It has become very popular to quote the wisdom, “Don’t take anything personally.”
Although well intentioned, this piece of advice can be damaging if not properly understood. It can result in frustration, shame, and hopelessness by the person receiving it. And, for the person sharing it, it can create a chasm of distrust between themselves and the person with whom it is shared. This is primarily because the recipient no longer feels safe sharing their pain, disappointment, and perhaps heartbreak. In fact, they may feel that their emotions are invalidated. And with that, they may deny themselves the privilege of feeling their emotions, believing that they are somehow inferior because they have a hurt response. The result can be alienation from self, others, and the outcome – depression.
Let me provide a simple example. A man you do not know walks up to you on the street and punches you in the nose. You exclaim, “That hurt!” He responds, “Hey, don’t take it personally!” On the one hand, you did NOTHING to merit this treatment other than to be in the presence of a disturb man with presumably an anger management issue. So, in this sense, it was not about you, had nothing to do with you, and most certainly is NOT personal. But on the other hand, it affected your person. It literally had an impact on you. In this sense, it was personal, and it hurt.
Now, make the analogical switch to the emotional / relational realm. Someone you do or do not know makes a promise and fails to keep it, behaves contemptuously towards you in public or in private, overlooks you while attending to others, etc. These behaviors are not generated by something within you. But they still can wound, hurt, and scar.
We get to feel our feelings. And, if someone shares their feelings in response to something someone else has done, it is best to listen with empathy and understanding, including expressing appreciation for how much they are hurting. The hurt is real, and it is personally theirs. It IS personal.
Here’s the takeaway. We get to feel the impact of another’s action, either a physical punch to the nose, or an emotional punch to the gut. It is important to not deny oneself or others the right to feel the pain. Now, after acknowledging the sting, we need to accept it for what it was; perhaps a baseless criticism, senseless display of rudeness, thoughtless disregard or perhaps a tactless legitimate critique displayed in a callous fashion. In any case, whatever it is, it does not define us. Even a legitimate criticism lovingly delivered may smart a bit, but it does not define or forever eclipse all other aspects of ourselves.
The place where most of us continue to experience the pain is in the story that we tell ourselves about the infliction. Usually, it is a story that keeps us connected to a perceived injustice as if rehearsing it repeatedly would right a wrong, remove the pain, or return the favor to the giver. When this happens, the thoughts about the source of the pain are creating neural pathways in the brain over which the story runs back and forth, creating a rut in which we get stuck. From a developmental evolutionary approach this makes sense; we need to keep vigilant against the attacker to survive. But it is no longer sticks and stones and tigers we need to prepare against. Rather, it is to words or social actions and inactions that we must respond. Here, it is best to notice the thought and as soon as it is noticed, return to a series of deep relaxing breaths. This helps us come back to ourselves. We must learn to be with ourselves and care for ourselves, especially the child, so often wounded, that lives within us. Every man has a boy that lives within, every woman a girl. Let the inner child know you care, personally care. Let them know that you are there for them. Here is where your work is to be done.