A few years ago I shared an office with a social worker. Our professional lives were totally separate, but naturally evolved into a work friendship due to the shared space. I’ll admit that I absolutely loved picking her brain about stuff – developing my listening skills, becoming a better communicator, and conflict management tips, to name a few. One day I asked her how she managed to do what she did without burning out. Specifically, how I witnessed a seemingly relentless flow of clients who would treat her like crap – shouting, blaming, refusing to listen. How did she manage to keep a smile on her face? How did her patience never seem to waver? I always wondered whether it was an act, or if she had a secret trick.
She shrugged and said that she had come to learn that when people were irate, abusive, or flying off the handle, that it generally had nothing to do with her. She said this so casually but to me it seemed like a profound learning opportunity. So I pressed her a bit. She looked at me, and proceeded to say: “I’m telling you. Someone can look you dead in the eye, scream at you that you’re a piece of shit, and 99 percent of the time it has nothing to do with you”. I’ll admit that at first, it sounded like it was a dangerous assumption to make. I mean really, 99 percent of the time?
It’s of course important to understand that 99 percent does not mean 100 percent. Sometimes, it is about you. It’s not meant to be advice to give you licence to toss self-reflection aside, or assume that you can never be in the wrong. Sometimes you might owe someone an apology. Theoretically, you could deserve the “piece of shit” label. But, I’m learning where she is coming from. The 99 percent advice is most useful for those of us who need to correct a serious imbalance. For people like me who make a constant, automatic assumption that they are the source of all blame. A feeling that leads me to become upset in turn, defensive, anxious and exhausted. Which benefits no one.
I’m assuming this was something that took her years to learn. If not, she’s significantly wiser than I gave her credit for. She was saying all of this to me fairly off hand, and likely had no idea that that sentence wormed its way deep in to my brain, and has partly governed my behaviour ever since.
Case(s) in point. The other day I heard some bad news about a friend. While I was concerned about the news in itself, I will also admit that I was concerned that I was hearing it third hand. In typical fashion, I started to take it personally that the friend hadn’t told me the new directly. While I knew it “wasn’t about me” in the sense that she was the one who needed comfort and support, not me, I was instantly worried that it was somehow my fault. Did this friend not trust me, and not want to confide in me? Did this friend not think I would be supportive? Had I pissed her off, in some way, and accidentally created distance between us? I thought we were close, and had even recently been in touch with her to ask how she was doing.
So I paused, and sorted it out in my head. It was possible that me being the last to find out about something actually had nothing to do with me personally. Maybe my friend was so distraught that it simply slipped her mind to tell me. Maybe she was simply so exhausted from having to share the story over and over again that she had specifically asked the secondary friend to fill everyone in. Maybe she was embarrassed. In the end, it was none of these things. I ended up piecing together that she had made an announcement at a recent (virtual) birthday party on Zoom, which I had failed to attend. If I had, I would have heard the news.
It’s important to note that I also use the advice in reverse, to keep myself in check when I’m the one getting worked up and possibly treating someone like crap. Maybe I start to complain to a cashier, for example, who is too busy chatting to notice that I’ve been waiting at the till for a few minutes. Before I start to get snippy, I try to take a minute to pause and think about what frame of mind I’m in. And realize it likely has very little to do with the cashier because generally speaking, this sort of thing doesn’t bother me much. Maybe I’m over-reacting because my morning started out with some terrible traffic, and I was late for work. Only to have my boss dump a bunch of stuff on me un-expectedly. Then maybe a meeting at the end of the day lasted longer than expected, and the message that’s been running through my head all day is a stressful “Ahhh I never have enough time, hury hurry hurry!”.
Anyway. Maybe you’ll find this helpful, or maybe it’s something you already put into practice. If you’ve already mastered it — good for you. Being able to not take things personally is a tremendous gift. For whatever reason, her advice stuck with me much more deeply, even though I have of course been told various iterations of the same thing throughout my life: “It’s nothing personal”, “People are frustrated at the situation, not angry with you”, “You have no idea what someone else is going through” etc. Unfortunately, I no longer keep in touch with this woman, and am unable to thank her. But for what it’s worth, Dee, sharing an office with you for a year is one of the best things that ever happened to me…