My Disagreement with the Four Agreements


Some Things Are Personal
-my disagreement with one of the Four Agreements

I love Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements, I really do. Like many of you reading, I’ve used them as a kind of template for living for over a decade. I think they truly encompass a roadmap of sound advice.

Yet, lately, I’m having trouble with one of them. My discomfort doesn’t stem from Ruiz’s intent of this 3rd Agreement, which I believe is pure, and I get it. Yet, like many sacred texts, over time, pure intentions tend to get misinterpreted and exploited in all kinds of directions.

“Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering…” Ruiz teaches.

I can’t imagine, however, that he instructs us to never be open to feedback or honest sharing from others who are offering it up for us to grow. Herein lies my glitch.

I was recently in a semi – heated sharing with an acquaintance who had stumbled all over herself, offending me deeply. I am currently in the middle of writing a memoir about my sister’s homicide, so I explore this topic at times on my blog, or on social media. This person wrote me out of the clear blue for the first time, asking general questions about my writing, then delivered a line that just about choked me “do you see a time when you will be able to let go of this and move toward stuff that is not about murder (I say this with love)” .

It was not only the insensitivity and timing of this question that stunned me, but also the questioner herself: a person who leads workshops using the writing path for healing. I was utterly shocked that I was on the receiving end of this question.

Once I exhaled again, I got angry. This is a normal human response when someone invades our safe boundaries, which is exactly what this question did for me. She, nearly a stranger, tiptoed in to my world, then went for my jugular challenging the most sensitive area of my writing life. Her question was less an inquiry than a judgment and I felt it. It was personal, and I responded like any person would when a dagger pierces the heart of your greatest wound.

Now is the point I wonder what Ruiz would say. I guess he would advise me to not take that personally– that her ignorance was about her and not me—ok I get that. Yet people walking around with highly sensitive life events get assaulted like this with ignorant questions regularly. I felt I needed to educate her., especially her of all people. She quickly apologized, then exited the conversation as fast as she’d bulleted in to it. And that was the end of it. At least between us.

This retreat, this unwillingness to engage in a meaningful dialogue about this changed everything for me about this person. I never trusted her again. I looked at her with a lens of caution, wondering if she was actually harming others attempting to open up and heal using their writing medium—people a lot more vulnerable than me. What if the opportunity for me in this offended reaction I had, was to speak up? To confront it? Not just for myself, but for all of this who have been dealt dark hands to play in a world of “love and light”.

Months later, I continued feeling affected by this every time I saw a posting by this person, as our exchange was never taken beyond that original hit and run. I felt the sting of her words, as I witnessed her writing about her insecurities, and finally about how to handle “triggers”. I wasn’t surprised when she fell back on Ruiz’s teaching (not crediting him), telling her readers about how someone else’s issues with you are “never about you—ever”.

But my feedback was about her. At least it was about her behavior. It was an opportunity for her to learn something and grow. Yet her position that my response must have been all about me, and not some kind of growth opportunity for her, led me frankly to believe she was dangerous out there in the world of healing.

I tried bringing it up again, albeit awkwardly on social media. Her response was to block me, without ever communicating with me directly. This kind of arrogance scares the shit out of me. People are following others who seem to have all the right words, but the proof to me is how we are all dealing with, not our easy platitudes, but our challenging moments.

If we are to take nothing personally, and we stumble in our humanity and hurt someone—even unintentionally—and are given honest feedback then resort to immediately placing the conflict on the other person’s “triggers”, how are we to grow? It’s hard to feel that grit in the sphere of our fragile comfort zone, sometimes yet it’s the very irritation needed to pull us to yet another level of understanding.

After the original awkward exchange with this self described “healer”, I began watching her. I observed essay after essay confronting her insecurities and difficulty with others’ opinions of her. Yet in each the remedy remained the same – realize it’s not ever about you, you are great just the way you are, put it back on that person and move on!

My observation though was that this position was not strengthening her, but keeping her right where she was—stuck in a place of a constant battle with insecurity, questioning herself, while trying to talk herself off the ledge of fear with positive affirmations. I don’t think it works that way.

I think opening sometimes to taking something deeply personal and allowing it to open something within is just the ticket we need to clean out  wounds so we can truly be free.

