The Weaponization and Misapplication of 'Don't Take Things Personally'
The feelings that occur in response to people's actions are indeed very personal
I struggle with the phrase 'Don't take things personally.' I know a lot of what other people do has nothing to do with me and it's about them, but trying to remember that and ignore my feelings about things people do is really hard. It feels like other people are able to do this much better than I am, and that I'm somehow doing something wrong when I can't let things go. Is there a trick to this? -It Feels Very Personal
Dear It Feels Very Personal,
The Short Answer:
For the record, your feelings feel very personal, because they are personal and there is nothing wrong with you for feeling connected to your feelings. That's a really good thing. Dysfunction happens when we have feelings we feel disconnected from. The core of the 'don't take it personally' concept is true and powerful, but it's often twisted and misapplied by well-intentioned people, and can even be weaponized by those exhibiting behaviors of abuse and control. It's no wonder that a lot of people feel dissonance and even guilty when they just can't seem to let things go.
Let's try to ease some of the confusion by starting off with a reframe of this concept. While not as catchy and easy to needlepoint onto a throw pillow (bearing in mind that having hooves means nothing is easy for me to thread onto a pillow), a more full phrasing of this concept might be, "People's motivations for the ways they act are typically about their own history, psychologic makeup, physical state, and healing journeys rather than a direct response to something you caused or an inherent flaw in you as a person. Keep this in mind as you move through the world so you don't end up needlessly taking responsibility or bearing a burden for things that aren't your fault." I don't know about you, but to me that feels like a relief, and way easier to do than pretending my feelings aren't hurt when someone's treating me badly.
The Longer Answer:
Now that that's cleared up, let's look at the way this gets misapplied and why it's healthy to push back on it. Most people's misapplication is totally benign- they saw it on a social media post, they read it in the Four Agreements or another spiritual or lifestyle program, a coach told it to them when they were in high school, and they throw it out from time to time when someone (and maybe it's them) is upset. As much efficacy as people may claim to have with this practice, if they are interpreting it as instructing them to disown their feelings in response to poor treatment, in reality they're probably still struggling with it.
Feelings get a bad rep, but they're really just little messengers letting us know what needs attention. It is appropriate to have feelings of discomfort when someone is doing something bothersome, like nipping at your tail or standing in front of the hay bag so you can't eat your portion, and our feelings in response are just reminding us to pay attention and consider setting some boundaries. Yes, our responses to others are likewise 'not personal' to them and are about us- like I don't care who is standing in front of the hay, if I'm hungry I just want them to move out of my way. Some of our feelings occur in response to our own trauma and may be out of proportion for the situation, but the same concept applies- the feelings are inviting us to pay attention to the parts of us that need some care. Acknowledging feelings also does not require us to act on them, but it is an act that keeps us connected to ourselves, versus trying to ignore our feelings which simply leads to a cycle of even more uncomfortable feelings.
A thing that has puzzled me as a horse that further causes me to want to throw the half-formed version of this concept in the manure pile is that when people feel good because of a pleasant thing someone else did, no one responds with "it's not personal." It just doesn't track (heh a horse pun) that when people affect us in a way that feels good that it's personal, and humans will acknowledge the ways they 'positively' impact each other with more throw pillow sayings like "People will forget the things you said and the things you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel." As soon as something affects them in a way that feels alarming though, it's no longer personal. As a horse, I haven't done much math in my life but it just doesn't seem to add up. But as a horse, I have spent years observing the interactions of many creatures, humans and horses and dogs and cats and rabbits and toads that find their way into the meadow. We all impact each other, on a personal level and as a herd. To not acknowledge that just seems like a way to complicate things for no reason.
Many people use this as a well-meaning platitude simply because they may not know what else to say in the face of discomfort, and that causes them to be uncomfortable themselves. However, other times people use this to maintain control of a relationship and avoid facing accountability for their actions. There are many reasons why someone might do this, but there's not enough treats left to compel me to keep standing here to list them. As an advice giving horse my best advice to you is that when you're the recipient of this repeated behavior, the reason why doesn't matter, and it's not your job to figure it out. This behavior done repeatedly over time can make relationships unhealthy. Unlike horses, humans can often pick their herd-mates, so maybe consider finding a new herd if you can't share your true feelings about someone's actions and have them respond reciprocally. In short, humans and horses are the same in that having our physical or emotional needs disrupted by another causes us to feel things about it. Take a cue from us equines in not feeling guilty for taking personal things personally, and give yourself a break because after all you're not a horse and you're only human, and boy does that seem like a tricky thing to navigate at times.
Pony is a member of the Happier Trails equine therapy herd, and regularly sees Clients as part of the treatment team. Pony has had many life experiences and has years of working with people in a variety of capacities. Pony considers each question carefully and then tells their response to therapist Anna Rose Carrigan, MSW who is trusted to transcribe Pony's answer accurately. In the tradition of many famous advice columnists, Pony is not Pony's real name, as Happier Trails does not disclose horse's names or stories to allow them to become whomever the Client needs them to be in their own story. To make an appointment to come see Pony or any of our other treatment team members, please contact Happier Trails at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-403-2651.
To ask Pony a question, email email@example.com.