How to Not Take Things Personally: a Workplace Superpower that Reduces Stress
We’ve all been there at work: somebody lampoons you, either in front of others or on one of those lanky email chains. Whether their comment was intentional or not, now your day is capsized. Emotion floods your system, and your levelheadedness drowns.
Defensive mode engaged, you waste the next ten minutes justifying your innocence. Surgically picking apart that arrow-to-the-heart of a comment, you analyze its merits. Perhaps you even squander the mental energy drafting a rebuttal for the ages.
You choose to trade productive work for prolonging a soon-to-be-forgotten incident. What good does it do? Is being defensive at work ever a good thing?
The rest of the day every email, phone call, and interaction smacks of your frustration. After work you complain to a friend or your husband or wife. You’ve been wronged, and people need to know.
There is a better way to handle this scenario. It begins and ends in your mind.
As an Operations Supervisor for a Fortune 500 technology company I work with all levels of employees, both internal and external, from executives to individual contributors. Everybody has an agenda. Everybody has a boss of their own to whom they have to answer. I’ve dealt firsthand with these supposed wrongdoers. Sneering comments would make my blood simmer.
Now they bounce off of me like a tennis ball off of a stone wall. The watershed in my career was cultivating my ability to not take things personally — a superpower in the workplace. Instead of becoming frustrated, I could focus on solving problems with a clear head. It led to better decision-making and stronger relationships.
This I owe to Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The longevity of his perspective, now over two millennia old, testifies to its efficacy; a wine’s value grows in proportion to its age.
The first principle is that abrasive people are just hardwired that way. Set this expectation in your mind, Aurelius advises:
“When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members… Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself you should reproach — for not anticipating that they’d act this way?”
The second principle is to realize that those who slight others actually slight themselves:
“So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine… To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you.”
With this understanding you may sympathize rather than respond in-kind.
The third principle: you are in control of whether you are “harmed.” Aurelius revisits this principle, in different forms, often in his journal:
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed.
Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
No doubt it’s easier said than done. Another book, echoing the Stoicism of Aurelius, helped me further strengthen this superpower: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom. Those who tend to take things personally, Authors Don Miguel Ruiz and Janet Mills explain, do it out of selfishness:
“Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me.’ We think we are responsible for everything…
Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in…
Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give are according to their agreements they have in their own minds.”
In other words it’s because of egotism. We instinctively reframe everything from our own perspective. It’s a blessing and a curse. The world abounds with billions of unique perspectives but if left unchecked this instinct can blind you to any perspective not your own.
When someone disrespects you at work perhaps it’s because he or she feels disrespected. Recall a recent time you were in a bad mood. Did that influence how you treated others? Now recall a time you were in a good mood. One mood is filled with stink-eyes and sneers; the other with smiles and high-fives.
Don’t make everything about you. Untether yourself from the words and moods of others. Clear the path to serenity.
Sometimes harsh words from others, though seemingly aimed directly at you, are instead reflections of tough situations. “The situation is boss,” as a roadie aptly put it in a Grateful Dead documentary.
At work I’ve dealt with sales reps at my company who have angry clients. For example, a supplier screwed up an order, leaving the client without equipment for the starting date of a new-hire class.
My teammate, the sales rep, gets harpooned by their customer. The frustrated rep relays it back to me. Though the rep may have explicitly directed his anger at me I know that the true cause is circumstance.
Would you rather play the level-headed problem-solver or engage in a volley of defensive words?
To aid another while facing their disrespect is to practice magnanimity. It’s no easy thing to do: to swim upstream against a torrent of embarrassment or humiliation. But, to overcome another’s indignation toward you is to open the door to untold rewards later in life.
Let’s turn to history to demonstrate this in action. Though it may be cliche to cite Abraham Lincoln, there is no better example, because acts of magnanimity, I think, define his life.
During a U.S. Senatorial bid he led the race after the first ballot. His victory, however, was blocked by a stalwart coalition of five votes led by Norman Judd for fellow anti-slavery candidate Lyman Trumbull. What Lincoln did next astounded his friends and supporters.
“Unwilling to sacrifice all the hard work of the anti-slavery coalition,” writes Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in the aptly titled Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, “Lincoln advised… to drop him for Trumbull.” Lincoln was four votes shy of victory with forty-seven, yet he gave his votes to the candidate with only five.
Not only did he ensure victory for Trumbull and the anti-slavery movement. Lincoln showed no enmity toward the winner or his coalition-leader, Judd. He attended the victory-party, “with a smile on his face and a warm handshake for the victor.”
“Lincoln’s magnanimity served him well,” Goodwin explains, “Lincoln, in defeat, gained friends. Neither Trumbull nor Judd would ever forget Lincoln’s generous behavior. Both men would assist him in his bid for the U.S. Senate in 1858, and Judd would play a critical role in his run for the presidency in 1860.”
Related: From Planter to “The Father” of the United States: George Washington on Leadership and Power
His leadership and power philosophies — counterintuitive, psychological, and subtle — propelled him to immortality.
In the early summer after his lost senatorial bid, Lincoln was recommended, as a local lawyer, to assist lawyer George Harding in an important patent case to be heard in Chicago.
The relocation of the trial to Ohio and a communication breakdown caused Lincoln to be replaced by Ohio native, Edwin Stanton, without Lincoln’s knowledge. Arriving in Ohio after months of preparation and a long journey, he was treated with disrespect. Stanton believed Lincoln to be a “long armed Ape” who didn’t “know anything” and could do “no good.”
Nonetheless Lincoln decided to stay the week to observe the trial. “Throughout that week,” writes Goodwin, “though Lincoln ate at the same hotel, Harding and Stanton never asked him to join them for a meal, or accompany them to or from court. When Judge John McLean hosted a dinner for the lawyers on both sides, Lincoln was not invited.”
Instead of becoming embroiled in resentment or begrudging Stanton’s position Lincoln sidestepped the indignity. He was enraptured by the vigor and probity with which Stanton argued the case.
“Unimaginable as it might seem,” writes Goodwin, “after Stanton’s bearish behavior, at their next encounter six years later, Lincoln would offer Stanton ‘the most powerful civilian post within his gift’ — the post of secretary of war. Lincoln’s choice of Stanton would reveal, as would his subsequent dealings with Trumbull and Judd, a singular ability to transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.”
Time and again Lincoln used this “singular ability” to overcome indignity and turn rivals and wrongdoers into friends and allies, creating on his path from Springfield to Washington a contingent of ardent followers who helped him win the presidency and lead the U.S. through the Civil War to victory. The course of history could have been much different had Lincoln taken things personally.
This article was originally published at thoughtmedley.com.
If you found this career advice valuable, pair it with the number one question to ask your boss to get ahead of your peers at work. Then complement the stoicism discussed within to the stoic beliefs of Jerry Seinfeld, or the stoic principles Paul McCartney used to get through prison.
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