Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Not Taking Things Personally

Sometimes, the hardest and wisest thing to do when someone is behaving badly or taking actions that affect us adversely is not to take their behaviour personally.

My youngest son, Nathan, works at a company that finds participants for market research. He works on site, interviewing and selecting those who are most appropriate for the group and paying those who are not needed. The policy is that anyone who shows up more than fifteen minutes late cannot participate or be paid.

Last week, a woman arrived for a group, clearly flustered, sixteen minutes late- one minute after the person hosting the group had closed the door. Nathan told her she could not join the group, nor could he pay her, expressing his sympathy for her situation. The woman was furious. She started yelling at him and demanded to speak to his boss. He gave her his supervisor’s phone number and waited while she called.

He told me he could feel himself starting to react to her anger with a sense of indignation. Although he'd been polite he could feel his patience wearing thin. As he waited for the woman to get off the phone co-workers came over and sympathized with how unfair the woman was being. “But,” he said, “their sympathy didn’t really help. It just made me feel justified about getting upset with her. And then, I thought: I don’t know this woman. I don’t know what is going on in her day or her life. Getting upset with her only escalates the situation and makes us both feel worse. I don’t have to take her reaction personally. I can let her say what she needs to say and leave.” So that’s what he did. Wise man, my son.

I’ve been reading Pema Chodron’s book Taking The Leap. She talks about times when we get our buttons pushed- someone is rude or unreasonable or just won’t do what we want or hope or feel certain they promised to do- and we get angry or hurt or afraid. Pema calls it “biting the hook.” Emotionally and mentally we get dragged into a drama, a story that causes suffering. Jungian psychoanalysts would say a complex- an emotionally charged and relatively autonomous part of our unconscious formed around a past injury or trauma- gets activated. When we bit the hook or are possessed by a complex we go unconscious. Everything feels very personal, and we are reactive.

Of course, it’s one thing to maintain perspective when a total stranger is yelling at us in a situation where there is nothing we can do (and we often fail to remember it’s not personal even then.) But it’s quite another to stay awake and aware when the other is someone with whom we have an intimate relationship and his or her actions affect us profoundly, materially and emotionally.

Many of you know that I am going through a marital separation. It is heartbreaking and difficult, as these things usually are. But I ask myself- can I take what the other has done or is doing, even a little less personally? The danger here is that I will go into denial about the emotions that are arising in the moment. (Although I admit that these emotions are sometimes about feared future consequences or about past injuries, neither of which are happening now.) I do not want to deny painful emotions. On the other hand, I don’t want to add more suffering to my pain or to the other’s pain- and thereby escalate and prolong the suffering.

So, I try to do what Nathan did: take a step back, slow my reactivity down just a little, and consider what other choices I have. It’s not about being passive. I may need to say or do something. It's not about abandoning myself. In fact, it’s about a deeper level of self-care that does not re-wound the self by taking what the other does or says, personally. I remind myself, “This is what the other can do, right now. What he can or can’t do is about him. It’s not about me. I do not have to take it personally.”

Sometimes- not all the time- this creates the smallest breathing space around reactivity, buys enough of a pause to simply be with the emotion and consider what response is necessary. When we respond instead of react we’re much more likely to communicate clearly and that’s likely to lead to less suffering all around.

So, here’s to learning how to take things a little less personally, how to let the other be wholly other- an individual with their own struggles and stories that are not ours. From that place, finding right action and real compassion may just be possible.


  1. One of the first steps down this path that we're on ( he looks around, tries to name path, decides not to) was reading the book "You are Not the Target" by Laura Huxley, (written after her husband Aldous died.) It was set up as a series of psychological "recipes" to be followed step by step as a beginner cook might.

    The most useful to me, and possibly to her as she named the book after it, was the eponymous one in which you focussed on the fact that you are not the target for the emotions others lay on you. I tried to learn to use this, encouraged by any number of times I'd ask someone at school why they were mad at me and discover I hadn't even registered on their radar: other things were going on, and they had missed my cheery greeting.

    So I agree, it's a good goal, and always useful — perhaps even more in the healing times, when we're more vulnerable. I'll happily drink to your closing toast.

