Don’t take this personally, but …

Mar 11, 2024

Thirty-three years ago, the most excruciatingly embarrassing thing in the whole world happened to me. I walked home with my Mum, along the busiest of main roads for about two kilometres (just over a mile) while she carried a cherry tree to plant in the front garden. I know! The sheer mortification. I can remember the sensation of my burning cheeks, and the prickliness of my sweaty palms as I tormented myself with thoughts of how everybody who passed us in the car was looking at me and thinking “Why are they carrying a tree?”

On the embarrassment scale in my young life up until that point, it was a solid ten.

Now I am older and wiser. What’s more, since having children and having to deal with countless embarrassing situations, I am pretty much immune to embarrassment.

People are far too wrapped up in their own internal dramas to focus on something you might be preoccupied with.

It’s like the beetle in the box analogy that Wittgenstein used in his Philosophical Investigations. He drew a parallel between a beetle in a box and an individual person’s mind. He invited us to suppose that each person has a beetle in a box that only they can see into. Nobody can see into another person’s box. People can talk about what’s in their individual box, and we might even talk about the beetle in our box, but nobody else can really experience what we experience because they don’t have access to the beetle in our box.

Which brings me to the second Toltec agreement: “Don’t take anything personally”. Whatever another person says or thinks or does, it has nothing to do with you. We are all living in our own dream, our own versions of the world in which we are the stars of our show. We are the Oscar winning actors and everybody else is playing a supporting role in our drama. Similarly, we might be playing supporting roles, or very minor roles, in other people’s dramas. But they can’t know what is going on in our world any more than we can know what’s going on in theirs. When we take things personally, according to Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, we are assuming that they know what is going on in our world and we then impose our world on theirs. He argues that even when somebody is being rude or objectionable, or perhaps even insulting you or arguing with you, they are acting in accordance with the beetle in their own box. They are behaving according to their own agreements or principles and not with yours.

We can’t control others’ opinions. Nor should we. They are no more able to control ours. This is very liberating. It makes us only responsible for our own choices, not those of others. And we can choose to trust our own intuition and inner wisdom, rather than being swayed by another.

Learning not to take things personally is a lesson I have found particularly challenging over the years. As with most things, time does help. What I now realise and wish I could have transmitted to my mortified thirteen-year-old self, is that nobody was looking at me. Despite my horrors at the thought of everybody I knew watching me stomping along behind my poor Mum, blushing furiously and silently raging at the injustice of the world, people barely even glanced at us.

So carry your cherry tree with pride and fearlessness. The world is not watching as closely as you might imagine. You are playing your own starring role.