A few days ago, I was out on a run in Portland. I passed another runner, who gave me a peace sign and a big smile. Less than five minutes later, I ran past a bus stop where a man raised his middle finger and yelled “LOSER!” at me. Same day. Same place. Same activity, same outfit, same everything. Completely opposite reactions from strangers. This is a perfect example of exactly how much it’s not about me.
Your boss was short with you even though you did good work? Your partner snapped at you for nothing? The editor rejected your very excellent submission? NOT. ABOUT. YOU.
Learning this is good for our psychological well-being as individuals. It makes us more resilient and less reactive to things beyond our control. But it can also help us be better humans. Taking things personally is, in a way, a manifestation of self-centeredness. This instinct for self-centeredness runs deep. We see this play out in public and in private a lot, especially lately around issues of racism, sexism, other axes of identity. When someone is hurt, too often the response from a person with privilege is “It’s not my fault”/“I didn’t do it”/“I didn’t mean to”/“I couldn’t have known”— instead of “are you OK? What do you need?” But, news flash: it’s not about you.
The tricky part is that in order to take ourselves and our egos out of the equation, we have to know ourselves. And that requires some insight and work on the self. Isn’t that self-centered, in and of itself? I don’t think so. I think of this as a psychological version of self-care— you can’t pour from an empty cup, put your own mask on first, etc. You can’t shortcut this. Self-knowledge is precious, and never complete. But it helps us be better humans, good to one another, and give love rather than fear.