Every now and then, I make myself jot down a list of things that have been stressing me out.
The items on the list keep changing and so does the length of the list.
Though there’s one thing that remains constant. My inability to get these stressors under control.
Wait, a minute, let me tell you what I actually mean.
I am aware that no matter how hard we try to solve problems or try to distract ourselves, there will always be reasons to worry about.
Even the relationships we are part of, owing to their dynamic nature, constantly bring new causes of worry. We cannot do much about the factors that are beyond us.
However, we can certainly do something about the things that are under our control.
Our mind, our thoughts, our mindset, our beliefs and also our attitude towards life in general.
You must be wondering that if I already know how to tackle the problems in my life, why haven’t I addressed all the issues that keep bothering me?
The answer is,
I have been too scared to say it aloud to myself that I need to change.
I understand what needs to be done to make a shift to a rather stress-free area in my life, but I’m afraid of actively working on it.
I fear, I’d disturb the peaceful order of the family.
I dread upsetting the people I sincerely care for.
The excuses are endless, but so are the nights I’ve spent worrying.
Let me share a few examples.
After my divorce, when I had been struggling to get back to a normal life, I was discouraged from joining a full-time job with these words;
“Being a woman who is now solely responsible for the upbringing of a child, you better stay at home and care for the home and the baby.”
Every time I stand up for myself and my rights, people attempt to shut me up with;
“You’re a fast, feminist woman who wouldn’t accept male authority. No wonder your husband divorced you.”
The list of such incidents is endless and so are the harps that are shot at me to bruise my soul.
The pain, the hurt and the pinch of the constant remarks made on my marital status or single parenthood or my current financial situation or worse because of my gender (a woman) were costing me time, sanity and money.
I’d get so upset with the comments that if it was in a business setting, I’d avoid taking up any projects with the said party in the future.
If it was a neighbour, I’d limit our interaction to a formal greeting in the future.
When it came from the family, I’d stay disturbed and angry and would try my best to limit interactions by keeping myself occupied all the time.
The downside of this was, I was perpetually barring myself from human interaction because I was constantly living in the fear of a personal attack.
I would avoid feedback for the fear of a rejection or a negative remark.
Every time I confide in a friend or a family member, I receive the same advice.
“Stop taking things personally.”
Sometimes the phrases varied, but they all meant the same.
“Don’t take life too seriously.”
“You need to harden up”
“Learn to be resilient”
And it just doesn’t stop at that.
What follows is also rather predictable, irrespective of the problem and who I’m seeking advice from.
“It’s not about you, it’s about them. You need to have thick skin in life. You can’t control what other people think or say. What others think of you is none of your business.”
That’s all well and good, but it still hurts.
And most importantly, how can I stop feeling bad when someone says hurtful things to me? How can I make it happen?
This nagging thought made me work relentlessly to find answers to the questions that have been troubling me.
I wanted a way out.
The initial steps:
One day, when I had finally had enough, I decided to work around the one advice I’d grown tired of, “Stop taking things personally.”
In my journal, I deconstructed the problems, the remarks and the situations that had hurt me the most.
When I re-read all I had written, I made some interesting observations.
♥ I was failing to see anything beyond my criticism long after the conversation had ended.
♥ I was letting other people hurt me with their words, without having the courage to speak up for myself. This was despite the fact that I knew what I was being told wasn’t the complete picture.
♥ I was letting people trespass in my personal life and question the choices I’d made.
♥ I had been reacting too fast, without taking a moment to use logic, analyse people’s words and act accordingly.
These observations led me to conclude that, maybe:
♥ I had come to believe people’s version of my truth and there was nothing I could do about it.
♥ I was clearly overanalyzing situations and replaying conversations in my mind. This had to stop.
♥ I was lacking in self-confidence. I lacked the conviction that the decisions I’d taken stood on sound analysis.
♥ I was failing at setting clear boundaries. I wasn’t giving a clear message as to when the people needed to stop trespassing in my personal territory.
♥ I needed to stop reacting without giving myself enough time to see why I was letting the hurt, the slight get the better of me.
♥ I was clearly a people pleaser who was draining a huge chunk of her energy seeking validation in other people’s approval of herself.
This was the moment when another realization struck me.
Being a single mom, I have had an immense influence on my child. While all parents are their children’s role models, I have this double responsibility of making sure I model the behaviour I wish to see to see my child emulate.
This is a daunting realization. Though it wasn’t the very first time I had felt that way. This understanding has given me the needed nudge from time to time to make massive shifts in my attitude, mindset and habits.
On a handful of occasions, I had noticed Pari come back from school, angry, upset and in tears when she’d had an argument or a fight with a classmate.
I have been empathetic and patient with my child as we openly talk about what she could do in such situations. However, I couldn’t help but note how I’d been advising my child to not worry about what other people said or thought about her, I wasn’t doing the same myself.
This was why I could feel the pressure build up in me to go ahead and plan a strategy that would help me check myself in the tracks of letting other people have power over my emotional well-being and my life in general.
What could I do to change my mindset?
The first step was taking a step back and to acknowledge the sources of my hurt, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration and unhappiness.
I had to take up the responsibility of my moods, my actions, reactions, perceptions and interpretations.
Ultimately, I had to aim at defining clear boundaries for everyone a part of my life and also for those whom I had brief interactions with to not let anything they said or did affect my well-being.
All of it hinted at one thing.
I had to train myself in self-confidence.
I had to learn to trust my own instincts, to stand by my choices.
I needed to work on my beliefs and have an acceptance of the life I lived, while mindfully letting go of all the thoughts, beliefs and emotions that were nibbling at my soul.
