The scene: a hip and fashionable downtown restaurant. A high-ranking manager of a technology company and several of his team members are enjoying lunch together to celebrate the team’s recent achievement. As the conversation veers off onto casual topics, one of the employees excitedly explains about a new start-up company for which her cousin was named president, ending with, “Wouldn’t you just love to be in her shoes?” The boss turns to her and says, “You wouldn’t love that - you’d hate it. You wouldn’t be comfortable as an entrepreneur.” The conversation stops briefly as all heads turn to see how the employee would react to the boss’s cutting remark. “Hmmm,” said the employee slowly, “That’s an interesting observation.” The lunchtime chatter quickly turns to another topic.
Take nothing personally – this is easier said than done. The employee in the scenario described above was me, and the conversation took place many, many years ago. I wish I could say that I didn’t take the boss’s remark personally, but honestly, I did for a while. What I realize now is that the boss was speaking from his own perspective, emotions and needs. His opinion of my abilities was colored by his own “stuff”.
Each of us views life through completely different lenses – it is as if we each wear a different pair of glasses that allow us to focus differently, to block out certain information and to interpret events in a singular way. We take in and process information through our unique lenses, which restricts us to acting solely out of our own perspective. These lenses are colored by our personalities and our talents, which were developed during our formative years. The lenses also reflect our current needs and our previous experiences, especially if they were negative, emotionally-charged events. The brain stores emotional memories so they can be accessed in a nanosecond, causing us to react in a knee-jerk fashion that has little to do with the present situation.
The boss’s words to his employee in the lunchtime conversation were filtered through his lens of needs, personality and emotional experiences. I cannot accurately guess what that lens was, but I know now that it was about him, not about me.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I would choose a different reaction to my boss’ words. Instead of turning his remark inward and taking it personally, I can now see that his remark is coming directly from his lens or perspective of the situation. Here are the steps that I would now take in this situation.
The “Take Nothing Personally” Process:
- Stop the knee-jerk reaction: As with most processes, the first step is the most difficult but the most important. To stop a knee-jerk reaction requires a high level of self-awareness – in other words, we need to be aware of our reaction in the moment in order to stop it. Fortunately, we can learn to be aware of our reactions by habitually taking a breath before responding to every situation. Adopt a mental image of yourself as calm and serene in the midst of adversity, which will help you to pause when you are being triggered by someone’s remarks or actions.
- Pause. The best way to keep from taking it personally is to redirect your mental energies from the emotional brain to the logical brain. Count to ten – backwards and in French! – is a great way to divert your mind to its analytical, rather than emotional, functions.
- Say to yourself, “That’s one person’s opinion.” Remind yourself that the person is speaking or acting from a viewpoint that encompasses their emotional memories, needs and personality. It has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them. Without judgment, you might try to imagine what might cause them act or speak as they did.
- Take care of yourself. You might affirm yourself by saying, “I know I am a capable, intelligent person.” You might remember a time when you were completely happy or proud of yourself – we call this a “positive anchor”. You might call your partner, best friend or Mom and ask them for a pep talk – and bask in their love.
Taking nothing personally will lighten the emotional and spiritual burden you carry. It will also improve your interpersonal relationships. Imagine the possibilities of a frictionless, productive workplace created by a team that works under the motto of “Take nothing personally!” What a wonderful place that would be.