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How Is It “Not Personal” When There Is A Difficult Interaction Between Two People?

This comes up a lot. I get that it is confusing.

How can an interaction between two people not be personal? Meaning, how can you not take what someone does or says personally???

Well, it FEELS personal. Of course.

The things is, most of what people do is about them, not about you. In so many ways.

It’s helpful to understand this about yourself (how you act is about you) and about others (how they act is largely about them).

You are the person who is involved in the interaction that brought about a certain response. Yes, that is true. However, it’s more like you participated in an interaction that was a trigger or inspiration for a certain response.

So what is it about then? If it’s not personal?

So much of human response comes from past experiences and conditioning. It comes from personality. It comes from where someone is in that particular moment when an interaction occurs.

Let’s look at some examples:

A partner says something mean during an argument.

Do the mean words feel personal to the receiver? Yes.

How is it not personal?

The partner who said something mean is upset. That is the way they chose to handle their feelings. Maybe because that is how they’ve learned to defend themselves (get on the offense) or that is how they have learned how to fight. Not personal. Feels super personal, though.

Just because it is not personal does not mean it is OK.

The thing is, taking it personally would detract from the important process information: your partner fights by saying mean things. Is that how you want to work through problems in your relationship? That is the place you want to focus. You can argue and get all tangled up in feelings taking the mean thing your partner said personally, but then you never get to the important point so you can grow as a couple.

Let’s look at another example.

Your partner gives you the silent treatment.

Does it feel personal? 100%

Is it? No.

It is how they are choosing to deal with their feelings and the issue coming up. Maybe this is what was modeled to them in their family about how to handle difficult moments. Maybe people in their family screamed and yelled and that was super uncomfortable, so they made the choice to never argue. They are giving the silent treatment because of them.

So what can you do? When things are better, approach that topic of the silent treatment. You might share what it’s like for you on the other side of that. You might find a way to compassionately ask why they handle things that way. Maybe it is too sensitive and it would be better to talk about this in a couples therapy session.

Your parent never says “I love you”.

Does that mean they don’t love you? No.

They absolutely love you. What parent does not love their child??

How each parent shows that love is different, that is for sure. People often show love in the same way they were shown love, not how they think the person they are loving deserves to be loved.

Your best friend makes critical comments sometimes.

That definitely feels personal. You might even get caught up wondering if what your best friend said is true about you.

Why isn’t it personal? People who tend to be critical were often raised by a critical parent so they have that dialogue going on inside all the time, you just happened to hear it out loud. They might be in a career that is based around critique or finding flaws and that is how they tend to look at things. They might unknowingly use it as an avoidance strategy to push you away when they need space.

Can you see how none of those possibilities have to do with you?

And how you could be in a fight with your best friend, lose a friendship or even spend days thinking about your best friend’s comment when it had very little to do with you?

I could continue with lots of examples.

Are some coming to mind from your own life?

The point is to help you start considering the possibility that something someone does or says may have very little to do with you.

This can save you a lot of time and struggle.

It also creates space for you to consider what you are bringing to interactions that is about you and not others. We’ll look at that in the next post.

If you want to go deeper with this, I highly recommend The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz.

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