Otherwise we spend a lifetime shielding ourselves from the next bit of unwanted feedback, innoculating ourselves with positive platitudes, that really have no crack to penetrate in to. We are dolloping whipped cream on a shit sundae higher and higher and it’s making us weaker. It’s taking us further away from the toxin that still remains, unattended, festering.

I don’t know what Don Miguel Ruiz would have to say about all of this but I do think about it. Maybe I’m just playing in a world of semantics.  I do think there is a place for honest feedback and the receiving of it that brings us to a level of growth we’d never get if we dismissed it to “just their projection”.

On Thanksgiving Day this year,  my husband said something to me out of pure exhaustion that I took personally and pouted about for a few hours. When I finally had the guts to share with him how I was feeling, he pulled me in closer and explained what he was feeling, and how his choice of words was not indicative of my perception. We both cried while discovering another layer of tenderness between us, both of us vowing to not let that happen again—his words or my pouting. He could have so easily dismissed my little pity party as my problem, my projection and having nothing to do with what he said, but he didn’t do that. He listened, I listened and we understood each other, dismissing our fears, accepting more love. Our ability to be honest and dare I say take personally what each was sharing, allowed us to go deeper in to ourselves and as a couple.

Sometimes I reflect on this world of “everyone is a life coach” and “positive affirmations” and think it’s breeding a new culture of spiritual arrogance, where no one thinks they are allowed to step on any one else’s toes, or make a mistake, and grow from it.

Yes, I do think we are all made in perfection in a divine esoteric way,  yet we are also made to develop, and that means humbling ourselves.

I’d say, before jumping to the safe zone of “this is all about them and nothing about me” the next time I’m given uncomfortable feedback, it might be more helpful to take a pause and ask if there is anything in that that feels honest, familiar, and something I can grow from. Become a better person. A stronger person. A clearer person.

So instead of shutting the person out with my spiritual arrogance, pointing out their projection while refusing to take it in, much less personally, I can sit with it awhile. Just maybe, one day return to them and thank them for the key that helped me drop another layer of my defendedness against my true nature – taking me one more step toward that perfection underneath my foibles.

I am still writing about murder, and will continue to as long as it’s the topic in my life demanding my attention. My sister’s murderer was just granted an appeal on ineffective counsel, and I will be writing about how we are responding to that as a family. And of course my book. It’s my path and standing up to a judgmental question about it has made me stronger, and more able to confront it. So, I suppose, for that I can thank that person for asking her ignorant question. For making me braver and able to write this very essay. Standing stronger in my brilliant life with all of its dark pockets, unapologetically mine.

29 thoughts on “My Disagreement with the Four Agreements

  1. fishface123ism

    I am so happy you wrote this and I read it…even if it is all about your projections on me !! I mean that to be funny, but here’s the serious part of what I want to say: I had been reviewing the day of J Arias’ allocution and I noticed you there…I watched an interesting reverse angle video of the family’s side of the court room while the defendant was speaking and spewing. When I saw you, it set me to thinking about you and just wondering how you are doing, especially since getting hit at the grocery, and I thought about your new life with your new husband, and I wondered what is happening now in your sister’s murder case, and I just “wished” as much goodness that I could toward you! Then I read this. I am glad you have taken your “insulter” in this way and have grown. Keep on Keeping On! How’s that for a platitude? Maybe because you have to work all the time with healing that you have insulated yourself from hurtful things, which is understandable completely…and even while you are doing these things you have shared so much with your readers, so this little jolt of hurt and anger probably was a needed thing, not that the “insulter” will know. I always look forward to reading you and somehow your writing seems to help a lot of other folks, and fish! Take good care of you and yours, as I know you always do!

    • Thank you beautiful! Nice to see you over here. 🙂 Did you have to take a long hot shower after watching that hideous allocution? It was bad enough the first time around…i feel your pain! 😉

  2. John David Higham

    A very thoughtful and personal piece: I loved it. Very applicable. It’s scary to me when I encounter people who do not listen to criticism and do no take their own foibles into consideration. Being aware, living aware means taking responsibility for oneself.

  3. Penelope

    Thank you for writing this essay. I really needed this lesson myself. When I feel judged by someone I immediately fight back. Maybe next time I feel that jolt of judgement I will take a step back and try to figure out why it jolts me, or not, but I will try. Lord knows I need all the growth I can get!

  4. What a great essay you wrote. One that i, myself, need to work on, not murder, of course, but the instant feelings of the moment.

