The Only Thing Personal About The World Is Your Perception Of It
How to never take anything personally again and let the world slide off your back like water.
I used to take everything personally. I used to think that the car ahead of me was going just slow enough to make the yellow light, tap their brakes, and leave me stuck at the red light. I used to think that the kids in school picked on me because of me. I used to think that the baby in the cart ahead of me could tell that I was stoned. I used to think that I couldn’t get a date because of me. I used to think the world was against me.
I used to obsess over what other people thought of me. I perceived so many slights that I thought were intended for me. I used to see the little things that people did as if they were intended for me. I’d ruminate over all that at night. I’d wonder if I should have done something differently. I’d worry if my friendships were coming to an end. I used to worry that I wasn’t good enough for anyone.
Somehow, I managed to find friends who could tell me that the world isn’t that small. I found friends who told me that most people are so self-involved, that they were completely unaware of what I was going through. I learned that most people are unaware of my mistakes because they’re so worried that someone would notice their own mistakes.
Along the way, I read some great books that told me how not to take anything personally. I learned in Al-anon how to live with difficult people. I learned from “The 4 Agreements” some skills on how not to take anything personally. I learned from Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom Of Insecurity”, how to manage my sense of insecurity. I learned that worry is a rocking chair that never goes anywhere.
I learned that if I don’t like the way someone else is acting, that all I needed to do was to change my own behavior. I learned that if I changed my behavior, that the other people in my life had no choice but to change theirs.
I learned that just because you’re angry doesn’t mean I have to be angry, too. I learned that I can feel angry when another person is angry, and let the feeling pass. Once the feeling has passed, my mind is clear to observe the people around me. Just by letting the anger pass, I can free my mind to make decisions about how I want to respond to other people. l learned to respond rather than react.
I can exercise choice around strong feelings. I can decide how to act on my thoughts rather than my feelings just by letting the feelings pass before making any decisions about what happens next.
I have tried escalation and it never works the way I wanted it to. I’ve tried arguing and I’ve never gotten the result I wanted. I tried revenge and found it wanting. I tried passive aggression and someone always noticed. I’ve tried withholding information and I found myself disappointed. All that scheming and plotting is great for the movies. Real-life? Not so great.
I learned that in escalation, I never really want to find out how far people are willing to go to prove that they’re right. Escalation almost always leads to ultimatums. The problem with ultimatums is that as soon as you send your ultimatum, the recipient owns you. Then they can force you to do what you don’t want to do if they want to. So I don’t issue ultimatums. Instead, I learned to talk people down from the stratosphere like Mel Gibson in the movie, “Lethal Weapon”.
I gave up on having expectations of other people. Expectations lead to disappointments, and disappointments are tiring. So I make a point of keeping my questions open and dropping expectations. I avoid yes or no questions. I keep the door open. I let the other person know that they can always talk with me and that they can talk with me about anything. I make my requests with no expectations and I wait to see what happens next. If I don’t like the response I get, I let the feeling pass and then consider what I want to do next.
While I’m considering what to do next, I remind myself that everyone is doing the best that they can. I remind myself that how people respond to me is dependent upon their capacities and skills to respond to me. No one wakes up in the morning with a plan to bother me that day. No one is out to get me. I have no adversaries. I have no one plotting to find me and make my life difficult. The world is not that small.
I comport myself in a way that allows me to sleep with a clean conscience. I don’t like looking over my shoulder. I don’t like the burning pangs of guilt and regret. So I make a point to treat others the way I want to be treated.
With my kids, I don’t issue commands with a threat of punishment. If we are in the basement and I want them to come upstairs with me, I say, “Be upstairs before me.” Zip. They’re upstairs before me. If I want them to clean the room, I say that I can pick up toys faster than them, then they beat a path to a clear floor before me. I model the behavior I want to see in my kids because kids are the best imitators on the planet.
With my wife, I do what she asks me to do. She’s not terribly unreasonable, though I have figured out a metric for my wife. The probability that my wife will ask me to do something other than what I’m doing right now is proportional to the square of how important what I’m doing right now is, to me. This is why I write in the morning while everyone else is asleep. Writing is the first thing I do every morning. I don’t take offense when my wife asks me to do something. I just do it as quickly as possible and get back to what I was doing.
I can choose to be offended by other people. I can always make that choice now. I wasn’t like this when I was younger. Back then, I lacked the skills to make that choice in the past. I can’t remember when I acquired this skill, the skill to choose when to be offended or not. But I know that once I acquired that capacity to choose to take offense, or not, I began a process of accumulating peace in my life. I learned to err on the side of peace.
Perhaps the defining moment for me was reading the book, “The Explosive Child”, by Dr. Ross W. Greene. In that book, Dr. Greene made a very simple statement: if kids could do better, they would. I already knew not to take offense to what kids do, but now I had 38 years of empirical evidence to back me up. I realized that my kids lacked the capacity to do what I wanted them to do. I realized that it was not my job to tell them what to do. I realized that I only needed to model the behavior that I wanted to see in them. I realized that I could just talk with them until they could settle down. I realized that the same idea is true of adults.
I began to look at people through a new lens, a lense that ignored intent and focused on capacities and skills. The moment I began to use that lens, I learned that I never have to take anything personally from anyone ever again. If someone offends me, I can just remind myself that he lacked the capacity to do better. If someone disappoints me, I can remind myself that that person lacked the capacity to do better. If another person is angry, I can see the other person through the lense of capacities and skills, and consider the possibility that they lacked the capacity to choose not to be angry. No longer do I concern myself with intention or motivation. The only thing that matters to me now is how I choose to respond.
The venue doesn’t matter to me, either, be it social media, at home, or in any social setting among family and friends. I don’t need to indulge in embarrassment because I know that everyone is doing the best they can. I can detach from outcomes by looking at life through this lens. I can detach from motivations and intentions by looking at people through the lens of skills and capacities. I never have to take anything personally again.
Once I make a decision to never take anything personally again, I can have everlasting peace. I can have heaven on earth. I don’t have to wait until I die to go to heaven. By virtue of a stream of decisions, I can make heaven on earth, right here, right now.