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Don’t take it personally…

Have you ever been in sticky situation with a loved one, friend or colleague? Perhaps heated words were exchanged? Or perhaps you weren’t invited to something you should have been? Maybe you’re feeling excluded, insulted, bullied? Or all of the above.

Sticky situations

Maybe you're feeling excluded, insulted, bullied? (Photo: J. Lowinger)

Maybe you’re feeling excluded, insulted, bullied? (Photo: J. Lowinger)

It’s more than likely we’ve all been in these types of sticky situations in one form or another throughout our lives. And one thing’s for sure – whatever the situation they usually hurt – a lot!!

And safe to say we’ve all either heard, or said, the words: “Don’t take it personally”. But how does not taking things personally actually help?

I’ve always felt, no matter how well intentioned, “Don’t take it personally” dismisses the pain and hurt you may be feeling. As if feeling the pain is somehow shameful. As if you’ve failed to “man-up” enough to just get over it already.

One day I remember coming home from school on a crowded bus. A man, significantly bigger than me, struggled down the aisle to get off dragging a heavy suitcase behind him in his right hand.

He counterbalanced the suitcase by flailing his left hand in the air – and in the process gave me a stinging slap on the cheek. OUCH!

Was it personal? Not a chance. We didn’t know each other and this was a chance, one time, encounter. But did it hurt? Yes! All the rest of the way home and then some.

And that’s why “Don’t take it personally” is unhelpful. It doesn’t acknowledge the pain, and it doesn’t drive the situation forwards to any sort of resolution. Just because something isn’t personal doesn’t mean pain isn’t there. And just because something isn’t personal doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem waiting to be solved.

Don’t identify with being a victim

Recently, I was in one of those sticky situations that really hurt and resulted in a rather large vent to a very patient friend. After listening to my long, drawn out tale of woe my patient and wise friend said to me something different and quite unexpected…

My friend said, “Don’t identify with being a victim”.

I had to pause to let this sink in. What?? Huh?? I’d been bracing myself for the inevitable “Don’t take it personally” and here I was faced with “Don’t identify with being a victim”.

I didn’t quite know what to do with this at first. What would you do with it?

Eventually, after moving past my initial pushback – “I’m NOT identifying with being a victim!!!!!!” – the truth and wisdom behind my friend’s words started to sink in.

“Don’t identify with being a victim” meant that indeed the situation might be personal – or it might not. It didn’t actually matter. It didn’t matter because the lack of any personal nature didn’t mean I wasn’t feeling pain. Didn’t mean I wasn’t hurting.

Yep, pain was there. Acknowledged in full. Validated. But there was no need to waste emotional energy on thinking about if it was personal.

Sidestepping the sting

Thinking something is personal forces you to take the role of victim. Someone has done something to you. You are weak and passive and powerless. This increases the hurt immeasurably.

On the other hand, not identifying with being a victim, means you can focus on being strong, active and powerful. It gives you the power to sidestep the sting and stop it from paralysing you. You can free yourself up to really think about the underlying situation and what steps you can take to start moving it forward towards resolution.

That might prove to be a whole journey of it’s own. But it feels a whole lot better than feeling weak and powerless – like a victim.

So maybe that’s what people really mean when they say “Don’t take it personally”. They don’t mean to invalidate painful experiences or feelings, they mean to be helpful and encourage you to move into problem solving. Well I hope so anyway.

And even if they don’t, at least now I know a useful translation – “Don’t identify with being a victim”.

It works for me. What is it that works for you?

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1 Comment

  1. I like the “serenity prayer” that I believe AA use: G-d grant me the courage to change the things I can, the serenity to accept the things I can’t and the wisdom to know the difference .

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