by Leo Babauta
Getting better at reacting to the actions of others is one thing, but one of the more difficult problems is allowing the actions of others to affect how we judge ourselves.
A good example: your boyfriend dumps you, so you wonder what’s wrong with yourself. Why doesn’t he love you? You opened yourself up to him, you shared your innermost self, you gave all your love to him and he rejected you. This must mean he found you unworthy, right?
Actually, no: His actions have nothing to do with you, really.
Let me emphasize that because it’s really important: the actions of other people have very little to do with you.
If your boyfriend rejects you, or your boss gets mad at you, or your friend is a little distant today, that has very little to do with you (and your value as a person) and everything to do with what’s going on with them. They might be having a bad day, a bad week, are caught up in some story going on in their heads, are afraid of commitment or being rejected themselves, fear failing in the relationship, and so on and so on.
There are a million possible reasons someone might do something, and they are not a judgment on you. They are more a statement of what’s going on with the other person.
Let’s take a few examples:
- Your friend isn’t as attentive as you’d like him to be.
Does that mean he doesn’t care about you, or doesn’t want you to be happy? No. It’s possible he’s just tired, or too caught up in things that happened today to be attentive. Maybe he’s bothered by something you did, but that really is more about his issue of dealing with your actions than it is about you as a person. Maybe you can help him deal with that issue, or somehow ease his pain.
- Your co-worker gets irritated with you and is rude.
Does that mean you aren’t a good person? No, it means that person has a short temper and isn’t good at dealing with other people, or again, might be having a bad day. Instead of taking it personally, see how you can either give that person space to cool down, or help the person deal with his issues.
- Someone doesn’t get as excited about your idea as you’d hoped.
Does their rejection of your idea or proposal mean that you aren’t good? No. It’s possible your idea isn’t great, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t good or that you don’t have good ideas — maybe this is just not the right idea right now. But it’s also likely that it’s a good idea but that this person doesn’t appreciate it, or their interests don’t align with this idea right now, or maybe they have other priorities and can’t deal with this idea. Instead, thank them and move on to someone else who might be interested.
Those are just a few examples, but you can see how we often take other people’s actions personally even when they have very little to do with us. And we can often interpret their actions to be a judgment on us, and so feel bad about ourselves when really it’s nothing to do with us.
So how do we deal with other people’s actions instead? Let’s take a look.
How to Deal with Others’ Actions
So someone rejects you, gets mad at you, is indifferent to you, is rude to you … what do you do?
There are many options, of course, but here’s what I suggest generally:
- Don’t take it personally.
Their actions don’t have anything to do with you, so if you find yourself taking it as a personal affront to you, or a judgment of your worth, be aware of that, and let it go. Tell yourself that this has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them.
- Reaffirm your value.
If you feel yourself doubting your value because of their actions, recognize that your value isn’t determined by their actions or judgments. It’s determined by you. So reaffirm that you believe you have great value — appreciate the things about yourself that are good and that have value. Even if no one else appreciates you, be the one person who can see those good things and is grateful for them. That’s all you need.
- Be compassionate.
If that person is mad, rude, irritated, tired or afraid, they are in pain. They might be lashing out at you, or withdrawing from you, because of that pain. See if you can help relieve the pain. You’ve already checked in with yourself, and realized you are good to go. Now go help the other person. If they don’t want your help, that’s OK too. Your worth isn’t determined by whether someone wants or uses your help — it’s the fact that you tried to help that’s a statement of your value. You can’t control whether other people receive your help or are grateful for it, but you can at least make the attempt.
These three steps, by the way, don’t just help you with your self worth, they also help your relationship with the other person. Often we react to others as if they personally injured us, and the other person doesn’t understand why and so they, in turn, take our reaction personally and get mad or hurt.
If instead we don’t take their actions personally and seek to help them, they are more likely to be grateful than mad or hurt. And so we’re better friends, co-workers, partners and parents if we take things less personally and are more compassionate.
These skills, like all life skills, take practice. Take a minute to replay in your head a recent incident when you were hurt by someone close to you, even just a little, and think about how you might have internalized it into your self image. Now replay the incident in your head in a new way, imagining yourself using the three steps above. Practice this replaying skill at first, and then try to put it into practice when you feel the process happening in the future.