Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Attaining Freedom by Not Taking Anything Personally
In recent months, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with friends and clients about setting boundaries. In these unprecedented times of uncertainty, it is important to reinvent how we care for ourselves and proactively ask for what we need from those around us.
What came up in these conversations is how challenging it is to assert our boundaries after having established certain behavioral patterns with our family, friends, colleagues, and partners, sometimes from decades ago.
One of the greatest and most profound lessons I have learned over the years came from the Toltec teacher Don Miguel Ruiz. In his masterwork The Four Agreements, Don Miguel shared several powerful rules for transforming limiting beliefs to having a life with more freedom, peace and love.
One of my favorite agreements to make with myself is “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” It sounds simple enough, but it is really hard to embody it. It takes consistency and regular practice. But if you can master it, you will see major shifts in your life.
“Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.”
Essentially, the agreement states that nothing anyone ever says or does is about you. It has more to do with how they see the world and their belief system. What they say or do is a projection of you based on their own life experiences, drama, and trauma. People’s opinions of you, whether it’s praise or criticism, comes from all the programming they received. If you take their words or actions personally, you assume their version of reality and start believing that you are responsible for everything. You absorb their poison, and then poison then becomes yours.
People constantly create stories, labels, and opinions about others. While these stories might be the reality for them, they’re not the Truth in an objective sense. When we take things personally, we feel the need to defend our beliefs by giving them our own opinions. So often, we try so hard to be right, that we forget that our own beliefs and opinions about others are also just a projection of our own worldview. When both people get sucked into this vortex of projecting and defending, the poison spreads and creates more conflicts.
How often do we see this played out on social media where people are so easily triggered by what strangers have to say about them that they declare full-on warfare? Look at how much precious mental energy and time is wasted when we engage in this level of unconscious exchange.
Perhaps a more common scenario is when we negotiate boundaries with our bosses, friends, and loved ones. When we start asking for our needs to be met, often people react in a way that makes the request more about them. And they make statements that might sound like these:
“Who do you think you are asking for time off?”
“You’re so selfish for moving away. Who’s going to take care of us?”
“You don't care about me since you don’t respond to my texts right away.”
It takes tremendous awareness and discipline to not immediately react to these types of statements with defensiveness. That’s what we normally do. But this time, let’s try a different way of responding. You make a new agreement with yourself - that nothing anyone says has anything to do with you. If they are triggered by you, that’s because they have wounds that are touched by what you have said. If they make the reason for their suffering about you, that’s a story they decided to create into their reality. Don’t take it personally. Instead of trusting someone’s version of reality, you trust yourself to make responsible choices by keeping your energy to yourself.
The reverse is also true. The opinions you have about someone else are stories you create based on your own worldview. Being aware of this tendency helps us step back and look at the situation from a broader perspective. That means when you are triggered by someone else’s word or action, instead of throwing energy at the other person, you take responsibility for understanding your reaction and healing those beliefs that are causing your suffering. You ask yourself “What is it that I really need right now? And what is the most productive way to get that need met?”
Equanimity comes from being so grounded in yourself that you are not affected by someone else’s opinion, which always fluctuates based on their subjective experiences. True freedom comes from having compassion for the other person even when they speak unkindly or falsely about you, because you understand what they say is ultimately a reflection of their current level of consciousness, which has nothing to do with you.
Ironically, your capacity to stay neutral in a world that expects you to take sides or fight back can be triggering for some people. Many people are used to drama and unproductive exchange of energy, and they feel uncomfortable when you no longer fall into the same old pattern. They might even go out of their way to elicit a reaction from you. That behavior also has nothing to do with you. Stay in your own lane and just let the fire die out by itself.