One time, in the rookie beginnings of my fire career, I almost took what a patient said to me personally. Almost.
I can picture her clear as day, even now, sitting in the well-worn booth of the restaurant, with a couple of her friends. The overwhelming smell of cheap perfume, greasy food, and hairspray floated over the table to me, as I looked at our possible patient, a heavily made- up woman who was dressed in loud, gaudy colors that matched her fiery expression.
Restaurant management had called 911 because the woman was causing a disturbance and refusing to quiet down. Her friends, angry at the restaurant manager, were not much help, but finally conceded that their friend was more agitated than normal. PD was standing by, ready to escort her out of the restaurant if she would not calm down.
As I was trying to talk to her, take her pulse and perform my initial medical assessment, she got up into my face. Who the hell did I think I was? What the f— did I think I was doing? And some other choice names flew my way.
Those fiery eyes, with her razor’s edge breath on my face got to me and my rookie self. My indignation rose fast. I felt the words bubble up to the back of my throat and my tone about to turn sharp.
Just then, I was saved my by my paramedic partner’s voice, “Blood sugar 45.”
When you are a diabetic and going into insulin shock because your blood sugar level is 45, you usually aren’t even conscious. If you haven’t become unconscious yet, you do not feel good. And you are, most often, not nice.
It’s not personal.
I swallowed my unspoken words and winced at their sour taste, and I never forgot the guilty bellyache I got after that.
We Can Never Know Anyone Else’s Story
I have tried to translate that important experience in all aspects of my life since then, and in many situations I try to remember, “It’s not personal.” Granted it can be hard sometimes, especially when it seems personal–when someone cuts us off in traffic, or steals the parking spot right from under our nose, or aims unkind words our way.
One of the key elements, for me, in remembering to not take things personally, is acknowledging that I can never really know anyone else’s story. Where they come from, who they are, what they are going through, what their innermost feelings are, how they have been shaped by the people that surrounded them, or the events in life they have encountered. Not my best friend, not even my sister.
When I can acknowledge that I do not really know someone’s story, I become much less judgmental of others and their actions. When I can acknowledge that I cannot completely know someone or what really hides behind their actions, people’s offenses become a lot less personal.
Pause, Before Reacting
How can we practice not taking offenses personally? When someone “wrongs” us, we can pause. Count to ten if you want. Take a deep breath. Take ten deep breaths. Can you pull back and become the observer? Be patient with yourself. It may take some practice resetting the habit of initially reacting. You will be living in a very conscious manner when you start practicing pause.
In this pause, as we try to avoid instant reaction, we can take the opportunity to change our habit of personalizing things to the next level. Perhaps we can practice a little empathy. We can start with the question, “I wonder why?” I have since learned from that emergency call many years ago, that on the medical emergency scene, this is a very wise question.
In fact, it is a wise question in any situation. I have found when we simply ask,” I wonder why?” whether we condone certain behaviors or not, this question shifts the energy of judgment to the energy of empathy. Practicing a little bit of empathy as we observe the world is a good place to start. And then when someone affords us a bit of empathy when we’ve messed up, we realize how important that can be.
Turn Your Eye Inward
You will know you have become a master of not personalizing things when you begin to notice how your own reactions to someone else might really be about yourself.
When it is you who is angry at someone, feel your anger; and then when you are calm, ask yourself, “What is the feeling underlying my anger? Is it unworthiness? Is it fear? Can I possibly own it?”
Maybe you do not need to put it on someone else. When you have owned it, notice how your anger toward the other has diminished or even disappeared.
Today I happily stood in the center of a world that is not my norm. Today I got to be yard duty person at my first grader’s school. It was a colorful whirlwind of little people, in a world filled with laughter, screaming, running, jumping, and climbing. The thing that stood out to me as I observed this vibrant world is that, for all its apparent chaos, it flows. Things happen, accidents happen, heads get bumped, feelings get hurt, toes get stepped on. And then they move on. Quickly.
First graders are really good at not taking things personally, I surmised. They don’t have time for that sort of thing. The present moment is always carrying them forward.
I watched as two little girls skipped off together, arm in arm, after weathering a brief storm in their friendship. I smiled to myself.
We could learn a lot from them.