Nothing is ever personal, and nothing is ever a big deal

by Jack on February 2010

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. (Marcus Aurelius)

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (William Shakespeare)

Nothing is ever personal

No one ever reacts to you, but only their story about you. Since you can’t see directly into other peoples’s stories about you (because those stories are embedded within their minds), it is a common mistake to assume that they are interacting with you directly. It is valuable to remember that anyone’s interaction with you is always – to a greater or lesser degree – mediated by their story of you. Therefore, if you ever take someone’s behavior toward you personally, you are making an error.

A few years ago, I found myself an area of a major city close to a large psychiatric hospital. Many people with complex mental illnesses are treated there. I was walking along the street when a woman with wild hair and unwashed clothing blocked my path and shouted “you have no soul!” at me in an vicious and angry voice.

Would this bother you? Most people would say no. Aside from the initial shock of being the target of shouting, they would say that there was no point in taking the woman’s behavior seriously because she was obviously mentally ill. And in fact, I did know that whatever she intended to communicate with her shouting, it wasn’t personally aimed at me. She was reacting to whatever was going on in her mind, and I just happened to be there, walking past. It was all story, nothing personal.

What we often don’t realize is the same thing is true for all people, not just those who are “crazy”. It’s a matter of degree rather than of quality. When anyone communicates with you, they are not communicating with you directly, but with their story of you. A sane person is likely to have a somewhat more accurate picture, but their story of you can never be 100% accurate – it will always be filtered through their memories, emotions, and thoughts. Because most other people seem to respond to you and communicate with you more or less accurately, most of the time, you tend to forget this essential truth.

Of course, this isn’t a license to ignore others’ concerns or treat them badly because they’re “only responding to their story of you”. Instead, you can use the phrase “nothing is ever personal” to remind yourself to step back when others express anger or any other negative emotion toward you. Instead of taking their words and actions seriously and at face value, you are able to stand back and respond with intelligence and compassion. You are able to respond to the reality behind what they are telling you and keep your interaction focused on finding a resolution. By remaining present, you increase the chances for a positive outcome of the interaction. You reduce the likelihood of a pointless conflict based only on misunderstanding.

Nothing is ever a big deal

In life, there are only two things to worry about, either you are well, or you are sick. If you are well, there is nothing to worry about, but if you are sick, you have two things to worry about; either you will live, or you will die. If you live, there is nothing to worry about, if you die, you have two things to worry about; either you will go to heaven or to hell. If you go to heaven, there is nothing to worry about, but if you go to hell, you’ll be so busy shaking hands with your friends, you won’t have time to worry! (“An Irishman’s Life Philosophy”)

The flip side of the previous point is that you also never react to anything as it is, but only to your story about it. (That’s right – none of us are immune to the previous rule! ;)) The fewer stories you create, tell yourself, and believe, about the people and things you interact with in your life, the more you can connect directly to reality. The goal of many mystical and esoteric spiritual traditions – such as Zen Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and others – is to connect to, perceive, and experience reality as it is, in the moment, rather than through the filters that are created by society, our conditioning, and our minds. Given the choice either to respond to something calmly or to react and become upset – what would the intelligent choice be? Reality is reality, so what does it benefit you to get upset about things – after all, your only choices are “reality” or “reality with a side order of upsetting story”. Fighting against reality, or denying it, or any other strategy that somehow opposes “what is” is a losing approach, always.

Treating something – anything – in your life as “a big deal” takes you out of alignment with the present moment. Your heart beats faster. Your ego starts spinning self-interested stories for yourself about what this means, and how it will affect you. Sometimes you believe these stories. You ask questions: will this be a good or bad thing for the future? What will happen next? How will it change my life situation? When these questions start bubbling up in your mind, you know that you are reacting to a story rather than responding in the present moment.