  2. oriah- thank you!!! i am such a fan.. i just finished reading the invitation, and i am so on par with your mind its crazy... thank you for all you do and all your strength. It is so inspiring to me.

    anyway, back to today's topic- not taking things personally! This is something that is always on my mind. I think i take almost everything personally- i have very thin skin, and i have a problem with others unhappiness (something the invitation is teaching me, that it really is ok! to not feel good... ) the strange thing about this is that right now, i understand FULLY, i know what to do, i know the right way to act, next situation that involves this im excited for bc i feel like i know what to do! but the same thing happens every time. right now i can handle it because i am thinking about it logically- my emotions are not involved.. but as soon as I am in a situation (for example, a very powerfully negative co worker sits next to me) i react, and then i can not- for whatever reasons!- find sympathy, or think rationally, or not cry or not get involved with her negativity... before i know it i am completely in her head and her emotions, and once again i am lost.

    anyway, i have to keep working on it! and trying to find my space... to BREATHE.


  3. I am unlearning compassion is about the other. being compassionate is often for make things easier on us as well as the other.



  4. Is it possible that when a situation is beginning to erupt, we can will ourselves to make a choice to be the observer rather than the observed?... even if only for a few seconds, that is, enough time for us to gain our bearings and thus not be thrown off balance?

  5. Yikes! ;-) The previous comment from "anonymous" was from Connie, aka windsong_1950 at

  6. Connie, I think we can- on a good day :-) try to remember to take a breath and bring that observer perspective into the situation. I stumbled a little at the word "will" because it feels. . . like trying hard- when maybe what we need to do is trying soft- a breath, a softening to our own reactivity, making a little space around the reaction so we can choose something different.

  7. Bullseye, Thank you


  8. This is called "taking your wind out of his/her sails".

  9. You're right, it's not about us!

  10. i appreciate this flow here...biting the hook has been a toughie for me lately. push those "injustice" buttons and the struggle to let it go is enormous. but sometimes, in the interest of a greater justice (my peace, my well-being, protection of my position in the situation) i have to sit down, shut up and let it ride. thanks for the encouragement.

  11. Reading this has come at such a good time for me. I have chosen to come out of my comfort zone, take a risk, connect to my wise woman and step back from a dysfunctional relationship pattern. I always rescue as a way of avoiding my own abandonment and old issues of loss. I want to stay with my truth. I do not need to rescue to feel good enough. My partners withdrawl is his pattern and I am choosing not to react to the drama. This feels so, so painful and I must trust this. Be alive to my discomfort and not react. When I connect to nature and the earth I am able to feel comforted and realise that I am never alone. life will unfold without me having to control.

    Oriah you are a true inspiration. Thank you for your words, they have helped me greatly.

  12. A common struggle for me is applying these (and other) wonderfully wise teachings to parenting. I have had a 20 year struggle with an addicted child and raised her now 15 year old child who has severe emotional issues as well. All the chaos and violence has created a 'war veteran' type persona for me. I have worked very hard for many years to avoid taking the hook..and yet somehow, as they relapse, so do I. Will the dynamic ever change...really? The only option I feel would work would be to physically move away from the day to day drama...and that's sad and scary.

    For others in my life, I am a ZEN master. They would be shocked to discover how fractured and fearful I feel inside. They go on and on about how I seem to manage my personal situation so calmly. I totally believe in and live with a compassionate heart. Through the years of studying the Tao, A Course in Miracles, the Bible, Buddhism, I have evolved from a resentful, angry person to one of patience and peace making. And yet, their hook gets me every time.

    Oriah..."The Invitation" is one of my most comforting reads. I've worn the pages out. I met you in Houston at Unity Church a few years ago. You have an edgy authenticity that resonates...thank you for your honesty and for sharing it so beautifully.

  13. How do we not get hooked by something as important as the well-being of our children and grandchildren? In all honesty I think that would be graduate work- and most of us are in kindergarden still trying not to get "hooked" when a stranger is rude to us in the grocery store! All I can say is that I hope you are getting some real emotional support from close friends who know how hard it is or someone like a therapist that can help you treat yourself with tender compassion. How lucky your granddaughter is to have you. (And I like the term "edgy authenticity :-) Thanks!

  14. Why does Nathan engage in "paying those who are not needed" (Paragraph 2, Sentence 2)? Sounds like a dream job.

  15. In market research if they need 12 people in a group they ask 15 to show up at the site and the re-screener (Nathan) chooses the most suitable 12 and sends the other three home, with pay.