You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin.
One of the great self-development leaps we make that catapults us out of childhood and into being adult is when we realize we should not take things personally.
We get a rejection letter in response to the submission we sent – not personal.
In the past we used to throw ourselves on the couch, weeping and leaping to all sorts of conclusions about our self-worth (and the lack of it).
Not now. Now we’re adults.
We understand that the person who received it gets 1000 submissions each year and cannot possibly read them all.
We know that under pressure and with limited resources they can choose only so many and that the choice is as much about luck/timing/pressure/personal preference than anything else.
They’ve never seen us, met us, exchanged a word.
Our work may be good, bad or mediocre and there may be reasons for the decision but there might not. We greet all and every option with equanimity.
No, we say, this is not about us.
We quote Buddhist or other teachers who say our pain comes not from reality, but from the attachment we have to our version of what we think that should be.
Let’s face it, there’s a lot of wisdom in this approach.
For one, life is not fair and we cannot afford to see everything that happens as a reflection of what we’re worth.
Take the example of a company that has to cut 10 percent of its staff, the executives have numbers on a list beside the profitability of each business area: decision made.
It’s a bottom-line decision. Not personal.
Another reason we can’t take things personally is because we can’t control life.
Yes we can have hopes, dreams and goals. Yes we can take action and move towards them and build resilience, and plunge endlessly onward.
But no one knows what they’re going to wake up to in the morning.
- The illness that has gone undetected.
- The storm that washes away your house.
- An unexpected job offer you’ve always longed for.
Resilience is vital, the ability to adapt a survival skill.
We must accept what life dishes up as a reality and manage how we respond to it rather than collapsing under the weight of what did not happen that we’d hoped for.
Not personal, not personal, not personal.
And yet the impact is deeply so.
Only so, I would add.
Who is on the receiving end of the rejection? The redundancy? The flood? The dream come true?
We are. And we respond to it emotionally.
I think one risk with the ‘not personal’ approach, probably inadvertent, is we think it means we should not react or feel hurt.
We experience a strong emotion and think we’re not as evolved or capable as those who appear (I use this word deliberately) to brush it off.
They are thick-skinned we think with admiration, while we are over sensitive.
And we don’t mean this as a compliment to ourselves.
But it’s quite possible to feel very personally about things while simultaneously understanding the context and responding constructively to realities.
In Emotional Life of the Brain neurobiologist Richard Davidson identifies six distinctive emotional styles that shape how we think and feel, one of which, resilience, determines how fast we recover from adversity.
And it varies widely.
To test where we sit on the fast/slow to recover spectrum Davidson asks: If you have an argument with a friend does it cast a pall on the rest of your day?
Hands up. Yes it does for me, for sure. I like to get to the bottom of a problem and nut it out. I like harmony. If I clash with someone I can think about that for days or weeks. What happened? Why? What was my part? What was theirs? Could it have been done a different way?
But none of this stops me from getting up, or going to work, or leading a team, doing the shopping, or getting an assignment done on time.
If you experience a debilitating loss are you unable to function for months?
Let’s try years.
When you’ve invested time, thought and emotion in a person or an idea you become part of each other. You can no more shrug off a loss than you could a limb and say: it’s nothing.
Nothing? Once there was an arm here and now there’s a hole. Nothing? (Extrapolate broadly.)
You know what I mean.
Some people carry a devastating loss with them all of their lives.
What they learn is to co-exist with these strong emotions and get on with it anyway like walking around though our backs or sore, or using a hand that is bruised.
We must not confuse the ‘impersonal’ nature of events or the role our minds play in building suffering with a message that we are not impacted personally or should not feel pain.
Nor should this philosophical approach become a glib strategy for management disconnection.
You know, the manager who is given the edict to sack half their staff and, knowing their role is safe, goes forth with abandon, dishing out ‘it’s not personal’ because they can.
This reflects a lack of leadership EQ and if you’re in a business that holds up the heartless leader as an emblem of how it’s done, then run a mile.
The embarrassment that some people feel handling emotional complexity is about their superficiality, not your depth.
But I would go beyond that.
I believe that those who feel strongly, who get sick when they’re being deceived, or burn when they’re under attack or are moved to tears by the misfortune of a stranger, experience a strong connection to the world that helps them manage its complexity.
Because they feel the emotions of themselves and others physically, they’re highly tuned to social cues.
They pick up when someone is up or down, who needs support, attention, just a shove in the right direction, and that’s all without a word needing to be said.
And most of the time it’s what is not being said or seen that is driving what happens around us.
Used mindfully (not to help people avoid making difficult decisions or taking responsibility for their actions), these qualities help them get they best out of people.
Yes, they feel the bite of a nasty remark but knowing that their partner/friend/child has had a difficult day helps them truly not take it personally despite experiencing it in an utterly personal way.
Building empathy, but a way of behaving towards others that is also deeply respectful.
We need people like this.
And if you’re sensitive like me and have struggled to find the balance between the personal and impersonal nature of the world, remembering that both can be true at the same time should help.