What Happens In Life Is Not Personal
The world is not that small. Never taking anything personally again.
There was a time in my life when everything was personal to me. I was teased relentlessly every day at school. I was the last person to be picked for the team at recess. I didn’t date the girls in high school like my friends were dating. I didn’t get the recognition that my peers got. I was never a student of the month, an employee of the month, and hardly ever got any awards. I was often passed over for promotion. I didn’t get the girl of my dreams. I didn’t get what I wanted for a long, long time. And I took all of that personally.
Time had its way with me. I spent a lot of time living alone, reading, writing, going to meetings and social gatherings, but never really making much of a connection. I was a loner for a long time. I tried school. I tried Mensa. I tried chess clubs. I tried the bars. I tried support groups. I learned something in all of them. But things didn’t really pick up until I got serious about finding peace in my head.
I’m a WIMP. A weakly interacting missing person. I can go through days at work without interacting much with anyone. I spent days alone in my apartment outside of work. This is probably because, in some way, I’m still carrying memories of very difficult interactions with other people when I was a kid. I’m hearing and sight-impaired, and the kids in school saw that. Whatever cruelty they learned from their parents, they gifted to me. So I tend to use a very light touch when interacting with other people.
I spent much of my young life thinking that I did something to deserve all that. My mother told me that I had strong opinions. My dad told me to fight the kids who teased me. The school principal told me to act like a refrigerator when the other kids teased me. Sure, if you have the skills of Shields and Yarnell, you can do that. But kids don’t have that kind of skill. Kids have to learn the skill of self-control.
Doing the work of self-discovery in therapy, 12-step programs, and a daily habit of introspection helped me to find the tools of mental independence. I began to learn that much of my suffering was self-imposed and that it was up to me to deal with it.
With help from other people along the way, I began to change my assumptions about my relationship with everyone. I learned that if I find people irritating, that says something about me. I learned that if I had a disturbance within, that it was my job to quell that disturbance. I learned that other people were not responsible for my happiness.
I learned to use neutral language in my disagreements. I learned to say, “I disagree” rather than, “You’re wrong.” I learned to ask for what I wanted and then see if the other person would deliver. I learned to go where the love was.
Then somehow, I fumbled my way into marriage. I found a woman online, living in Vietnam. I communicated with her for many months. I flew there to marry her and bring her back. She’s my wife, Alice. We’re not perfect together, but we’re OK. Our cultural differences inspired me to learn more about myself than I could learn on my own.
We had two kids, Emily, and Natalie. Together, they all inspired me to learn as much as I could about child development. They inspired me to learn to never take anything personally again. They inspired me to read books that taught me that challenging behavior on the part of other people isn’t about me. it’s about them. When people exhibit challenging behavior, that behavior is evidence of a deficit of skills. That skills deficit is evidence of a lack of capacity to resolve the problems that gave rise to the challenging behavior in the first place.
I learned how to reframe inconvenient, irritating, and sometimes hostile behavior on the part of others, and myself, as a deficit of skills. I never assume motivation is an issue. I assume that we all believe that we’re right and that we just want to sleep at night knowing we did the right thing. In any interaction with someone else, I start from here.
Dealing with temper tantrums from this perspective has taught me not to take as a personal affront, anything that anyone does around me. A temper tantrum is not about me, it’s about a child’s lack of skills to do better. I have learned how to talk a child out of a temper tantrum. I have learned how to gently interrogate a child for the problem that gave rise to the tantrum and to fix that problem. That’s how I know not to take the tantrum personally. I apply the same concepts to adults, too.
If someone insults me, then I know that they have to live in a mind that talks to itself like that, every day, all day. I don’t have to live in their mind. In fact, I’m grateful that I’m not living in that mind. I don’t have to take any insult personally ever again.
If someone ignores me, and I’ve had days when my wife would not talk to me, or look at me, then I know that’s about her. Yes, I know that I might have done something to offend her, but if she’s not willing to look at me and talk about the offense, there isn’t much that I can do to mend things. I will do my best to do better, but when she’s in that mood, I can only be glad I’m not living in that mind. I can take note of my behavior and try to do better next time, but unless we talk about it, I won’t have enough information to act on her desire.
I’ve noticed something else. I can do a lot of really nice things for other people in one day and still manage to find one person who is not happy with me. My wife will be sitting in a life of abundance and still find room for criticism. I’m not perfect, I know it, but I see that I have a roof over my head, clothes on my body, with a refrigerator and pantry that are full, so I keep my mouth shut and find gratitude for what I have.
If I make an error I know I will hear about it from my wife. If my wife makes an error, I don’t say anything about it. I know she knows. And since she feels so free to criticize me, I know she criticizes herself. She doesn't need my help to feel bad about a mistake she made.
When I’m at work, I’m much the same way. When a customer calls me to fix something, and it turns out to be their fault, I don’t ride them like a donkey for their mistake. I say something to the effect of, “thank you for your patronage,” because their mistake just part of my job. I am honored that I have been trained to help my customers at work. I honor my customers by using my skills to fix their software problems. I fix software as a support engineer in a support plan that customers have paid a lot of money to acquire. That money pays my bills.
When a customer is hot, I don’t take it personally. He’s the one having a bad day, not me. My job is to make his day go better. So I assure the customer that I have control over the situation, that I’m going to fix the problem, that I will stay with the customer until the problem is solved, or until someone with greater experience than I, can fix it. I do so with calm, with assurance, and with compassion for my customers at work. They have a manager and I want their manager to be happy, too.
I do the same thing for my wife and my kids. They make a mistake, they make a mess, no problem. It’s only a mistake. Their mistake is not a judgment of them as a person. For anyone, including my family, especially my family, I will fix any problem they present to me, au gratis. No criticism, no unsolicited advice, with neutral questions for troubleshooting. I want my family to know that I’m a problem solver, not judge, jury, and executioner. I have found that solving problems is far more productive than calling out the mistakes of others, even if I’m inconvenienced, lighter of pocket, or the object of wrath. I will just fix the problem.
I’ve tried the other way, oh, how I’ve tried. I know the peril of pointing out the mistakes of others. Especially if they are critical of me. So I keep my mouth shut, fix the problems, and move on. For I know that when I fix the problems of critical people, they’re sleeping with a voice in their head, criticizing themselves, not me.
Throughout all of this, I need not take anything personally. This isn’t to say that I’m not sensitive to the needs of others. This is to say that what other people say to me says more about them than me. What they say to me could show that they're compassionate, empathetic, or that they lack the capacity to be empathetic and compassionate. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt as to motivation by viewing all behavior through the lens of skills.
I don’t ask if someone is motivated to irritate me. I ask if someone has the capacity to do better. Once I am able to consistently view human behavior in the context of skills or capacity rather than motivation, I no longer need to take what they do as something directed at me personally. No longer do I need to read minds or try to divine the purpose of their behavior, I only need to know what problem it is that they want to solve and help them to solve that.
In the context of skills and motivation, the way people behave around me is not about me. I may contribute to a problem for other people, and it’s my job to see that, but I know it’s also possible to do everything that a person asks for, and they could still make a decision not to be happy. So I don’t take it personally when someone around me is not happy. But I do offer to help solve the problems that gave rise to the unhappiness in the first place. That’s the least I can do.