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Don Miguel Ruiz’s self-help classic, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, is a small book, but its size shouldn’t fool you. The lessons contained inside are life-changing for many, including the world’s most successful people, like Oprah Winfrey, Jack Dorsey, and Bill Clinton.
Although The Four Agreements is rooted in wisdom from the 10th century, it was published in the late 1990s and spent eight years on the New York Times bestseller list.
The book was born from a near-fatal car accident that inspired Ruiz to explore the deeper truths about life, humanity, and awareness. After surviving the crash, Ruiz left behind his career as a neurosurgeon in Mexico to pursue bringing Toltec philosophies to the modern age.
The Four Agreements reads as an insightful playbook for living a happier, more intentional life. Ruiz defines an agreement as a negative thought habit that’s reinforced over time. The goal is to pluck out “self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering.”
In other words: Stop being so hard on yourself.
As a reader, you might be thinking, “Easier said than done,” or, “Pushing myself is how I succeed — you expect me to give that up?” For others, Ruiz may border on being too spiritual or New Agey for your taste.
Still, The Four Agreements is an excellent foundation of principles to live by, especially for those who are seeking ways to be more humane to ourselves and others (isn’t that all of us?). On closer look, there’s also overlap between Ruiz’s code of conduct and science-backed methods for relieving stress and mental pain.
Of course, you need to think critically about applying the seemingly simplistic teachings in your own life. Ruiz’s call to action isn’t to unquestioningly follow what he says, but to:
- Take stock of the shoulds and societal expectations that guide your life decisions.
- Scrutinize ineffective thoughts that may be coloring your perception of reality.
- Consider ways you can value intuition and gut feelings alongside logic.
Let’s do a quick dive into each agreement and then explore how to align them with life today.
The Basics of Ruiz’s Four Agreements
Agreement 1: Be Impeccable with Your Word
Words have the power hurt or heal, so carefully select what you say. That means no gossiping, lying, or lashing out. Instead, speak with integrity about yourself and others.
Agreement 2: Don’t Take Anything Personally
Ruiz believes criticism is less about your behavior and more about the other person’s state of mind. They may be projecting their insecurities onto you or unskilled at holding difficult conversations. Develop an immunity to the judgement and changing mental states of others so you’re less negatively affected by them.
Agreement 3: Don’t Make Assumptions
When you assume you know what people are thinking or where they are coming from, it’s easy to jump to incorrect conclusions. This can cause you (and them) a lot of unnecessary stress and time. Trying to understand others’ motivations before diving into problem-solving goes a long way to reducing conflict.
Agreement 4: Always Do Your Best
Goal-oriented overachievers and workaholics, take heart. Ruiz asks that you stop beating yourself up. Put in an honest effort, and don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
Applying Ruiz’s Principles in 2018
Ruiz’s agreements are incredibly relevant across life domains, whether you’re trying to improve your relationships, your career, or even your health. Yet because these Toltec principles are so commonsensical and cross-cutting, they are easy to dismiss as feel-good but vague.
Before your inner rebel chimes in with every reason as to why this can’t possibly work for you or says that Ruiz is just advocating that people let themselves off the hook and neglect personal responsibility, slow down. Give the agreements a chance. It’s possible to meaningfully integrate each in modern times and operationalize the high-level principles into habits and behaviors that actually transform your life.
Applied Agreement 1: Learn to Say What You Mean
Don’t lie, don’t gossip, don’t bail on commitments or promises. Simple enough.
But on second thought, how many little white lies do you tell each day? From telling a colleague you’ll “circle back” (with no intention of ever following through) to making an excuse for canceling plans with friends, you’re probably not as integrous with your words as you think. Not to mention that gossiping, trolling, and picking fights on social media is practically an American pastime.
Being more conscientious about what we say (or type) is key to living out this agreement and, like most aspects of personal development, it starts with self-awareness. Take note of what’s happening in your body and mind when you feel compelled to communicate disingenuously. For example, do you say yes to invitations because you want to be seen as likable? Maybe you omit details about your dating life when talking to a family member to ward off comments about your life choices. Keeping track of your emotional response to triggers can ultimately help you assert yourself more authentically.
Applied Agreement 2: Take Feedback Like a Pro
Out of the 80,000 thoughts we have daily, up to 80 percent are negative. We naturally cling to criticisms more readily than praise thanks to the brain’s negativity bias. Translation: Following the second agreement of not taking things personally sounds freeing, but it’s nearly impossible to do.
You can’t tune out criticism entirely, nor should you. Closing yourself off to feedback is unhealthy — a sign of fragile self-esteem and rigid boundaries. In 2018, isolating ourselves from outside viewpoints can contribute to destructive groupthink, ideological echo chambers, bias, and ongoing political divides.
The key is to learn how to welcome critical information without personalizing it. Check your self-talk: A less-than-glowing performance review at work doesn’t make your a failure in life. Be careful not to catastrophize.
Similarly, evaluate the source. Is this person “in the arena” doing the work and qualified to comment? Receiving feedback well comes down to engaging in it skillfully, managing your own reactions, and listening before you fire back.
Applied Agreement 3: Challenge Your Assumptions
Making judgements can sometimes be beneficial, shielding you from heartache or harm. If your cheating ex crawls back, insisting they’ve changed, for example, no one would fault you for assuming that their old habits might still surface. But many times we jump too quickly to faulty conclusions about other people or, worse, your own potential.
To unwind flawed assumptions that might be holding you back, consider:
- In what areas are you telling yourself you can’t achieve something when you actually don’t want to pursue it?
- What would tackling your goal or problem look like if it were easy?
- How might I go about this if I had unlimited time and resources?
Powerful questions lead to more creative solutions. Get curious and inquire with an open mind.
Applied Agreement 4: Expect to Be a Work in Progress
Well-meaning ambition can sometimes lead to burnout. Studies show that exerting willpower is an ineffective way to motivate yourself and reach your goals. Unforgiving self-discipline only forces your mind back into bad habits — the very limiting “agreements” you’re trying to roll back. Instead, learn to rest. Be kinder to yourself. Realize an occasional bad day is par for the course. You will bounce back.
Implementing The Four Agreements is a daily process. Undoing years of conditioning to embrace a new way of being in the world takes time. If it feels overwhelming, Ruiz offers a starting point. Don’t focus on the past or fret about the future. Simply say, “I am going to keep the four agreements just for today.”
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