My dad used to say, “If one person calls you a jackass you can ignore him. If three people call you a jackass, you should find a saddle.” After a member of my book club, my husband, a friend and a fellow writer all recently told me not to “take things personally,” I thought the time had come to saddle up.
“Don't take it personally.”
This statement flew at me from every direction. But why? What kind of self-absorbed person makes everything about herself? Conversations about books, kids, workouts, relationships, and even writing always came back to me somehow. Yet, as my therapist reminded me, other people are always talking about themselves. “Even when they talk about you, they are still talking about themselves.” So, maybe it is normal to bring things back to myself, but why was I taking things personally, as if they were directed as an attack on my person?
I determined that the very process of deconstructing self and creating my new identity required me to scrutinize my own behaviors and motives. Over the past year, I have picked myself apart to the point that I was a pile of fragmented pieces. I sought connections and anchors everywhere I looked. My tendency was to always look inward for problems and outward for solutions. This was a dangerous disregard and distrust of self.
“These books are not all about you.” My best friend was referencing the self-help books I had been plowing through at the speed of light. Each day was a new epiphany. I did see myself in all the books I read, much like I could self-diagnose countless ailments in one quick visit to Web MD. They say you see in a book what you need to see. If that is the case, I needed answers about myself, and I thought I found them with every page I turned. The universe was sending me signs and messages. How could I not take it personally?
A few things I have learned about myself this past year help me to explain this conundrum. First, I am a ruthless self-critic. I am determined to find any of my own shortcomings before someone else points them out. If I hear commentary about my students, my children, my spouse, my friends, my parents or anyone else in my circle, I personalize the information to make it relate to my actions or behavior. What could/should I have done differently? Is this my fault somehow? How can I be better? I am much harder on myself than I am other people.
Secondly, some might say I am prone to overthinking. I am married to a very literal man. He says exactly what he means. If he says, “I don’t like the color blue,” that is exactly what he means. I, on the other hand, speak and think figuratively. English majors are trained to make inferences and read between the lines. Things are never just black and white. So, when my husband says he doesn’t like the color blue, my brain goes to town spinning her own narrative and interpretation.
Emotional Self: Why does he not like blue? What is wrong with blue? I am wearing blue RIGHT NOW! Our wedding china is white and BLUE. This is not about color at all. Why doesn’t he just come out and say what he is really thinking?
Doesn’t my inner dialogue sound exhausting? It is; it really is, but I have found some relief in identifying and understanding my way of processing what I hear. My deliberate efforts toward self-improvement have sharpened my scalpel for self-criticism, and my tendency to overthink every single situation has propelled me to take life personally. Part of staying awake and aware in my life has indeed caused me pain and emotional overload. If I experience it, I internalize it.
I do not believe the answer is to replace all of my figurative, imaginative responses with cold, detached rationality. That is just not my style, and honestly, it sounds quite boring. However, I could benefit from some balance of the emotional and rational sides of my brain.
Recently, my friend Julie gave me an excellent reminder. “I am going to hear what people say, but I am not going to feel what they say.” She hit the nail on the head. I have been jumping straight to the feelings and not being very kind to myself in the process. Perhaps I can delay finding a saddle and opt for some renewed balance instead. Listen.Think. Feel. Act. I can redirect my thoughts to choose present over personal.
Our friend, Afowiri (“Kitz”), just returned from a visit to his home country of Cameroon and brought us these beautiful handmade bracelets. We LOVE them. I just finished reading a book written by Afowiri’s cousin, Imbolo Mbue. She won the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction for Behold the Dreamers, a brilliant depiction of the immigrant experience intertwined with a look behind the veil of the American dream. There are so many great things to discuss in this book. I highly recommend it.