It’s Probably Not About You: A lesson in not taking things personally

Counseling helps people not take things personally. This angry man in a theater could use some help with this!

Understanding the Root of Behavior

In moments when someone cuts you off in traffic or a friend acts snappy, it’s easy to take their behavior personally. However, it’s crucial to realize that more often than not, their actions are not a commentary on your worth. Instead, they’re a reflection of their own mindset and circumstances. Quite often, people, including you and me, don’t even realize how irritated we are coming across. Sometimes this is a result of a bad day, or we are just deep in thought about something frustrating.

Compassion in Everyday Scenarios

For instance, consider the driver who hastily cut you off. They may be racing to the hospital with an injured child in the backseat or rushing to the vet due to a pet emergency. Or, perhaps they’re just having a particularly bad day and being discourteous. Even if they believe they should be ahead of you, it doesn’t diminish your value as a person.

This concept extends to various situations, beyond the realm of road rage. When someone appears irritable or snappy with you, it’s often a reflection of their internal struggles. Even if you’ve had a tense encounter with them, it may not be about you but rather how they interact with others. However, if you acknowledge your own unkind behavior, it’s an opportunity for personal growth and reflection.

People Reflect Their Inner Emotions

This phenomenon is particularly evident in children, whose emotional centers are not yet fully connected to their language and logic centers. When upset, they tend to “act out,” and this pattern continues in kids from challenging family environments, who may frequently find themselves in trouble. Adults, too, exhibit this behavior, albeit in more intricate and subtle ways. Remember, whether we are talking about an adult or a child, almost every problematic behavior is rooted in a perfectly valid need . . . the person may need help expressing this need.

Understanding Behavioral Patterns

For example, consider a boss who unjustly berates an employee at work, and then the employee returns home to yell at their dog without cause. This behavior isn’t about the dog; it’s an expression of the employee’s emotional state. The same principle applies to the boss’s outburst at the employee; it’s more about their frame of mind than the employee’s actions. Similarly, actions like being passive-aggressive, manipulative, or using defensive debate techniques often reflect the individual’s internal mindset.

It is important to stress that while a person’s mindset can alter how they treat people, it does not excuse it. When you are the offending party, be sure to take responsibility with an apology.

The Power of Agreements

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s book “The Four Agreements,” which draws from ancient Toltec teachings, the second agreement is “Don’t take things personally.”

Embracing “Don’t Take Things Personally”

When someone’s behavior triggers you, remember that it’s about them, not you. However, if you find yourself becoming defensive, that’s about you. Your defensiveness provides insight into your own emotional state. To enhance your life and support others in doing the same, practice mindfulness and take responsibility for your thoughts and actions. This approach empowers you to create a more fulfilling life for yourself and those around you.

*Updated October 23, 2023

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Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s has worked in the helping profession since he started college in 1990. After completing his Bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin in 1994, he attended the highly-regarded University of Minnesota to earn his Master’s degree in 1997. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is recognized as a Board Approved Supervisor by the State of Texas Board of Examiners of Professional Counselors. Jonathan has completed Level 2 of the Gottman Method of Couples Counseling, and in 1998 received training from the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Advanced Critical Incident Stress Management & Debriefing. To learn more about Jonathan’s practice, click here: Jonathan F. Anderson, LPC-s.

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