I needed to be at peace with myself, my life choices and my life to be able to stand up for myself and not be discouraged by people’s perceptions.
I had to stop blaming others for my unhappiness.
It was a lot of work to do, but I was clear that there was no way around it.
I had to find the answers to the questions that were feeding my self-doubt.
I had to stop making assumptions and start asking more questions to get a better understanding of what drove a person to say what he/she did.
Though I started right away, I was rather generous in allowing myself as long as it takes to seek the answers I was searching for.
Over time I understood that when you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
The real challenge was getting to that point.
Identifying the triggers:
I had to work on the triggers by first identifying the emotional causes that were giving me grief:
- Deep down, I agreed with the critique.
- I perceived myself being treated unfairly in the situation and wished people would stop doing whatever it was. But it was merely wishful thinking.
- I often felt excluded. I was constantly blaming the rejections and failures on my not being good enough.
- I had unrealistic expectations. This was the bitter pill that I ultimately had to swallow.
- People’s reactions made me experience an emotional flashback. I’d connect a hurtful memory of the past to the current situation allowing it to blow up without logical thinking.
Seeking answers within:
Once I had my triggers jotted down in my journal, I began working on channelizing my energy and all the positivity I could find, inwards.
One step at a time, I talked myself through all the painful memories to assess them open-mindedly. The more I delved, I realised that the clearer I got about my choices and be accountable for their consequences, the better I felt on the inside.
The happier and clearer I got on my inside, I found the cynic in me make room for a calmer, content person in me.
The newfound peace started reflecting on my relationships and interactions.
I now had answers to the questions my conscience had been asking me.
This state of self-awareness slowly boosted my self-confidence.
I no longer needed to rely on other people’s view of me to validate my feelings and neither did I had to believe what they said to/ about me.
So what should I do when someone said unpleasant things about me or anything part of my life?
At first, I tried apathy.
To not care or give a damn about what other people talked or thought about me.
But it didn’t work.
I could not go on in life, without feeling anything. It was not possible.
Trying to change everybody around me wasn’t plausible either. Besides, even remotely attempting to do so implied that I didn’t like them as they were.
After much hit and trial, I learnt what worked best for me.
I chose to respond from a place of self-awareness.
Mindfulness helped me get there. It helped me to consider the possibility that whatever has happened might not be personal.
My answer to people’s hate, criticism or critique has been to respond in a way that I could clear the air.
I needed to communicate without a need to be right but also without a need to please the recipient of my message.
Saying things as they were, not letting the hurt from past experiences cloud my mind, has had amazing results for me.
There’s a reason why they say, “haters are gonna hate.”
No matter what you do, how you do it, there will always be people who’re not going to like it.
Overthinking things, latching our ego onto comments, situations, people’s reactions, glances and more is a surefire way of letting go of our happiness and peace of mind.
It pays to remember that no one, not even our parents, our children, our significant other, our best friend, the universe and everyone-in-between owes us anything.
Instead of focussing our energy and time on their actions we must direct it inwards, to our conscience that is ALWAYS striving towards our well-being.
It calls for taking back the reigns of power. From others to ourselves.
It is vital to think logically and understand that negative feedback (in any scenario) does not necessarily mean the person doesn’t like you, doesn’t care for your beliefs or doesn’t respect your capabilities. This helps shift the focus from rejection to what can be done to attain a positive outcome.
What if the negativity persists?
Yup, it happens.
And it will repeat itself till you build up a mechanism, a personal one to tackle it.
Here’s what I do.
I have it written in my journal that,
I am not my thoughts.
I am not my opinion.
I am not my reputation.
I am not what people perceive me to be.
How does this work?
Visiting this gives me a split-second break in my train of thoughts. Often the one I need to return to my state of self-awareness.
There have been times when I have laughed out loud.
Yes, I did just that, to break free from my reverie. And no matter how crazy that sounds, it ACTUALLY works.
What good did stopping to take things personally do?
When something external is capable of disturbing you and triggers an unpleasant emotion, it is highly likely that we have some important work yet to do internally.
This applies to the habit of getting angry quickly and also to being hypersensitive towards people and life in general.
From the time I started focussing all my energy on strengthening my core, leading a more self-aware life, I noticed that I had reclaimed happiness in a new way.
Now I was solely responsible for all of my feelings and I felt I was in better control of my emotions. With this new mindset, I knew that I had nothing to do with how the world perceived me.
I could feel a burden lift off my shoulders. I was no longer struggling to skim through the people I interacted with because I was now comfortable in my own skin.
I became more open to social interactions.
I learnt to take feedback on my work in a positive light.
And the biggest gamechanger was how this new mindset impacted the relationships in my life.
I had freed everyone part of my life from the burden of the responsibility to treat me right (the way I’d not feel attacked).
My child could act childlike without me feeling her feisty, defiance was a threat to my authority. My friends could openly discuss their married lives with me without making me feel out-of-place. I no longer dreaded questions about my marital status. I could freely seek advice on my personal matters.
Choosing to not dwell in the past, even if it was just a minute ago needs a mindset shift.
It allows us more room to LIVE NOW, to easily let go of our bad days and shoos our unpleasant encounters off. It opens up ways of embracing positive opportunities and connections.
Consciously learn to stop taking anything personally, so you can go ahead, give yourself the permission to discover, embrace and step into who you are and whom you want to be.
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The Song On My Mind: Ae zindagi, gale laga le ~ Sadma
One thought on “Why (and how) I Stopped Taking Things Personally”
Your analysis of situations is superb!
I just reoriented myself in the last couple of years to not take things to heart – just remember nothing will last forever, so why worry? And I don’t overthink, no matter what!
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