Ah, inner peace… sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but since I’m an angsty person with a tendency to fall into negative-thought-holes and riding emotional roller coasters, a sense of peace has often been hard to come by. Due to some pretty challenging circumstances in my life, though, I’m getting lots of chances to practice new ways of handling things. I’ve been learning some tricks that are actually helping me out these days– finally! One of the biggest changes that has led to more peacefulness for me is this:
Trying to not take things personally.
Taking things personally? What do I mean? For me, this is what it looks like — someone does something towards me that I perceive as negative. I have a big emotional reaction. Hurt or anger or resentment or frustration would pop up inside me, and then I would have thoughts like “They are disrespecting me. They don’t care about me. They are treating me like shit. I’m a victim. What did I do to deserve this? They must think ___ about me. I’m not good enough. I’m worthless…” I might not be conscious of these negative thoughts, but I’d fume and ruminate and maybe obsess. It would be hard to let go of the feelings and thoughts.
It could be something small, like having someone cut me off in traffic. I’d be angry: what a jerk! How could they? How unfair!
But what if I think: wow, something’s going on with them. Maybe they are having a lousy day or are distracted or or anxiously in a hurry, or whatever. I’ve had days like that and sometimes it affects my driving. It’s about them, not me.
It could be something more personal, like my spouse putting his dishes in the sink rather than the dishwasher again. I’d be annoyed: really? The dishwasher is right there. Does he expect me to do it for him? He doesn’t appreciate me.
But what if I think: oh yeah, I remember how distracted he is sometimes. He forgets things. Maybe he’s worried or daydreaming. It’s about him, not me. (And I can choose to leave the dishes, or put them in the dishwasher, no big deal.)
It could be something really big. Most people don’t know that I’ve been estranged from my parents and siblings for over 10 years. It’s a long complicated personal story that I won’t get into here, but it has taken me on many of those roller coaster rides of emotions. I’ve been hurt, angry, afraid, anxious. frustrated, full of grief and sadness, and resentful. I’ve felt so rejected, especially after my offers to work through conflict have been ignored. I’ve thought: I’m a victim. Why is this happening to me? They don’t love me. They just so easily forget about me and leave me out of everything. I’m so ashamed to be rejected by my own parents and siblings. I’m forgettable.
But what if I think: they are just as messed up by the alcoholic family system as I am. They don’t know how to resolve conflict and they are probably too afraid to try. I know who I am and I know what my values are. I cannot change anyone. I have done my best. I don’t know what their reasons are, but their reasons are about them, not me.
For all I know, someone may be judging me in exactly the ways my story-filled mind is telling me. But unless I can ask and find out (and in some cases, I can’t), then it definitely gives me more peace to believe the story where I don’t take it personally. So why not go with what makes me happier and is more kind to myself?
I know, it sounds pretty simple. Yet even after practicing this repeatedly, for me it’s still a stretch. It requires me to shift some automatic ways I have of dealing with relationships and situations in my life. Previously, I really didn’t understand that I was indeed taking so many things personally.
It takes a lot of awareness to realize I’m even doing it. Now I’ll notice that I’m having a big burst of feelings after someone does something, and then I’ll start to question myself when I’m having a hard time letting it go. What’s going on? What’s the story I’m telling myself about the situation? Is it good for me to take this personally? I untangle the puzzle and think it through, and I can often come to a better place.
I remember a long-ago situation where I first got to practice this, though I didn’t have the awareness about taking things personally that I do now. My baby twins were eating in their high chairs — oh, what a messy time that was! Their chubby cheeks and fingers were sticky with food, and they were good eaters, excited about the different tastes. As they got to be toddlers, they started dropping food off their trays onto the floor over and over again. I was a frazzled mom, and soon this repetitive behavior during every meal was getting frustrating. I can’t remember how I tried to curtail it, but I know I did. Why were they being naughty like this? Why were they trying to annoy me?
Then I started Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) classes with them (I highly recommend good parental education programs!), and after playtime the parents went to a separate room for cookies and education. It was there I learned that what my cute toddlers were doing was actually developmentally appropriate, and it was actually just a preverbal sign that they weren’t hungry anymore. They weren’t doing it to frustrate me! They were doing what toddlers do. I stopped taking it personally and would take away their food when they would start to drop it. Much more peaceful for all of us.
So, give it a try, if this isn’t part of your coping strategies already. I find I have to remind myself frequently to not take things personally, and to be gentle with myself for not catching on sooner when I forget. And if you just don’t want to, don’t think you should have to, or it doesn’t sound helpful, that’s okay. You do you. I won’t take it personally.
[Photos courtesy of the-hk-photo-comp, Frank McKenna, Zoltan Tasi and Bekir Donmez-eofm of Unsplash.com, and me.]