Knowing It’s Not Personal – 12 Essential Insights for Emotional Sobriety – Dr. Allen Berger

Stop for a moment and think about all the things that upset you during the day. A friend says you’re not being attentive enough. Your partner seems to be ignoring you. The auto repair service implies you’re stupid for not knowing it was time to change the oil. A driver swerves in front of you and you have to slow down, causing your coffee to spill. No one brought a cake to the meeting to celebrate your fifth AA birthday. Your sponsor doesn’t return your call for two days. All of these may seem like personal attacks. They can make you feel sad or angry or worried or all of the above. But are they really about you at all?

Taking things personally means we assume that things other people say and do (or don’t say and don’t do) are about us rather than them. We all take things personally. It’s a hard habit to break, but a habit that must be broken if we are to achieve emotional sobriety.

Taking things personally is a function of low self-esteem. Our low self-esteem makes us very focused on and concerned with the approval or disapproval of others. If we don’t love ourselves, then we do all kinds of things to make ourselves lovable to other people. This is what creates emotional dependency. We erroneously believe we need the validation or approval of other people to be all right. In essence, this makes our emotional well-being, even our sense of safety, dependent on what other people say and do in relation to us. We crave their pats on the back, encouragement, appreciation, praise, or recognition. We turn everyone around us into judges, doling out approval or disapproval. Ironically, as much as this low self-esteem seems to diminish ourselves, it is also a kind of grandiosity, as if we had the power to fuel all these emotional reactions around us. (In the AA rooms it’s common to hear this phenomenon described as “We are egomaniacs with inferiority complexes.”)

Our concern about what others are thinking or feeling toward us makes us acutely aware of what other people say and do around us or how they treat us. Why? Because if they don’t feel the way we want them to feel, we need to do something about it—we need to change their mind or run away. This is the basic fight-or-flight response to a threat.

This creates a state in which we are unconsciously and perpetually afraid. When we see people, we need to know if they are a threat. Are they for us or against us? Are they our enemies or friends? Are they safe or dangerous? Will they soothe our anxiety by making us feel loved, or will they reject us, meaning that we are unlovable? Our existence depends on reading their minds. Of course, that’s impossible; the best we can do is try to interpret what their statements or actions mean. What’s worse, our natural capacity to understand what they mean has been distorted by our emotional dependency and also by any trauma we might have suffered in our childhood. In other words, our anxiety causes us to filter and distort the information we get from other people’s words and actions.

In this way, emotional dependency creates a reflected sense of self, meaning we believe the other person’s behavior and attitude toward us is an accurate reflection of who we are rather than an expression of who they are. We see in their actions and statements a reflection of our worth or value. We view their behavior as a mirror in which we see a reflection of our worth or value—their approval or disapproval of us. We lose sight of who we are because of what they say or how they act.

Because of this dynamic, we take personally most of what a person says or does or thinks. So, for example, if my wife gives a snarky response to a question I ask her, I take it personally. I worry that she doesn’t respect me. On some deep unconscious level, I fear it means I’m not lovable.

These emotional reactions are another tip-off that we have identified with our false self. We constructed our false self specifically to please other people—to soothe our anxiety that if people knew our innermost being, they would find us unlovable, unacceptable, or unworthy of belonging. This false self is fragile. It requires constant reinforcement and approval. Thus we look to others for validation.

This habitual way of thinking and feeling is very troublesome. Taking things personally has harmed and destroyed many of our relationships. The problem is a very basic error in the hard-wiring of our human computer. We think our feelings are facts, that they are an infallible guide to the truth. Well, they are not. Our feelings are real, but not always true.

I want you to really hear what I just said: Our feelings are not an infallible guide to the truth!

We take things personally, and in so doing we incorrectly conclude that everything is all about us. In fact, this is the furthest from the truth.

If someone disrespects you, it is not personal. If someone is rude to you, it is not personal. If someone dismisses you, it is not personal. If someone slights you, it is not personal. If someone ignores you, it is not personal. If someone puts you down and wants to hurt you, it is not personal. If someone steals from you, it is not personal. If someone betrays you, it is not personal. If someone spreads lies about you, it is not personal. If someone doesn’t do what you want, it is not personal. What you say to someone else when you are upset is not personal. What you say to someone else when you are upset is not personal. What someone says to you when he or she is upset is not personal. If someone likes you, it is not personal. If someone dislikes you, it is not personal. This concept may be hard to wrap your consciousness around at this moment, but nothing anyone says to you is personal. Nothing anyone does to you is personal.

Why We Take Things Personally

If we want to overcome our emotional dependency, we need to figure out what the ’something else’ is. A simple way to remember: If your response is disproportionate to the actual situation, you are taking it personally. If your response is to try to manipulate the other individual, you are taking it personally. You are being emotional dependent.

Have you ever thought about the reason you take things personally? Some of us who are still asleep haven’t even noticed we react this way. Those of us who are living consciously are aware that this happens quite frequently. This issue is so prevalent and crippling that it was chosen to be one of the four agreements that Don Miguel Ruiz discusses in his book aptly titled ’The Four Agreements’.

The second of the four agreements is ”Don’t take anything personally”. Ruiz identified the reason we take things personally. Simple stated, it is because we agree with them. For example, if someone calls you stupid and you have never thought of yourself as stupid, you wouldn’t take that personally. You’d wonder (i.e. be curious) what the person’s problem was, but you wouldn’t give that insult a second thought.

But if you held any doubt about your intelligence because you struggled in school or because you were called stupid by your father or mother or an older sibling when you were a child, then you’d take the person’s words very personally. Why? Because a part of you agrees with them.

