Of the hundreds of books in my personal library

Extreme Esteem: It’s not personal

“When you let it get personal, the cost becomes personal, too.

You’re opening your own heart here. You sure you want to do that?”

– Michael Marshall Smith, English novelist and screenwriter

“Sorry,” he said. “But I’ve got to call BS on that second agreement!”

Of the hundreds of books in my personal library, one of my favourites is an insightful little volume entitled The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz. The author invites the reader to adopt a code of conduct that includes four agreements: be impeccable with your word, don’t take anything personally, never assume anything, and always do your best.

I reference the book often in my talks and workshops. In a seminar, I was reciting the four agreements and had just stated the second agreement, don’t take anything personally, when a gentleman in the group put up his hand to say he disagreed with the agreement.

“Hear me out,” he said, standing up. “If someone insults me or gets in my face, it’s meant to be personal, and I’m going to take it that way!” He looked around the room. “I mean, you can’t just stand there and do nothing, or it’ll happen more and more often. That’s how life works!”

I thanked him for his comment.

“It’s true,” I acknowledged. “Cruel, rude, or abusive people do occasionally cross our path and, many times, their remarks are delivered with the intent to harm.”

I went on to explain that not taking things personally does not mean passively allowing abuse to occur or letting unacceptable behaviour go unchallenged. It also doesn’t mean that we should try to disregard our hurt or pain. It does mean that every time we interact with others, we have the option of reacting or responding to the words and behaviour presented to us.

Not taking things personally can be difficult to carry out in practice. In my experience, the lower our level of self-esteem, the more difficult the challenge becomes. If we already feel poorly about our self-worth, words can hurt us deeply. An obvious question would be, how can we avoid taking comments personally when they seem so clearly intended that way?

Here is a point to ponder. The remarks people make are not always about us. Ruiz explains that the words and actions of others are simply an expression of what people have written into their Book of Law. In effect, what they believe to be true based on past experiences, and what fears or insecurities the encounter may have triggered within them. The words spoken are simply an opinion and likely, more reflective of what’s going on inside of them than us. When our self-esteem is low, we may seem like an easy target with little fear of retribution.

In some cases, we can learn from criticism and rejection. Although the comments may be harsh or exaggerated, there is often a grain of truth to be found. There are times when our conduct needs to be questioned, and we must be prepared to evaluate our behaviour objectively. It’s also an opportunity for self-reflection. When we’re feeling hurt by a comment – and especially one that always seems to cut deep – we can ask our-selves what insecurity the words may have triggered within us. It’s likely the words resonate with a deep-seated, contrary belief.

“We often add to our pain and suffering,” wrote the Dalai Lama, “by being overly sensitive, over-reacting to minor things and sometimes taking things too personally.”

While it’s easy to take things personally, we should never let anyone’s words, perceptions or actions affect how we see ourselves or our self-worth. Our life belongs to us and, therefore, it’s up to us to decide which words or actions we will allow to impact us and which we discard.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.

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