Don't Take It Personally

Practice of the Week
Don't Take It Personally

Category: Slogans to Live By. Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

“Don't Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.” (Miguel Angel Ruiz)

Here's an updated parable from the ancient Taoist teacher Chuang-Tzu: Imagine that you are floating in a canoe on a slow-moving river, having a Sunday picnic with a friend. Suddenly there is a loud thump on the side of the canoe, and it rolls over. You come up sputtering, and what do you see? Somebody has snuck up on your canoe, flipped it over for a joke, and is laughing at you. How do you feel?

Okay. Now imagine the exact same situation again: the picnic in a canoe, loud thump, dumped into the river, coming up sputtering, and what do you see? A large submerged log has drifted downstream and bumped into your canoe. This time, how do you feel?

The facts are the same in each case: cold and wet, picnic ruined. But when you think you've been targeted personally, you probably feel worse. The thing is, most of what bumps into us in life—including emotional reactions from others, traffic jams, illness, or mistreatment at work—is like an impersonal log put in motion by ten thousand causes upstream.

Say a friend is surprisingly critical toward you. It hurts, for sure, and you'll want to address the situation, from talking about it with the friend to disengaging from the relationship.

But also consider what may have caused that person to bump into you, such as misinterpretations of your actions; health problems, pain, worries or anger about things unrelated to you; temperament, personality, childhood experiences; the effects of culture, economy, or world events; and causes back upstream in time, like how his or her parents were raised.

Recognize the humbling yet wonderful truth: most of the time, we are bit players in other people's dramas.

When you look at things this way, you naturally get calmer, put situations in context, and don't get so caught up in me-myself-and-I. Then you feel better, plus more clearheaded about what to do.


To begin with, have compassion for yourself. Getting smacked by a log is a drag. Also take appropriate action. Keep an eye out for logs heading your way, try to reduce their impact, and repair your "boat"—relationship, health, finances, career—as best you can. And maybe think about
finding a new river!

  • Notice when you start to take something personally. Be mindful of what that feels like—and also what it feels like to relax the sense of being personally targeted.
  • Be careful about making assumptions about the intentions of others. Maybe they didn't do it "on purpose." Or maybe there was one not-so-good purpose aimed at you that was mixed up with a dozen other purposes.
  • Reflect on some of the ten thousand causes upstream. Ask yourself: What else could be in play here? What's going on inside the other person's mind and life? What's the bigger picture?
  • Beware getting caught up in your "case" about other people, driven by an inner prosecutor that keeps pounding on all the ways they're wrong, spoke badly, acted unfairly, picked on you, really really harmed you, made you suffer, etc., etc. It's good to see others clearly, and there's a place for moral judgment—but case-making is a kind of obsessing that makes you feel worse and more likely to overreact and create an even bigger problem.
  • Try to have compassion for the other people. They're probably not all that happy, either. Your compassion for them will not weaken you or let them off the moral hook; actually, it will make you feel better.
  •  If you like, explore relaxing the sense of self—of I and me and mine—in general. For example, notice the difference between "there are sounds" and "I am hearing," or between "there are thoughts" and "I am thinking." Observe how the sense of self ebbs and flows, typically increasing when there are problems to solve and decreasing as you experience calm and well-being. This fluidity of "me" in the mind correlates with dynamic and fleeting activations in the brain; self-related thoughts are constructed all over the brain, tumbling and jostling with other thoughts, unrelated to self, in the neural substrates of the stream of consciousness (Gilliham and Farah 2005; Legrand and Ruby 2009). Appreciate that "I" is more of a process than an ability: a "selfing." Enjoy the ease and openness that emerge as the sense of self recedes.
And—really soak up the sense of strength and peace¬fulness that comes from taking life less personally.

For Journaling

Recall an incident when you did take something personally. Write about what that felt like. Then imagine yourself relaxing the sense of being personally targeted. Further, imagine a scenario in which there were causes that made the other person's behavior perfectly understandable. Now what are you feeling?

Rick Hanson on not taking it personally:

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