Here’s another way to say this. No one hurts us. We hurt ourselves. Meaning we connect what the person is saying to a wound we already have. According to Ruiz, we agree with whatever the person says, we become trapped in the dream of hell.

Ruiz goes on to say that what causes us to be trapped in the dream of hell is ”personal importance”. He writes ”Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me’.

Ruiz believes that we learnt to take everything personally because of how we were raised. ”We think we are responsible for everything. Me, me, always me”, he writes, ”Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves.”

Ruiz is describing a person with low differentiation. Differentiation determines our ability to function in a healthy way in our relationships. It refers to our capacity to act on our own behalf without impinging on the welfare of others. The higher our level of differentiation, the more autonomy we experience in our relationships. You are attracted and interested in one another but not dependent on each other’s acceptance and approval. They seek to cooperate with one another rather than manipulate each other. As a result, the relationship does not cause an excessive amount of anxiety. This means we honor our integrity, because when our differentiation is high, it is not negotiable. We hold on to ourselves (keep our integrity) and don’t get lost in the relationship.

People who hold on to themselves are not overly influenced by what the other person does or does not do. Therefore, people who are well-differentiated will not take things personally. They do not see their reflection in the other person; they see the other person. The individuality of well-differentiated people is developed to the point that they can be responsible for themselves and not fault others for their own discontent. This means that when our differentiation is high, we will not blame our partner for how we feel. Our feelings are our feelings. We are responsible for how we feel and how we act.

The lower our differentiation, the more fused we are in our relationships. We accommodate the other person’s needs because of our emotional dependency and not from a thoughtful recognition of the need to improve cooperation. We make our partners a hostage to our unreasonable demands and unenforceable rules, or we decide to let ourselves become a hostage to their demands and rules. Either way, we do so to soothe our own anxiety. This means our emotional reactivity is more intense. We are more easily triggered, and we are more likely to take things personally.

How To Stop Taking Things Personally

What can we do to raise our level of differentiation so we stop taking things personally? The suggestion I have for you is to listen to your second voice. What do I mean by that? Your first voice is the part of you that speaks first—the part that speaks from fear, anxiety, and emotional dependence. It represents the part of you that takes things personally, the part that is stuck in its personal importance. This is the part of you that says, “What they are saying (or doing) is about me.” This first voice is a reactive voice, and it speaks from the part of you that takes what others say as a personal slight, something cruel, condescending, hurtful, mean-spirited, or humiliating.

Your second voice comes from a different place, a place that is typically more mature than the first. The second voice comes from your wise self. It will remind you that what other people said or what they did wasn’t personal. It will help you see that their statement or action was about what they thought and believed, not who you are or what you deserve. It will remind you to stop taking things personally.

Depending on the situation and your personality, you may have to listen closely to hear your second voice. You may even have to practice speaking it silently to yourself until it starts to emerge.

But there is another crucial ingredient in this antidote.

The next step in this process is to empathize with the other person. That’s right. No matter what the person says, put yourself in his or her shoes. My mentor Dr. Walter Kempler, a pioneer in family therapy, would say, “To be more personal with someone, you have to stop taking what they are saying or doing personally.”

Instead of taking what others are saying personally, we need to ask ourselves, “What am I learning about this person?” If they are calling us stupid, it might mean this is how they were treated in their childhood when someone didn’t know a better way to deal with or express frustration. If they are saying things in an attempt to hurt us, it might mean they took something we said personally. Remember, they do what they do because of who they are, not because of who you are.

Empathizing with the other person this way will help you stop taking things personally. It will also help you have a healthier relationship. It will help you hold on to yourself and raise your differentiation. Not taking anything personally will help you achieve emotional sobriety.

In The Four Agreements, Ruiz states,

As you make a habit of not taking anything personally, you won’t need to place your trust in what others say or do. You will only need to trust yourself to make responsible choices [differentiating yourself from others]. You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you. When you truly understand this, and refuse to take things personally, you can hardly be hurt by the careless comments or actions of others. (1997, 60)

What I’ve just told you is a lot to digest. We are so used to taking our emotional reactions as facts that it’s hard to realize they are only clues about the way our brains are processing events about us.

Waking up to your emotional dependence is hard work. Extracting yourself from its clutches is even harder! You may have buried your “second voice” so deep that at first you can’t hear it. You may be so used to blaming your personal reactions on what others say and do that you can’t claim your reactions as your own. You may be so used to manipulating other people or yourself to soothe your own fears that you simply can’t see that what was said or done is not about you. It’s not personal.

The act of “not taking things personally” is not a one-and-done event. We have moments where we achieve real emotional sobriety and other moments where we slip and have to remind ourselves that “it’s not all about me.” Emotional sobriety is a practice, a way of approaching ourselves, the people in our lives, and the situations we encounter.

Fortunately, we have many opportunities to practice it throughout the day. If we don’t get it right, we can think about our failed attempt and plan for the next opportunity, which may be only moments away. Just as with living consciously, we get better at this practice only a bit at a time. The more we practice, the more accustomed we become to taking stock of our first voice of emotional response, listening for our second voice of wisdom, and combining that with empathy for the other person to break our habit of emotional dependence. As our practice gradually becomes a new habit, our differentiation increases, we stop taking things personally, and we gain emotional independence.

Just so you know, it’s a lot easier to write about than it is to do! I’ve been at it for years, and I still have to check my reactions. But I’m much more emotionally independent now than I was years ago. The practice works.

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