Don’t Take It Personally (It’s Not About You)

This could be a game-changer.

In The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal FreedomDon Miquel Ruiz makes a compelling case that there are principles that, if put into practice, will change someone’s life so dramatically that they would feel like a crab that abandons his old shell for a new one. While Ruiz is not coming from an intentionally “biblical” perspective, the wisdom he unlocks from his Toltec ancestors dovetails with the truth God has woven into the moral universe. I discussed these “four agreements” with my family over dinner recently and they agreed: these four concepts are simple but potentially revolutionary.

While Jessica Lynn writes about all four agreements in this post, I want to focus on Agreement #2, which is a commitment with yourself not to take anything personally.

Let me explain.

My Defensive Nature

I am by nature a defensive person. One aspect of my fallen condition is to protect myself from critique, blame, and responsibility. Stinks to be me sometimes. Stinks worse to be my family.

Defensiveness is a blind spot for many of us. We kneejerk defend when accused of anything, whether its driving style (you go too fast vs you go too slow), management style (you micromanage vs you are too hands-off), preaching style (you tell too many stories vs you don’t tell enough stories), parenting style (you are too restrictive vs you are too permissive), and on and on. It happens so naturally, I’m often oblivious to how quickly I defend, blame-shift, make excuses, or minimize critiques, regardless of whether the negative sentiments ring true or not.

Not take anything personally? I take everything personally! How in the world can I not personalize the insults, frustrations, unreasonable demands, and unfair critiques? Isn’t what they are saying about me?

No.

It is not about you. Whatever someone else says to you or about you or communicates with their body language or physical expressions, it is not about you. It is about them. This is where we begin to not take the words or actions of other people personally.

It’s Not About You (or Me)

Jesus tells us that the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. And actions speak even more loudly than words. This means that whatever someone says, and how they say it, reveals more about them than about you.

Their anger reveals their wounds, insecurities, and unmet desires, not your own deficiencies.

Jessica Lynn writes, “When someone insults you, cuts you off in traffic, belittles your talent — it’s not about you. Let me repeat that. It is not about you. It is about them. What they are going through and what their reality is. You do not have to accept their judgment. When you practice this agreement, you agree that other people have their own unique identity and their own reality that you don’t have anything to do with. When you accept this, you recognize that the other person’s opinions of you do not necessarily describe you.”

That is why many of us get so defensive. The words of other people strike us at the source of where we derive our identity. It is as if with their snark or critical analysis of our performance or personality or whatever, that they get the power to play God by defining who are are in the essence of our being. Who wouldn’t fight back?

But for those who have received the gift-righteousness of Jesus, we no longer need to defend ourselves. The only one who has permission to tell me who I am is God, Father, Son, and Spirit. In the gospel, who they say I am is forgiven, accepted, and treasured. Yes, my Father loves me!

Teflon Righteousness

The gospel tells me that I am a bigger sinner with more flaws than anyone could ever fully expose. Whatever critique someone could land upon me… well, it’s worse than that… by far.

If I can consciously cover myself in the Teflon coated righteousness of Jesus, I can hear a critique, be cut off in traffic, be opposed on social media and have folks leave the church without it affecting my core identity as a forgiven, beloved, accepted, treasured son of the Father.

Not to mention, none of those words or actions are about me, anyway. Remember. From that perspective, I no longer have to take anything personally, but covered in a healthy force-field of grace, I am able to respond to the broken, needy, dysfunctional expressions of others, not with a defensive retaliation but with genuine empathy (knowing hat my life is as broken, needy, and dysfunctional as anyone else).

Empowered to Listen and Love

You may have heard the saying, “People who have been hurt by people hurt people.” What if I could hear words of anger or frustration as the release of pain from a wound in their own life? How could that change my reaction to their reaction?

What if when someone tries to wound me (on social media, at work, or anywhere) with unfair and inaccurate criticism, makes unreasonable demands, or demonstrates frustration via gossip, insults, and slander, I could believe the issue really isn’t about me but is about them?

That would be a game-changer.

I think it would help me try to understand them better, putting myself in their shoes so to speak. By grace, I think I’d be empowered to listen and love — even an “enemy.” After all, their words expressed at me are more about what is going on in their heart than in mine. And that is what matters — what is going on in the heart. Not my performance or approval ratings. Yes, those things matter in vocational evaluations and for academic progress. I’m not talking about an excuse for laziness or dismissing the value of the kernel of truth in the grain of complaint. If I am the big sinner I confess to being, complaints about any aspect of my life should not surprise me.

What would listening and loving look like? I suspect curiosity. What is God up to here in this person’s life and in mine? What does the Lord want me to learn about myself? What questions can I ask to help my “opponent of the moment” feel safe in my presence? What loss or grief are they referring to me (like a nerve in the hip might “refer” or “show up” in the knee)? How is a wound in their life affecting their emotional outburst? What are they going through that I can’t see that is causing them to lash out at me?

Not taking things personally helps me to know that even though I can’t see the underlying issue in their heart, it is there, and needs not my condemnation but compassion. The same compassion I have received from Jesus.

As Jennifer Lynn concludes, “When you don’t take anything personally, you will be more open and loving and less fearful of being vulnerable with those you love. There will be a lot less drama in your life.” Not a bad side-benefit! Which tells me that if there is drama in my life, that is on me. I’m taking things personally, magnifying the opinions of others, and minimizing the declaration of God in the gospel.

I suppose that is one thing that I should take personally, it is the gospel. That I am the disciple whom Jesus loves. Or as Paul said in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Let’s Process It

  • Does this resonate with you? What does? What doesn’t?
  • How is not taking things personally an implication of the gospel?
  • Where do you struggle with this?
  • What difference might it make in your life if you put this principle into practice?

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