Welcome back to my blog series on “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” by Don Miguel Ruiz. If you’re just joining, you may want to start with the intro post, then the First Agreement. Ok, let’s jump in!
Agreement #2: Be Don’t Take Anything Personally
“Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me’.”
— The Four Agreements, Chapter 3
Yes, taking things personally is all about ourselves; our ego. We think the world revolves around us and everything people do is specifically targeted to us. Intellectually that may sound ridiculous or extreme, but it’s what we do all the time without realizing it.
How We Personalize
You’re personalizing when sitting at a restaurant and it takes 10 minutes for your server to acknowledge your presence, so you think he/she is deliberately ignoring you (for any myriad of reasons). In reality you have no idea what’s going on: your server may have thought someone else was taking care of you; there may be issues behind the scenes you’re not aware of; he/she may be having personal problems and not fully present. None of these have anything to do with you, but when you personalize, you think they are. It gives you an excuse to direct your anger toward someone else.
This happens in relationships all the time. Let’s say you recently started dating someone who usually texts every day. One day, you get no text, so you automatically think you did something wrong. Did you say something to upset him/her? Did he/she meet someone else? You start to feel insecure and fill yourself with anxiety. There could be 100 reasons you didn’t get a text. Maybe they were dealing with a family emergency or they dropped their phone in the toilet or they were just feeling introspective and didn’t want to talk to anyone. The reason for them not texting (whatever it is) probably has nothing to do with you.
Ruiz explains, “Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
Let’s pause on that. Your reality is simply that: YOUR reality. Their reality is THEIR reality. This is an enormous distinction, and emotionally accepting it goes a long way in understanding personalization.
Why We Personalize
Personalizing keeps your focus outside of yourself, so it’s a great way of avoiding your own feelings. It also works really well to confirm your own negative beliefs. In the restaurant scenario, you’re able to confirm the belief that you’re not important or you don’t matter or you’re invisible. In the texting scenario, it confirms your belief you’re meant to be single or you’re not good enough or you’re meant to be alone. You’re not doing any of this consciously; it’s on auto-pilot. The first step is to notice when it happens so you can catch yourself in the moment and shift your perspective.
Perfectionism and personalization go hand-in-hand. If you’re always trying to avoid doing something “wrong,” ANY perceived criticism will throw you off kilter. You will think their response is about you. This is how you keep yourself stuck, with a limited perspective of what’s possible. It’s also a way of distancing yourself from others emotionally. For example, your neighbor makes a comment about your child that you immediately personalize, feeling like it’s a negative commentary on your parenting. Instead of looking deeper at what emotions and beliefs lie beneath that insecurity, you simply stop talking to him/her.
How I Used To Take Things Personally
I used to personalize all the time. If someone asked for my advice and then did not take it, I would get upset. At the time, I couldn’t understand how someone in pain could keep doing what was detrimental to their emotional health. That’s because I couldn’t see myself very well either. I didn’t see how giving advice kept me separated and emotionally distant from others. Overall it was a pretty painful way to live–expecting others to do what I said and getting pissed when they did the opposite. I thought it was a reflection of me, but really it was all about them.
I also used to take it personally when someone made plans and then broke the date. I assumed it was about me, thinking they found something better to do (you ever do that?). Of course it had nothing to do with me, but I was stuck in my own reality, not considering THEIR reality. Personalizing weighed me down for a long time, but now I don’t worry about what other people do or why they do it… most of the time!
Of course I’m not perfect, so when I find myself starting to personalize, I catch it pretty quickly and remind myself it’s not about me. I have no idea what’s going on with them, so once I connect with that, I’m able to let it go.
Personalization Is Not About You
People are going to do and say whatever they want—you can’t control that. But you CAN control how you respond. According to Ruiz, even if someone says something hurtful like “You’re fat” or “You can’t do anything right,” it still has nothing to do with you. It’s a reflection of their own view of the world and insecurities. On the flip side, if someone says “You’re wonderful and amazing,” that’s also not about you. You being wonderful should come from inside, not from what someone else says. This is the epitome of not personalizing. Again, it’s never about you.
Ruiz continues, “Whatever people do, feel, think or say, don’t take it personally… by taking things personally you set yourself up to suffer for nothing.”
And who wants to suffer for nothing?? Fuck that.
First, write this down and stick it somewhere you’ll see it every day: Don’t take anything personally.
Then, pay attention to when you take things personally. How do you know it’s happening if most of it is subconscious? You’ll be triggered. You’ll feel that internal sting, or want to run away and hide. Look for shame, embarrassment or anger—those are good clues. They aren’t specific to personalizing, but often associated. It may be an email you get or a comment someone makes that leaves you feeling ignored, misunderstood, not accepted, etc.
Jot these down in your journal without commentary or judgment. Again, this is simply about increasing your self-awareness. Use simple bullet points, writing down what happened and how you personalized. For example:
- I was giving a presentation and someone walked out
- She hated my presentation and thought I was boring
- I asked the waiter for my salad dressing on the side and I could’ve sworn he rolled his eyes
- He thinks I’m high-maintenance
- After only an hour at the coffee shop, my date said he had to leave
- He doesn’t think I’m worth his time
Becoming aware of how often you personalize moves it out of autopilot so you’re able to recognize it in the moment. Then perhaps you can be open to alternate realities and say to yourself, “I don’t know what’s going on, but that’s about him/her, not me.”
Remember: your perception of reality is based on your beliefs, and theirs is based on their beliefs. Neither is right or wrong, they are just different.
“There is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you take nothing personally.”
The Four Agreements, Chapter 3
Ok, next up is The Third Agreement: Don’t Make Assumptions. This is another HUGE one I see, particularly with insecure attachment.