Don’t take anything personally: what I’ve learned from my clients and experiences
Updated: Oct 18, 2022
(Image source: Thoka Maer)
Note: The details of the coaching examples provided in this blog are composites based on real situations. Some names may have been altered to respect the confidentiality of my clients.
According to Don Miguel Ruiz, a renowned spiritual teacher and internationally best-selling author, “everything we do is based on the agreements we have made – agreements with ourselves, with other people, with God, with life. But the most important agreements are the ones we make with ourselves.” In his book, the Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don introduces four most critical agreements we should make with ourselves to enjoy a fulfilling life. They are: (1) be impeccable with your word, (2) don’t take anything personally, (3) don’t make assumptions, and (4) always do your best.
Inspired by Don, I made up my mind to practice these agreements in my daily life. As a life coach, I have the privilege of listening to people’s vision, goals, challenges, and problems, and supporting them to reach their goals. Therefore, I decided to write a few posts on each of the four agreements, sharing reflections from my own practice, as well as stories from my clients. I hope these posts will motivate you to examine internally and take ownership on agreements that can change your life.
I will focus on the second agreement in this post.
Don’t Take Anything Personally.
As human beings we tend to take things personally. When someone is angry with us, we naturally think that it’s about us - our words, behavior, or performance, etc., that make the person angry. Not taking anything personally is a belief that whatever a person says or does to us, reflects the person – their feelings, thoughts, mindsets, preferences. It’s about them, not about us.
Cindy shared in a coaching session that she was worried about her new work peers. She was just appointed as the director of a new business in a company that she’s worked for 14 years. As part of her “onboarding,” she booked 1-on-1 meetings with a few important future peers. One of the peers told her on the day of their meeting that he had to squeeze the 1-hour meeting to 30 minutes. He didn’t provide any explanation. Cindy wondered if she was not important enough for the full hour session. That added to her existing worries about her new work relationships and further impacted her confidence to lead a new challenging business. However, when Cindy finally met the person, she was told that the person’s own boss asked for a meeting that clashed with their arrangement. He was distracted by an issue his boss brought up and forgot to explain it to Cindy. He apologized and they had a good discussion.
Cindy took her colleague’s change of time as a reflection of her own importance. In reality, it has nothing to do with her. Cindy was lucky because it didn’t take her long to find out the truth. Once she knew the truth, she could let go of her preoccupied worries and move on. But in many cases, we may not have the opportunity to find out, therefore our suffering is prolonged.
Taking things personally clouds our judgement and wastes our time, emotions, and energy. By not taking things personally, we’re less likely to feel upset, angry, sad …
Cherry came to our coaching session with an issue that has been bothering her for a while. She described a pattern in her communication with her team member. When she pointed how a team member should do better, there was usually long silence that followed. The silence was extremely uncomfortable. She felt she had to raise her volume and even shouted at times. The conversation usually ended with her leaving the room, achieving nothing. I asked Cherry: “what was it like for you when he stays silent?” Cherry started with a tone of complaint: “again he wasn’t engaged in our conversation. The silence was so unbearable.” “What makes the silence a problem for you?” I asked a follow-up question. “Well, you know me, I’m not an unkind manager. I never had a team member do this to me. When he kept silent, it felt like I’ve been a terrible manager that he could not even speak up.”. Cherry’s anger was triggered by her team member’s behavior. She took it personally that her team member’s choice of behavior was a reflection of her bad leadership. While Cherry’s way of delivering feedback might be the trigger of her colleague’s silence, it is still her colleague who chose a particular behavior, so it reflected his preferences, thoughts, and feelings, i.e., it’s about him not Cherry. Another person might behave completely differently when in his situation.
When someone is angry with you, you will find it very hard to not take it personally. Keeping in mind that it's about them, not you, is what will allow you to act wiser in the moment.
In the second coaching session with Jerry, he became very upset. We were supposed to discuss the results of his self-assessment of strengths. As I would do with any other client, I started with a few questions to understand how Jerry perceived his results. To my surprise, he suddenly became defensive and barely answered my questions. I asked him what was happening. He said in a rather frustrated tone: “it was not clear to me what I’m supposed to do in this session. You sent me a message saying that we would discuss my results so I thought you would share your thoughts. Now you’re asking me all these questions that I haven’t even thought about. I could have prepared, you know.” To be really honest, I felt attacked. But immediately I reminded myself that whatever he’s saying or doing, it’s about him, not about me. The thought quickly brought my focus back on Jerry. I said: “Jerry, it seems as though there’s a lot of disappointment. Something you expected did not happen. What are you thinking just hearing that?” I noticed that Jerry became a bit more relaxed hearing that. He told me this reminded him about a pattern with his coworker. “I had the exact same feeling when I was in a work meeting that was not going towards the direction that I’ve hoped to see.” Realizing his pattern seemed to have helped manage his emotions. In the end we had a very meaningful conversation that deepened his self-awareness. My avoidance of taking Jerry’s comments personally allowed me to stay calm and focus on Jerry in the hot moment.
If we manage to not take things personally, we will have more courage to express ourselves and follow our heart. Diane’s work peer wanted some support from her team member. Instead of going to Diane, he went to her boss. Learning this, Diane felt that she was not respected by that colleague. She wanted to have a conversation with him but she dreaded it. I asked her in what was holding her back. She said she could well predict what the colleague might say to her. He would say she’s been too sensitive. Therefore she didn’t go ahead. Had Diane not taken it personally, she would not be hesitant. Then she could really just focus on expressing her feelings and thoughts. In situation like this, we cannot control others’ responses, yet we CAN control how we respond to their comments. If we don’t take anything personally, it is not hard at all to deliver direct communication.
You may be wondering would not taking it personally mean we don’t care or there’s nothing wrong with us? It’s not. By not taking things personally, we gain a new perspective for others’ responses. We can still care but just not be attached to others’ behavior or the situation. For example, if someone you care about gives you constructive feedback, it doesn’t mean that they think you’re not a good husband, wife, friend, employee, leader… ; it can simply mean that you did not meet their needs or expectations in that moment. If you don’t take it personally, you won’t be distracted by their delivery (tone, language, gestures…). Instead, you will be curious what makes the gap in their mind. What’s their expectation? What is the need they try to meet by giving me the feedback? Notice how differently one could behave following these two different paths. In the latter path, you still show that you care the other person’s feedback, but just that you do not immediately assume that there’s something wrong with you.
Finally, not taking things personally is token of high self-trust or self-esteem. If we truly believe who we are, we won’t easily take things personally. Perhaps it is not realistic that we don’t take anything personally at all. But we can learn from daily experiences and remind ourselves whenever we can. Every chance you take to not take things personally could be worth celebrating. Remember those moments of success further increases your self-esteem in the long run.
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Lucy Qian, Life Coach, PCC (ICF)
About Lucy Qian, International Life Coach
Lucy’s clients say that she has a superpower for helping them see clear direction and next steps, no matter how confused they are in the beginning. Through coaching with Lucy, they become clear about who they are and know what they really want.
Lucy is a certified coach in different settings: Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coaching Federation (ICF), Certified Laser-focused Life Coach by the Life Coaching Group, and Organizational Coach by the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership.
In her blog, A Journey to Clearness, Lucy shares life experiences and lessons from her practice as an international life coach.
Learn more about Lucy.