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Why and how to stop taking things so personally

book excerpt

One of my pet peeves is when people give advice that’s so general that I don’t know how to apply it in real life. 

For example, have you ever been told not to take things personally? 

It sounds like really good advice. I mean, it’s like 25% of the Four Agreements.

But between me and you, there have been times in my life when I really didn’t get how to apply that concept. 

And I wish I had understood it sooner, because it would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress. 

In that spirit, we’ve got our inspiration for the next book highlight...


This month we have an excerpt from Just One Thing by Rick Hanson PhD:

“Here's an updated parable from the ancient Taoist teacher Chuang-Tzu: Imagine that you are floating in a canoe on a slow-moving river, having a Sunday picnic with a friend. 

Suddenly there is a loud thump on the side of the canoe, and it rolls over. You come up sputtering and what do you see? Somebody has snuck up on your canoe, flipped it over for a joke, and is laughing at you. How do you feel?

Okay. Now imagine the exact same situation again: the picnic is in a canoe, loud thump, jumping into the river, coming up sputtering, and what do you see? A large submerged log has drifted downstream and bumped into your canoe. This time how do you feel?

The facts are the same in each case: cold and wet, picnic ruined. But when you think you've been targeted personally, you probably feel worse

The thing is, most of what bumps into us in life - including emotional reactions from others, traffic jams, illness, or mistreatment at work - is like an impersonal log put in motion by 10,000 causes upstream.

Say a friend is surprisingly critical towards you. It hurts for sure, and you'll want to address the situation, from talking about it with the friend to disengaging from the relationship.

But also consider what may have caused that person to bump into you, such as misinterpretations of your actions; health problems, pain, worries or anger about things unrelated to you; temperament, personality, childhood experiences; the effects of culture, economy, or world events; and causes back upstream in time, like how his or her parents were raised

Recognize the humbling yet wonderful truth: most of the time, we are bit players in other people's dramas.

When you look at things this way, you naturally get calmer, put situations in context, and don't get so caught up in me-myself-and-I. Then you feel better, plus more clear-headed about what to do.


To begin with, have compassion for yourself. Getting smacked by a log is a drag. Also take appropriate action. Keep an eye out for logs headed your way, try to reduce their impact and repair your boat -  relationship, health, finances, career - as best you can. And maybe think about finding a new river!

  • Additionally, notice when you start to take something personally. Be mindful of what that feels like - and also what it feels like to relax the sense of being personally targeted.

  • Be careful about making assumptions about the intentions of others. Maybe they didn't do it "on purpose". Or maybe there was one not so good purpose aimed at you that was mixed up with a dozen other purposes.

  • Reflect on some of the 10,000 causes upstream. Ask yourself what else could be in play here. What's going on inside the other person's mind and life? What's the bigger picture?

  • Beware getting caught up in your case about other people, driven by an inner prosecutor that keeps pounding on all the ways they're wrong, spoke badly, acted unfairly, picked on you, really really harmed you, made you suffer, etc etc. It's good to see others clearly, and there's a place for moral judgement, but case making is a kind of obsessing that makes you feel worse and more likely to overreact and create an even bigger problem.

  • Try to have compassion for other people. They're probably not all that happy, either. Your compassion for them will not weaken you or let them off the moral hook; actually it will make you feel better. 


And really soak up the sense of strength and peacefulness that comes from taking life less personally.”


For me, this passage is helpful because it reminds me that:

What people do and say may be directed AT you, but it’s rarely ABOUT you.

The way people behave is a reflection of the state of their nervous system, not you. 

That doesn’t make it fun to be on the receiving end of a “log”, but at least we can avoid adding another layer of unnecessary suffering LINK to movie blog (for ourselves and others) by not taking it personally. 

If you'd like more thoughts and tips like this, I hope you'll check out this handy little book. You can find a copy here





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