Do you ever walk away from a conversation feeling worse about yourself than you did before the conversation?
I do. Sometimes. When this happens I ask myself, “Was that them or was that me?” Was I being thinned skinned, as my mother told me I was or were they being superior, mean, passive aggressive?
Yesterday I reached out to a co-worker by asking her some “How are you questions?” I listened to her answers, nodding, laughing. I felt interested. I was getting her. Then she asked me a specific question about myself concerning an issue that was public enough for her to know some details. As I responded, she interrupted with a moralistic sounding interjection. What I heard her saying was…if only I had thought like her I wouldn’t be in this jam.
“Wow I was stupid. I should have known this. She did. That’s because she is a better therapist than me.” My mind was racing.
I began to give her more details, hoping my explanations would explain my decisions. I was grasping for her understanding. I was feeling increasingly pathetic. The more I told on myself the more I seemed to reinforce her “take” on my situation. I finally stopped talking. Defeated. I walked away not liking myself as much as I did before we engaged. I walked up the stairs to my office with heavy feet.
Since this was not my first I-am-inadequate rodeo, I knew what I needed to do. Over the years I have developed coping strategies for this kind-of-thing.
- I decide I never liked her anyway. I call on my best-junior-high-mean-girl to internally trash talk her. My adolescent self believes this will make me feel better. It never does.
- I decide I better get busy being a better, stronger, more successful version of myself. I’ll take a class. Read a book. Dress more sophisticatedly. Share less of my vulnerability. I usually just feel tired at the end of this option and take a nap.
- I eat some chocolate. I haven’t found a down side to this.
- I call a trusted friend to vent hoping they will agree that she is just not that nice. I love it when my smart, loyal, accomplished friend says, “Yeah I always thought that of her too. You poor thing. I think you are wonderful.” For a moment I feel victorious.
- I ask myself what got touched in me that I am reacting so strongly. This one is the hardest and the least fun…”Really? Do I have to look at myself again? Do I have to get honest about me? Damn!” Sometimes it helps do combine this one with #3.
So after quickly moving through #1, #2, skipping #3 & #4 — since I had no chocolate or time to call a friend — with a sigh I moved into #5.
I remembered the book The 4 Agreements by Miguel Ruiz. The 2nd agreement is Don’t Take Anything Personally. The premise is that what others say is more about them then me. That we all come from our own projections that are a result of our view of the world. The stories we make up.
This was comforting. I realized that my co-worker had her own reasons for commenting the way she did that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her experience. I no longer had to be angry at her or quickly read a self help book.
Not taking anything personally is liberating.
But, it may not be the finish line.
If the relationship is significant enough to me I realize I need to say something about how I felt as a result of what was said. Even though I am not taking it personally I may still feel bruised. So coping strategy #6 is talking to the person about how I felt when they said what they said. (I lied, this one is harder than #5.) It takes courage and trust in the relationship to be strong enough for vulnerable honesty.
Deciding when to speak up and when to let-it-go is a constant process of discernment.
Chocolate makes this easier…