Whenever people used to tell me not to take something personally, I would look at them quizzically, head tilted to one side like a dog hearing a strange note. ‘What, exactly, is that supposed to even mean?!’ I would exclaim in exasperation, arms flailing about dramatically. ‘They are saying mean things to me, wanting me to feel bad, attacking me, how can this not be about me?’ I would whine. ‘How can I not take this personally? It certainly feelspersonal! It is personal!’
So if you were just a wee bit annoyed in reading the title of this blog post, I don’t blame you. Or maybe you were hopeful. Or downright confused. Or maybe you are one of the lucky ones and wondered why the heck anyone would post about such an easy topic. But in my work, I encounter way more sensitive leaders than non-sensitive ones. And we sensitive’s tend to take things personally. Like really.
To me, the ability to not take things personally was something available only to sociopaths, wax figures, and Mr. Spock. So I resigned myself to the refuge of Rescue Remedy and, when things felt really personal, perhaps a glass of red or two. In my darker moments, I would just get downright revengeful (in my very colorful imagination). That is, until recently, really recently. Ok, I’m a slow learner.
Sometimes life hands you plenty of opportunities to learn very specific things, and lately life was giving me a crash course in The Art of Not Taking it Personally 101 at the University of CEO. For a while, I was flunking the course, but the other day I had a breakthrough. A client called me, upset about a series of events of which I was involved. She started by telling me things I had said (I hadn’t), and by insisting I should have done something that I didn’t (I shouldn’t have), and implied that I was obtuse (I’m not). Her tone was scolding and patronizing—a recipe for me to take things personally.
And during the call, the epiphany struck: In situations where one is being attacked or criticized it’s important to first and foremost be present with oneself, and check in with one’s own experience and what is true for oneself. Now, that may seem simple to some of you, but under stress my particular neurobiology—thanks to my family of origin—is wired to jump outside of myself and rescue others. Because of this, I have a pathologically heroic ability to throw myself under buses. I’ll either do it internally, by feeling really really bad. Or, I’ll just downright take the blame, regardless of what is true, because all I want is relief. Sound familiar?
So, during the call, I paused. What was true in my experience? Most of the things she was expressing simply did not resonate with me. So, I listened with respect, and understood where she was coming from, but not at the expense of my own self-respect and dignity. In the past, I was great at the listening, validating part. I could actually feel myself inside their experience (and still do), and be able to know what things were like in their world. My empathy was real. But I sucked at the self-advocacy part.
So by first pausing and checking in internally, I avoided throwing myself into some limbic reaction, and was able to remain in equanimity, for myself as much as for her. In the end, she felt heard, but we came to a better, and more truthful and honest, understanding. I hung up the phone, waiting for the post-evisceration fallout, where I feel icky and terrible. But it never happened. I just felt good. ‘Oh my gosh!’ I thought. ‘This is what it feels like to not take things personally!’ I was so excited I danced around my kitchen. It was not just a mental stance, but a visceral ‘non-stick’ experience.
I used to think that not taking things personally meant having some kind of tough wall around oneself, a thick reptilian skin that allowed other’s words and opinions just bounce right off you. I thought it meant I had to ‘take things like a man.’ Even my favorite gal in the world, Eve Ensler, takes issue with the idea that one should not take things personally, because, as she so rightly says, the whole world has been taught not to be a girl, ie, not to feel, not to take things in, not to feel vulnerable — all this of course at the expense of women and men and the planet. But I was wrong. It’s remaining porous and sensitive, and widening that sensitivity to include one’s own self and one’s own truth. Let your sensitivity reach deep down into you like a tap root to your soul. It’s my own job to be sensitive to me, and not anyone else’s.
Another one of my favorite gals, Byron Katie, says this, ‘No one will ever understand you—not once, not ever. Even at our most understanding, we can only understand our own story of who you are.’ I find that liberating. It allows me to hold others and their opinions a whole lot lighter. When I no longer hold myself responsible for making you understand me, then I have a lot more energy and productivity for the rest of my life, and all the things I want to do and create. It helps me to love and respect myself more. And when I do that, I just naturally love and respect others more. That’s how it works.
So next time someone wants to sit down and ‘share some feedback’, or ‘just needs to get something off their chest’, or decides to vent their liver via email, try this trick—pause, breathe, forget all the chatter your mind is saying about ‘not taking it personally’ (your mind can really be ridiculously unhelpful). Take a moment to be really truly sensitive to your self. And ask yourself: is what they are saying true for you in your experience? If not, then deeply trust yourself. If parts of what they are saying resonate, then accept those parts and learn from them.
I used to worry that if I didn’t take things personally, then I would end up like one of those arrogant jerks who never self-reflected. And I’d be the last to know what a jerk I was. But that worry made a martyr out of me. And the joke was on me because, of course, jerks don’t worry about being a jerk. So now I’m in the free fall of the ultimate self reflection: what’s true for me? It confronts me with my own existential aloneness. But it unites me with exceptional courage and clarity.
So, go ahead, take a risk, I dare you—don’t take it personally.