Posted July 1, 2002
Don't Take It Personally
My friend, Kay, is a waitress. Sometimes customers come in and are in a really bad mood. No matter how nice she is, no matter how good her service, no matter how delicious the food, they find something to complain about and leave a miniscule tip. If she didn't know how good she was, when she discovered the skimpy gratuity, she might wonder what she did wrong. But because of her experience, she doesn't take the customer's attitude to heart. She recognizes that they were determined to be unhappy, and there was nothing she could do to change that.
Many people don't have Kay's confidence. They'll take someone else's disposition personally. If a coworker is grumpy, this person may think that it's their fault, even though the coworker crawled into the office that way. When I work with clients who are this sensitive, I remind them that they're not responsible for the grump's attitude. And the grouch would act that way no matter who they came in contact with.
Even if someone deliberately attacks a person, the issue may not be about that specific person. The problem is the attacker's own insecurities erupting, and simply wanting to destroy whatever good they see. It's unfortunate, but misery loves company. If someone in pain sees another person with a better life, they'll try to tear that more fortunate person down. People who are unhappy want everyone around them to feel as bad, or worse, than they feel.
It's not that they're evil. It's just the only way they can have a little break in their pain. It gives them a brief distraction from it. Everyone is just trying to make themselves feel better, but we go about it differently. One person with a lot of anger, sadness and pain may try to spread it around so that others feel that way, too. While another person with sadness and pain will try to make others feel better because they don't want anyone to hurt as they do.
In the movie, "You've Got Mail," the chain bookstore owner (Tom Hank's character) tells the small, independent bookstore owner (Meg Ryan's character) that it's not personal that he's destroying her shop, it's "just business." It's the same way with people who snap at you. It's not personal; it's just that they can't handle their own emotions, so they dump them on others. They'd do it no matter who was there. Just as Tom Hank's character would build a store without considering that another bookshop was in the area.
Sometimes, people can get very personal in their attempts to make themselves feel better. I've had acquaintances who have told me that I didn't deserve what I'd worked for, because I "hadn't struggled enough." Clients of mine have had friends blame them for walking away from the friendship, when it was the friend who did so. Other clients have had customers rage at them for not getting the work done three days before it was due. The attacks were irrational, but it's hard to be objective and realize that when you're being verbally assaulted.
When someone attacks you, puts you down, demeans you or belittles you, stand up for yourself. Because if you don't, it's unlikely anyone else will either. That doesn't mean to counter-attack. If you know that what they're asserting is false, say so, and walk away. It's likely they'll want to keep trying to get you to accept their belief, and won't give up. Just know that it's not true, and take back your power in this situation. Realize that it's not about you or what you've done or haven't done. It's all about them and their pain. On the other hand, you don't have to accept their degrading treatment of you simply because they're hurting. Just address the situation with integrity and in the best way you can to support yourself. Remember that it's not personal.
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Copyright Ó 2002 Linda Ann Stewart