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Breaking Free From Taking Things Personally
On the path to personal peace
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The Article In Three Sentences
Emotional reactions often stem from fear or hurt rooted in ego. Developing awareness can liberate you from these automatic responses. Freedom from childhood conditioning allows you to cultivate a resilient mindset, seeing others' comments separate from your self-worth.
Today’s article was written in honor of a request by subscriber Inés. I hope you find it helpful.
Ever take what others say personally? I did, constantly, especially before embarking on the spiritual path.
Back then, not taking things personally was all but impossible. I was deeply wounded, operating on autopilot from childhood conditioning. I couldn’t separate myself from what I heard—whether it was coming from others or my mind.
Intellectually, I knew not to take things personally, but I didn’t know how, which was frustrating. Eventually, I began taking it personally that I took everything personally. And I dreaded it, the sense of helplessness. It made me anxious. And this dread, this anxiety, caused me to become defensive, even aggressive. All because I wouldn’t—nay, couldn’t—avoid taking things personally.
We tend to take things personally for one of two reasons: fear or hurt. When we are afraid, or we are hurting, we react emotionally. The greater the fear or pain, the more intense the sting and the stronger our emotional reaction.
Hurt is a wounding of the ego, from which a deficient sense of self develops. From this wanting, along with perceiving that we are separate from others, the ego takes things personally. “She cut in front of me.” “He talked over me.” “My boss doesn’t like me.” Humans are unique in this way. A deer doesn’t think, “I wish I had a butt like hers.” A cheetah doesn’t think, “Who does he think he is? This is my hunting territory.”
“Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness,” writes Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements, “because we make the assumption everything is about “me.”
Growing up, I was bullied and told, “You’re so skinny.” In gym class, I was picked second to last when it came time to choose teams. I felt humiliated, and the rage and shame of these childhood wounds stayed with me, as illustrated by the following story.
For my friend’s 30th birthday, I flew to San Francisco. The following day, his friends showed me around the city. While waiting for the train, a young guy dropped his shoulder into me as he walked by. Once I realized what had happened, I thought, Motherfucker! Who the fuck do you think you are?! Goddam, if I could toss you onto the tracks before an oncoming train! You fucking asshole!
At other times, fear caused me to take things personally. My first girlfriend used to drop hints about past boyfriends. At first, they didn’t bother me, but the more she said them, the more intensely jealous I became. I was deeply insecure at that time, especially about my sexual prowess. I ruminated on her comments for weeks, months, and even years later.
“Ego takes everything personally. Emotion arises, defensiveness, perhaps even aggression. Are you defending the truth? No, the truth, in any case, needs no defense. The light or sound does not care about what you or anybody else thinks. You are defending yourself, or rather the illusion of yourself, the mind-made substitute.” - Eckhart Tolle
Taking things personally may be commonplace, but it shouldn’t be a life sentence. Let’s look at some ways we can break free.
You are at the whim of others' comments or actions when you don’t feel seen, heard, or understood. Believing someone else is a form of abandoning yourself—choosing to believe someone else over your understanding of yourself.
If someone tells you how lovely you are, they are not saying it because of you. You know you are beautiful. You must trust yourself and choose to believe or not to believe what someone says to you. Even your opinions about yourself aren’t necessarily accurate. Therefore, there is no need to take whatever your mind tells you personally.
As you develop a habit of not taking things personally, you will no longer trust others’ words or actions. Instead, you will learn to trust your wholesome intentions and inner knowing. This allows you to keep your heart open, loving freely.
When you love and live without fear, there is no room for taking things personally. When you see other people as they are without taking things personally, you can never be hurt by what they say or do. You are free.
So, don’t take anything personally—even compliments. “But I love compliments from strangers and people like my boss,” I can hear you say. Appreciating compliments is fine. But suppose you take them personally, using them to repair your ego. In that case, you open yourself to feeling bad when your boss criticizes your work or someone judges you harshly.
Learning to acknowledge, accept, and befriend yourself allows you to get the love you need without seeking it from others. This is how others no longer sway you.
Start by practicing mindfulness or nonjudgmental awareness. Just as a naturalist observes life as it is without labeling it good or bad, mindfulness helps us see what it’s like to become entangled in and react to others’ words. Often, awareness alone is enough to help disentangle us from taking things personally. “When you realize it’s not personal,” writes Eckhart Tolle, “there is no longer a compulsion to react as if it were.”
When you learn not to take things personally, you will discover a peace and tranquility you didn’t know existed. You will be inner-directed, free of praise and blame. You will have less conflict within and without, and you will be less angry, bitter, and resentful.
Others’ words or actions will no longer hurt you. You will say “I love you” without fear of being ridiculed or rejected. You will ask for what you need. You will say yes or no without guilt or self-judgment. When you trust your heart and love, you can be miserable and still find inner peace and joy.
Today, I don’t take it personally when people say, “Ryan, you are a great writer.” I also didn’t take it personally when someone on Reddit wrote, “Nobody wants to read your self-help garbage,” in response to a message I posted seeking a writing partner. I understand that whatever someone feels in that moment is how they will react to what I say, write, or do.
I know what I am. When someone on X (Twitter) began excessively spamming my followers, offering a dream analysis service, I sent them a direct message requesting they cut back on their spam. They said they no longer liked me as much. “That’s okay,” I replied, “because I’m not seeking your approval.” They eventually stopped spamming and disappeared altogether.
Learning not to take things personally has changed my life, and I’m confident it can change yours, too. As Linda Gibson, author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, says, learning not to take things personally is a sign of emotional maturity. So trust yourself, believe in yourself, and give yourself the love you seek.
May you break free from taking things personally,
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