Growing up, just about every child experiences name-calling. I certainly did. Sometimes I’d tell my mum, and she’d repeat the childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Oh, if only that was true!
In his memoir, English actor and writer, Stephen Fry, expresses an extreme version of what many have experienced:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.”
—Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot
Taking things personally
Twenty years ago I read Don Miguel Ruiz’s classic book “The Four Agreements“. The Four Agreements are:
- Be impeccable with your word.
- Don’t take anything personally.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Always do your best.
I like these agreements, and have found them to be useful in my life.
I have always worked to be impeccable with my word and do my best. And I try mightily not to make assumptions.
But, I still have trouble with the second of The Four Agreements: Don’t take anything personally.
—The guy who swears at me when we bump into each other in a crowd.
—Angry words said by a loved one in the heat of an argument.
—A dismissive reply to something I’ve posted on Twitter.
In the moment, I take these words personally.
And, like a whack with a stick, they hurt.
An angry guy and me
So Don Miguel Ruiz says, “Don’t take anything personally“.
Yeah, right. In the moment, I think: “easy to say, hard to do, Ruiz“.
Except when — sometimes — it’s possible to do.
I was once running a small seated-group discussion, and a man got furious with me about something I said.
He was so angry that he stood up and moved towards me with his fists raised. He clearly felt like slugging me, and looked like he was about to. If someone had told me in advance this was going to happen, I would have felt scared.
Yet, somehow, I knew that his fury was about him, not about me. I didn’t take his anger personally.
I was able to talk calmly with him, and help him see what he was really angry about. Not me. Rather, his feelings of helplessness in the face of a very upsetting situation.
The whole experience was liberating for me. It was, I think, the first time in my life I’d been able to face another person’s intense anger and not be scared by it.
Words and feelings
A core aspect of being human is that words we hear (or read) often evoke feelings in us. We might feel happy, sad, angry, excited, scared, disgusted, etc. These are common and normal responses.
“Taking something personally” generally means you feel hurt by something someone has said about you or a situation that involves you.
Unlike many other feelings, feeling hurt by someone’s words involves you granting, either consciously or unconsciously, the speaker some kind of authority over you. You are accepting, to some extent, the speaker’s reality as your own.
What Don Miguel Ruiz says is that when you really know that another’s reality is not necessarily your reality, you can be immune to the hurt you might otherwise feel.
Words will sometimes hurt me
I don’t know Don Miguel Ruiz. I wonder if he, or anyone, are truly able to live in such a way that words never hurt. Whether that’s the case or not, I strive to listen to what people say to me without taking it personally. When I don’t succeed at this, drama of one kind or another often ensues! As someone who tries to avoid unnecessary turmoil in my life, I will continue to try to not take anything personally.
Image attribution: Conflict between little siblings for a toy while sitting on stairs at home by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com