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.