What We Mean When We Say "It's Not Personal"

Miniature figures of a police with a horn and a woman pulling up her top

A boss yells at you in a meeting. "Don't take it personally," a kind team mate says.

A co-worker goes behind your back and takes credit for a project that you were assigned to oversee. "What kind of problem does s/he have to have to do something like that?!" 

A family member lashes out and makes you feel unwanted. "It's not your problem s/he has anger issues!"

A manager blocks your great idea. "It's business. It's not personal." 

These circumstances and their resulting phrases--usually well-intentioned--get a lot of air out in the world among humans who play, love and work with each other.

And each retort is meant as a salve: "It's not personal." "Don't take it personally, it's just business." "It's not you--s/he's just a hot mess with authority issues." That (nasty) person is having a bad day. Under a lot of pressure. Wasn't loved enough as a child. Is hungry because of the 10-day cleanse. Insecure, imposter, a cheat, devil-child.

Don't buy the excuses. They don't help.

If you're like me, you might nod along, appreciate the support, even agree. And then find a safe place to lick your wounds. In too many cases, we make matters worse by giving these events MEANING and creating a story that can define our experience and follow us around for years ("My managers are always out to get me." "My sister is jealous of me." "My boss thinks everyone is stupid." "You can't trust anyone.")

It's not personal, and here's why

Humans are thought machines. All day long we're having thoughts. We have thoughts in response to circumstances every second of the day. These thoughts produce a feeling. The feeling produces an action. Even when it seems like our circumstances birth our feelings, it's not the case. Circumstances are neutral--like data. They come to life through our thinking. That's why ten people can tell ten different stories about the same event.

So the boss who's chewing you out: Let's say she just got yelled at by the CFO for going over budget, and her thought is: "I'm going to lose my job!" That thinking makes her panicky and angry so she brings in a person she trusts--you--and lets you have it. Because she's having insecure thoughts--and she's paying attention to them. Because these thoughts are riling her up and causing her to go into action (yelling at you).  

Miniature figures of a cop with a horn, a woman flashing and downed cops.

It feels personal because of personal thinking

It's so easy to get tricked into thinking it's the circumstance that produces the feeling. As in, my boss yelling at me is making me feel bad. It's not my fault I go to work feeling unsure of myself and cranky--who wouldn't?!   

But get this: It has everything to do with you. It's your personal thinking that's creating all of your feelings. This is good news because this means we aren't perpetual victims of life and its circumstances. No joke, our reality is an inside job.

In the case of the boss yelling at you, here's the neutrality of this circumstance: It's one human being speaking loudly to another. Any two or three people could respond to the same scenario in various ways. For example, another teammate could be standing right next to you as the boss yelled at you and have the thought  "Well that's interesting!" and feel excitement at the drama and what's to come (maybe a promotion for her instead of you, yippee!). All the while you're standing in the same office, witnessing the same scene and thinking, "I'm going to get fired!" and feel freaked out and insecure in your job. 

So if your boss is yelling at you, and you feel bad, it's because you're having a thought about it. In other words: It's not personal. 

<Just a note to say>
Yes, I agree, that when someone yells at me, my cheeks flush, my heart quickens and it feels very, very personal--like a monster-roaring-down-the-neck-of-my-shirt personal. That's because my thinking in the moment is probably along the lines of "Boss is mad. Boss is mean. I'll never be trusted again. I'm so stupid. What did I do?" But now I know I don't have to make a story around these thoughts. I don't have to create a story about my boss. I don't even need to have a story--PERIOD. I can trust the flow of changing thoughts and know they are part of my daily weather system. It might take a while but all in good time, I'll arrive at a better place. And that goes for everyone else, too.

It's not personal but it still stings

We bump up against people all the time. We'll always have thoughts about others, about our interactions, about the endless stream of circumstances. The point here is to stay aware of what's REALLY going on: If your boss is yelling at you; if your manager is shutting down your amazing idea, or a colleague is doing something that looks deceptive behind your back, their actions are the result of having an experience that originated as a thought. Nowhere in this chain of events is YOU. You might be an actor on the same stage, but you are never the cause of another person's thought that puts feeling and action into motion (no matter how much someone might try to convince you--don't fall for it).

<We are all responsible for our own actions. Simple, not easy. But freeing.>

I'm not saying you HAVE to like the circumstance. You don't. You can feel neutral and you can even dislike it. But you don't have to succumb to a parade of negative thinking and a cloak of bad feelings to go with the un-ideal circumstance. You can just kind of . . . hang with it . . . deal.

Here's the good news: Thoughts are fluid

Imagine a conveyor belt of thoughts cruising by all frickin' day long. Some studies say we have 70,000 thoughts a day! These thoughts can be amazing creative flashes of insight or vision; and they can be self-doubting insecure whisperings like fear. You don't have to make a case for any of them. All you have to do is be aware. Wake up to the true nature of these thoughts--A LOT OF  THOUGHTS--and trust they'll pass. Like weather.

All day long, we move over this Earth, all seven billion of us--thought machines all!--experiencing our world through our thoughts. 

This is why it's not personal. You are not making me think and feel a certain way. I'm not making you think or feel a certain way.

And that's what we mean when we say "it's not personal" -- whether we realized it, or not!

I realize some of this can get conceptual, so if you want to know more, or you have questions, get in touch! No strings attached, just two people sharing thoughts and not making anything personal. Tatyana@everydaycreative.net