It's taken me years to really understand what "don't take it personally" means and how to do it. I used to think that I should just ignore the comments, criticisms or "well-meaning" opinions; that I should turn a blind eye, the other cheek, or let them go like water off a duck's back.
That didn't seem to work very well. I was still upset. I still stewed over the comments. I'd go for walks to blow off steam. I'd meditate. I'd vent to anyone who would listen. I'd do just about anything to distract myself and get my mind off of it.
Then I realized what I was doing wrong: I was focusing on changing myself to not take things personally. That's what the problem was. I was trying to fix myself and how I responded to the bothersome and annoying comment. But the comment wasn't about me. It was directed to me but it was not about me. It was about the other person. What people say and do are about themselves; I had nothing to do with it.
Let me explain.
Everyone lives in their own world, with their own personal experiences, memories, opinions, assumptions, and perspectives. Sometimes, they impose their world on ours (and sometimes we impose ours on theirs) and it can come across as judgmental comments, offensive actions, or unthoughtful gestures. Perhaps they need to feel important or better than others so they're quick to criticize. Maybe they have to feel they're in control, to be seen as "in the know" or to appear smarter than everyone else. There can be any number of reasons and we may never know what they are.
These can happen in everyday situations, like when you're driving to work and the driver behind you is honking and cursing at you because he thinks you should be turning left faster. Or when you're telling your colleague your new idea and she looks at you as if it's the dumbest thing she's heard all month. Or when your neighbour gives you his unsolicited opinion on your new car and why he thinks it's junk.
When someone says or does something that is, let's say, rude or inconsiderate, they'll do it regardless of anyone else. The driver probably curses at half a dozen people on his way to work. Your colleague may not want to "do things differently" no matter who suggests it. Your neighbour would have gone on about the car whether it was yours, his brother's or someone's at his workplace. Their reactions were a reflection of their personal world; they would have acted the same to one person as another.
When someone snaps at me "for no good reason" or responds in a way that's over the top or unhelpful, I try to take a minute to ground myself and silently acknowledge that there's something that lies beneath their inappropriate action, although I many never know what it is.
All I need to understand is that it has something to do with them. Maybe something's gone wrong in their day or they have a headache or they...I don't know. But I do know that, as long as I wasn't initiating a negative reaction from them, there's no reason for me to take it personally.
There have been times, like in a meeting or social event, where this has happened and I've consciously had to take a mental step back and ask myself, "Why is this person saying this to me?" It's important that I find their reason for saying whatever it was and not try to fill in the blanks with my personal assumptions. Usually, I ask for clarification to better understand their comment or see if there was some sort of misunderstanding. I try to understand, as best I can, their thought process through inquiry instead of defending myself. Sometimes I can uncover the reason why they said what they did and can deal with it. Other times, it's so "out there" that I just have to let it go - and not take it personally.
I know that I've succeeded in not taking things personally when I feel no need to defend myself. When I know that they're conveying something about themselves, even though they're directing their comments to me, that's when I know I'm getting the hang of not taking it personally.
While it's taken me a lot of time to have the patience and presence of mind to practice this, I'm still working on it (and sometimes working really hard) but I'm much better than I was. I just have to remind myself that whatever it is, it's got nothing to do with me. The reward for all this effort is that I'm finding the less I take personally, the happier I am.
Laurie Wilhelm manages the Express Yourself to Success website, a one-stop e-source with information and techniques on interpersonal skills, public speaking, networking and conflict resolution. Achieve your success by working effectively with others and boost your career with good communication skills. Sign up today for our free eNewsletter, One Minute to Express .