about all those theories about attracting those situations/people you need to learn from, that are some how mirroring undevelopped aspects of your being; receiving what you’ve sent out, people who are getting even more angry/agressive because you don’t take it personal; people who get angry because you really hurt them in friendships, relationships physically, emotionally or mentally. These situations are difficult to rhyme with : Don Miguel Ruiz sums it up perfectly in The Four Agreements,Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

  29. Anonymous says:

    I can get this at a certain level…. I often act angry and brave to cover feeling vulnerable and alone… but I can’t really apply this to the world… I don’t think when someone skins an animal alive or crushes s bunny in a porno… or rapes a baby … sets an elderly person on fire… stabs a person 56 times… that this is somehow a misguided cry for help… some people… many people are too far gone… evil…. hateful…. so… for general life situations . I can see trying to refer to this to understand where a person is coming from …. that they need live… but when you reach the level of atrocity and mayhem .genocide.. I am not convinced this can apply.

  30. Blair says:

    That is indeed a great way to understand the human soul, and how it generally operates, both of others’ and one’s self. I was following you and nodding in agreement until the last paragraph. I offer some constructive criticism:First, I suggest being careful using the all-inclusive words like “every”, never, always,  etc.  They are big words that should not be used lightly when conveying concepts. I believe it is wrong to say “EVERY act of anger is…”, or “nothing others do is…”. You can more accurately say that about things like gravity or math.  Related to above, you lost me when you included Don Miguel’s The Four Agreements. Again, It is full of definitive, “don’t take anything.. and “nothing” words. Furthermore, because of the inclusion of such words it actually makes it wrong. Some things should be taken personally. Some things others do is because of ourselves. Lastly, it is total B.S. to tell someone to be “immune to the opinions and actions of others” or “nothing others do is because of you”. (don’t take my bluntness personally, ha!).  For example, If I say something that offends or shows disrespect to a friend and he says “what you said offended me”, am I to be immune to that and just brush it off? And what if I often offend him because I am “immune..”, and he decides to end the friendship for self-preservation, am I to blame him and “not take it personally” or say “he is just projecting his reality. I did nothing wrong in this relationship and, thus will just move on to the next friend” (and the next, and then the next until I have no friends because I don’t take feedback or accept others’ opinions?) Further example,   If my boss says “because you are late everyday to work I must fire you”, should I not take that personally and take his action as a consequence of my own behavior? If I followed the advice of Don Miguel I would have a tendency to blame my boss, say it is unfair, and tell him where he can go all because of the mindset, “it is not me, it is him”.  This would not be taking responsibility for my own actions, behaviors and words, and thus, not face it and deal with it in order to grow and improve so that it won’t happen again, and I can have more fruitful work relationships (and eat). I don’t want to belabor the point. You said:” Don Miguel Ruiz sums it up perfectly in The Four Agreements” Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”How about this: “Don’t immediately assume that what others say or do should be taken personally, for it may or may not be  because of you, but a projection of their own reality. Take it with a grain of salt, and honestly, objectively and humbly contemplate your role in the matter, and nothing more (you are not responsible for their actions), then respond accordingly, in love. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others until such honest contemplation concludes, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering, and, have a greater probability self-growth and of inner peace” 

  31. Blair says:

    Also read what Mireille said above.  

  32. Shirl says:

    Most interactions with my dad were  painful attacks.  Or to put it another way,  he was emotionally abusive,  and for many years too. It was like waiting for a nuclear explosion!  It has impacted on my life and marriage. Had counselling over the years but it never got me where I wanted to be.In the end, my dad died on Fathers Day 4 years ago and I have come to see that my dad was a very unhappy man living with my mum who he got married to in the early 50s. But she was married to her religion and it came first every time.  It came before me, dad and brother and dad must have felt so utterly rejected. His rages and put downs were as you point out, cries for help. I wish to god I had seen this before it was too late.  My dad died in an extremely fragile emotional state as well as physical pain. Whilst he spent many years putting me down and hurting me as often as he could, I now feel totally sorry for my dad and I cant tell him I now understand the position he was in.  

  33. sneha says:

    Hey,.. I wonder how many times a day a scammer can fake-rage attack somebody with a knife screaming for their money back and what percentage of times people will just throw money at him to leave them alone.

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