How to not take things personally
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
It starts like this; your partner/friend/coworker/boss is expressing frustrations regarding your actions, demeanor, or habits and the dreaded “you” comes out. Like a hot knife cutting through butter, “you” cauterizes the lines between your logical mind and mouth, and out comes the emotional, reactionary, defensive ego ready to charge into a battle to protect your perceived righteousness. Now “you”’s are flying back and forth, spewing like a tea kettle left to boil for too long and neither of you even remembers where the argument began, the conversation has devolved into an effort to parry-block-attack the other.
Does this sound familiar to you? How many countless attempts to bridge and understand an issue between partners fall victim to this ego trap and how can we learn to let go of our reactions?
First, it’s time to name the voice in your head, his/her name is Ego; everyone say hello. Ego is prideful, protective, and reactive. Ego tends to speak without thinking and the words are often a reflection of the emotions brought up during an interaction. Ego often gets hung up on the need to label things as right/wrong or mine/yours. Spiritually, Ego is the divider that places a veil between “you” and “I”, but we will save that topic for a later date.
So, now the argument has begun, the voice in our head (Ego) is queuing up retorts and counterarguments, emotions are rising, and right there as the words come to the tip of your tongue, you can feel it. The Ego. Rather than following through with the whims of the misguided Ego, this is the moment to practice noticing your reactions, your emotions, and physical sensations. This practice is the first step in detaching which I will touch on shortly. Noticing is more than just a momentary check in; it is stepping away from and objectifying your experience. You may ask yourself during these moments, “What am I feeling and why? Here we explore the “why” beyond the words presented by the person we are interacting with, to find the root cause.
Now, we have begun to notice and objectify our emotional and physical reaction, separating ourselves from the experience of anger, frustration, the need to be right, etc. We can look at these experiences as they are without creating a personal identification around them. The difficult task is to separate from these reactions and emotions to be able to remind yourself of this tidbit. Whomever you are speaking with, their reaction is not centered around you, but the acts they are expressing discontentment with. In other words, if you were to interchange the actor, the reaction would remain the same. So, when “you” is thrown around, it is not YOU, it is anyone that would act in this manner. “You” is the only word we have to relate to another person. This realization and the acceptance of this truth, is the process of detaching.
Okay, so the argument has begun, our reactions have come up, we have begun to notice and remove ourselves from them while understanding that “you” is not “me” but anyone. Whew! You mean we have to do this each time?? I’m already exhausted.
Detaching is a culmination of the total effort; noticing, objectifying, and removing “me” from the “you’s”. When we practice detaching, we let the emotions, reactions, and physical cues pass as though they are a river and we are standing on the bridge, as Ram Dass says, “Look at that, there they go”. We also release any desire of what we think should be, stated in another way, we are releasing attachment to a “favorable” outcome. Detaching from “should’s, rights, wrongs, and slights” allow us to live from a place where we observe ourselves objectively without assigning our actions to our identity, “I’m a man/woman who does X, has X problem” etc.
Acting With Compassion
Even after realizing our Ego and detaching ourselves from our actions, there is still a leftover sense of “what now?” and “what am I going to use to declutter all this space?” I imagine a bunch of angry, crying, emotional little me’s floating around in zero G - detached from the ground they were standing on. Rather than opening a hatch and sending them out into the vacuum of space, compassion is here to reorient and reintegrate these emotional doppelgängers back into the fold. Reintegrating these little problem children prevents an iterative resurfacing of the same emotional traps and reactions, if we do not do the work now, we are bound to repeat. That being said, do not expect your automatic responses to completely disappear, this is a lifelong process that requires we do the work over and over again.
Releasing the Ego’s external criticism – the criticism that is pointed towards the person we are interacting with – is our first priority. We practiced observing the Ego and the protective coating of counterarguments that it produces, now we have to let them go. It’s time to turn off the scoreboard. This is not the releasing of a prisoner with conditions, there is no “next time” or categorizing for later use, no filing cabinets are created or filled. This part of us dies here and now. I personally have a physical practice that goes along with this mental portion. I close my eyes, release the pressure in my jaw and relax my tongue, signifying to myself that I am releasing my intention to react and that I am present listening to understand.
Compassion, which is normally oriented outwardly, can then be tuned to releasing internal criticism. When we are confronted by a person’s frustrations with our actions, we have the incredible ability to assign their emotions to our sense of self. Feelings of worthlessness, incompetence, or being less than do not denote our true self, which is our limitless potential and understanding. When we allow the Ego to assign these values to our sense of self, we are in effect limiting our ability to take advantage of this boundless potential. By releasing our internal critiques, we open up our ability to better understand and empathize with the person sitting across the table as they speak to their subjective truth.
Listening to understand and not to respond, is one of the greatest gifts you could ever give or receive in this lifetime. This is a supplemental practice to everything that I do, so this will be one of many times that this topic is included in a practice. Using this practice has helped me deepen my relationships with friends, family, my partner, and even strangers. With cell phones, social media, and constant notifications constantly pulling people away from conversations, active listening is a way to lean in and bring attentiveness. I personally make a point to place my phone face down with sounds and vibrations turned off when I am engaged in a conversation. Some people place phones in their pockets or between their legs, but this still allows the tactile notifications to pull your attention away.
Active listening is defined on VeryWellMind as:
"the process of listening attentively while someone else speaks, paraphrasing and reflecting back what is said, and withholding judgment and advice.”
After going through the Ego realizing-compassion cycle talked about above, active listening is the final component to not take things personally. Here, engaged in productive conversation, we can better understand intentions and even help our counterparts better understand their own message by providing them a sounding board to revise and revisit topics. When the person you are speaking with expresses a sentiment, rather than giving your own take or jumping in with a “that reminds me of..”, practice paraphrasing and reiterating the point. Let your conversation partner complete their thoughts and come naturally to the end of their train of thought, there is no need to rush.
When we engage in active listening, we are able to deepen our understanding of the boundaries that our counterparts have set, while giving them the freedom to explore them as well, in a safe and non-judgemental space. While listening, do not attempt to fill moments of silence as these are natural breaks and create moments for reflection for both parties. Also practice making eye contact and physically posturing in ways that show your attentiveness; unfold your arms, don’t bounce your legs, lean in and nod to indicate that you are present. Putting all of this together can be challenging, especially in a difficult conversation, but I have found that most often a person’s true underlying frustration is not feeling heard. Alleviating this feeling opens up the pathways for compassion, empathy, and collaboration.
So, now you hopefully have some new steps, practices, understandings or at the very least a hot take from a stranger on the internet. If you made it this far down the page, I’m proud of you for at least having the curiosity. Detaching from Ego and understanding that our experiences in life are subjective has been a major point of change for me, and I hope that your conscious journey continues to provide clarity, encouragement, and abundance in all areas of your life. Be safe, wash your hands, and tell those you hold dearly how much they mean to you as often as possible.