    I want to wish you and your husband a fantastic 2016 and many, many more years in the future. I’m happy you have someone to share things with and he understands!

    Most of all, I cannot wait to read your book! And, I’m very sorry to hear the court system here has let you down again! You must feel like a rubber ball. You have been bounced around so much.

    I miss you and our emails. You have always been someone I looked up to. It’s one of those days for me, trying to say the right thing but thinking it’s coming out all wrong. KWIM

  5. Lori

    My “fiancé” used the book as a means to be able to say whatever he wants without having to say “sorry” because it is now my issue- never his that he sometimes says inappropriate things that do my feel good. I appreciate the opportunity to share your insight

  6. James

    Well written! Did you take into account the other 4 agreements?
    1. The person who asked you the question was NOT being impeccable with her word. She in fact used he words to harm you.
    2. She made the assumption you were capable of not writing about murder, but you also made assumptions about her. I understand that she did not allow you to ask questions, but I see you working those out in this essay.
    3. The woman in question is not doing her BEST obviously. I see you working your way through this to your best though.
    4. The 5th agreement is be skeptical but learn to listen. Sometimes the great spirit gives us a gift that comes wrapped in pain.
    Keep your chin up and the sparkle in your eye!!

    • James, after that incident and reflecting on it, I have realized that I really need to practice more the fine art of not reacting and not defending myself but pausing and asking a question. I can’t say I’ve mastered that, but it’s in my sphere of awareness. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Rose

    A few years on Katie and I still come back to this post for inspiration when I struggle. You put so perfectly what it was that I struggled with in the Four Agreements.

    I think there are most certainly instances where someone criticizes or compliments us and it is so clearly about them and not us. Lashing out at another when one is hurting or giving insincere praise in order to win favor are examples that come to mind. And yet, there are certainly other times when criticism or compliments are a much closer reflection of an objective reality than they are about another’s mere projections. I think what bothered me so much about this agreement was that it undermined humanity’s ability to grasp anything objective at all. Sometimes our assertions about others inappropriate behavior or poor character really *are* about them. Other times, yes, they’re really more about us. And perhaps still others involve a combination of the two. I think real wisdom lies in having to honesty and insight to know the difference. That sort of wisdom is something I aspire to and admire when I see it in others.

    One last thought with regards to the response you received after sharing what is so clearly an intensely personal part of your life: whether we’ve been made to earn it or just given it freely, access into another person’s personal life is always a privilege and not a right. The extent to which someone acknowledges and respects that privilege speaks volumes about their character. To help oneself to another’s life as an opportunity to insert their opinion so freely is truly appalling. I am reminded of the wise words of Ernest Hemingway: “Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors.”

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Katie.

  8. joseph A De La Garza

    It’s refreshing to have someone share the intimacy shared with a spouse. My daughter was shot and killed in 2006, her husband the only witness. Even with documented physical abuse by law enforcement over the years prior to the shooting he was no billed on a murdered charge, to add insult to injury the shooting case was held in a misdemeanor court. After years of suffering about this I’ve sought to healing myself, I’ve gained strength from the 4 agreements and when the subject of the event was flipped out into conversation by a new friend, the feeling came pouring back.

  9. Shannon

    I enjoyed your writing. People get shamed for grieving often, there is a spiritual arrogance when people say things like let it go, or get over it. It feels like having my inner world judged by someone who does not necessarily have the same direct experience. I enjoy Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings on interbeing. How we all water each other’s seeds. The seeds are inside us. Stuff we get to cultivate or heal. But we are not separate from each other. I may unskillfully water something inside of someone that causes them to suffer. It would not be honest for me to say- well that is their problem, they took it personal. That would be really hurtful. I see this stuff happens so much. It is a denial of responsibility. A type of crazy making gas lighting. I just needed to share.

  10. Tbush

    I agree with you about that many times we can and do take it personally because that is reality and true. My therapist is trying to get me to believe this but a situation with my sister shows that not taking it personally is far off. My sis clearly shows me that she has no love for me and another family member clearly sees this. Yet, since I’m the only one she treats this way I’m not supposed to take it personally? That not taking it personally does not fit!!

  11. Tilly


    I stumbled across this when googling criticisms of the four agreements to make sure that I wasn’t alone in my feelings. I think you articulate really well why that particular agreement can be a potentially dangerous one. I’d like to add to that thought. My father and stepmother have frequently used the agreements to manipulate me. They certainly take things personally but if I react to something offensive that they’ve said to me then I get a “don’t take it personally”. I am proof of how these agreements in the hands of the wrong people- especially when used against a child- can be really harmful.

  12. James

    To be honest, I don’t see why the question is hurtful. An event as tragic as a loved one’s murder would likely consume anyone. The fact that you are compelled to write a book about it means your sisters death is a trauma that you are still working through in your heart and mind. This is normal. It is a very valid question to pose; will there ever be a day when you are able to divorce the loss of your sister from the lens through which you view the world. Essentially, the question asks if you will ever heal.
    It seems to me that you have made an assumption about her intent. She stated that the question was asked with love, but your response demonstrates that you have assumed otherwise.
    It is important to remember that when you publish your words, they will be recieved, evaluated, and criticised by others. Just because you experienced a horrible event that very few will have to endure doesn’t entitle you to be treated a certain way or be above criticism. Imagine someone wrote a blog about surviving rape and you responded by asking whether or not they would ever move past it. Just because you may not have endured this doesn’t mean you aren’t qualified or justified to ask a question.
    I’m sorry but you have broken other agreements. Responding as any other person would to a “dagger to the heart” violates the first agreement. Assuming her intent violates the second.
    There are no safe spaces when you publish and share your words. It isn’t reasonable to write a blog and a memoir for others to read and then take offense when you receive a response other than pity. If you want this safe space to remain safe then why have you put it on display for the world to see.

    • Hi James, thank you for taking the time to both read the blog and write this response. I think if you stick around, you will see that “pity” is never a response I expect to garner nor one I am ever comfortable with. Are we talking about assumptions again here? I actually knew this person from another space altogether–a private writing group that was actually described as a “safe space”. The person who posed this question to me was not a reader of my blog, in fact never read one entry of it. So yes, we do, all of us, need to be careful with that other agreement–the one of assumptions. I find the 4 Agreements a guide, and one I will break and learn from over and over again. Again, thank you for sharing and I hope you keep reading.

  13. I was looking for critiques of Don Miguel’s Four Agreements and came across your post. I really like the Four Agreements, and was thinking about sharing them in a professional development setting about racial inequities, but I had serious concerns about Don’t Take Anything Personally. They’re the same thoughts that you eloquently shared here. When working on equity issues of any kind, I think the 2nd Agreement would be interpreted as people not being held responsible for their words or actions or not being encouraged to grow or change as people. I think Don Miguel or others might refer back to the 1st and 4th Agreements. If you are impeccable and do your best than you don’t have to worry about hurting others. However, when it comes to deep-rooted bias and bigotry and institutionalized oppression, you can’t just tell a person of color, a person living in poverty, or a person that identifies as LBGTQ, etc “Don’t take racism, classism, homophobia, etc so personally.” They are going to completely disengage from the conversation, for good reason, and the work of unraveling inequities and inequality together grinds to a screeching halt. Thank you for sharing your ideas. I’ve only spoken with big fans of the Four Agreements and I’m glad I thought to look for other opinions. You’ve helped me to think more deeply and carefully about them and perhaps saved me from deeply and personally offending others.

    • MSA

      Thank you for this. So much of the “you create your own reality” self-help stuff ignores the impacts of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia.

      And also, Kathy, I really appreciate the issue of genuine feedback. I’ve grown in many ways because of people who were kind enough to tell me how my words and behavior affected them. True Believers in the book would say they were helping me move toward the four agreements, but if I hadn’t taken their words personally, they wouldn’t have had an impact.

  14. Sarah Leedy

    I also went googling for critiques of The Four Agreements, because something just didn’t sit right with me about them, and came across your post. This is spot on. Thank you.

  15. Sara Hughes

    Hi! I agree with you. I haven’t made it to the third agreement yet, but I noticed a problem in the first that there is an objective reality problem. The dream spun by society isn’t 95% lies. There has to be objective reality for anyone to have any traction into reality and growth, as you say.

  16. Yvette

    My ex husband. Quotes all the time I should not take it personally. WTF she had an affair then ripped our family apart. But now she quotes I need to take responsibility. Honestly she’s lucky she is no where near as if I slap her it not personal and int she got to take responsibility now.

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