Of course, there is always the trump card: “but what about global warming, cancer, or genocide?” [1] In fact, at some times, in some places, very challenging and painful situations arise, and call out for you to handle them. As always, you can choose to create a story about them, or else you can look at those situations without judgment and without a story. As the Buddhist proverb says, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. In choosing to drop the story, you can more effectively handle the impact of painful conditions on yourself, on others both near and far, and on the world as a whole. Creating a story about pain – how terrible it is, and how unjust the world is – does not help you to handle the situation or to help yourself and others. It only interferes with your equilibrium, with your ability to see things clearly, and makes it harder to respond with the best actions possible at the time.

Nothing is ever a big deal, even pain. The only big deal is the story that you create about it.

Putting it into practice

We see things as we are, not as they are. (Leo Rosten)

It’s perfectly easy to read “wise” proverbs and believe that you understand them, but the real test is in life itself, when you are faced with a stream of unavoidable, challenging situations that push you off balance. In order to successfully internalize the belief “nothing is ever personal and nothing is ever a big deal”, you need more than just an intellectual understanding. Memorizing this as an empty slogan won’t save you from your story, or anyone else’s.

The following are a few ways to practice internalizing these beliefs, so that you really feel them at a cellular level, not just as an abstract idea.

Reinterpret the situation. Is there any way to think of an apparently “bad” situation in a different light? Don’t jump to conclusions, but view things differently before deciding on an interpretation. Better yet, don’t decide – remain present in the moment and let your interpretation be fluid and changing.

Take a moment before reacting. Before you react to someone or something, take a moment. Breathe. Choose a response that is grounded in mindfulness and compassion.

Practice yoga. The intense relaxation and spiritual connection that arises out of a regular yoga practice can help you understand why nothing is ever personal and nothing is ever a big deal. Yoga will help you feel this reality within your body, not just your mind. It’s hard to explain this in words – you have to experience it.

Mediate. Regular meditation turns down your sensitivity to ordinary, day-to-day drama and helps you connect to the big picture.

When you release attachment to the impulse to personalize situations in the world around you, and the impulse to tell yourself stories about what things mean, you can tap into a great feeling of freedom, balance and tranquility. Situations that would have bothered you in the past can slide by without you even noticing – they simply no longer exist in your reality. To realize – deep down, in the core of your being – that nothing is ever personal, and nothing is ever a big deal, provides a tremendous feeling of lightness and liberation. This understanding is a wonderful thing indeed.

[1] Or any other word that is intended to imply “a terrible, terrible thing that breaks this approach to reality because it really is a big deal”.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

kb February 25, 2010 at 09:15

“What you think of me is what you think of you.”

Great post Jack! 🙂

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Jack February 25, 2010 at 09:32

Thanks Karen! Cool quote about oneness 🙂

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Jay Willingham - CampusByte February 26, 2010 at 12:34

This is a life skill that takes patience. Not everyone can see things this clear. Especially in business, I’ve noticed that people take everything personally and I feel like I spend more time explaining myself than getting work done.

Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it 🙂

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Heather November 13, 2010 at 22:09

Damn I sure needed to hear that. Thanks friend!

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Jensin February 18, 2011 at 20:09

Great blog post. I concur with much of what you’ve said, and have experienced directly by way of ego loss the reality that nothing is ever personal, not insults, not betrayal, not theft, not even murder. The mind is continually in a process of thought (story) formation, and our every response is based partly upon this story and partly upon reality as it is happening now. How much of each determines how sane or insane we are. It is hard, after feeling this truth, for me to be anything but compassionate and accepting of others. It has changed my life.

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Jack February 19, 2011 at 14:54

Jensin,
Thanks for your comment. Your perspective is definitely how I like to think of it – “thought / story formation” is a good way to put it. And even when others do such “evil” things as you have suggested, it’s not because of you, it’s because of how they experienced you – their story of you.

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Amy December 27, 2013 at 22:01

“pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”. love it

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Steven D. Arecco May 21, 2016 at 00:24

Hey Jack,
Such a perfect article. I loved the way you combined nothing is ever personal + nothing is ever a big deal. Brilliant! I have been trying to internalize the : “Nothing is ever personal” & have come a long way with it. I teach it as well. Adding the “nothing is ever a big deal” really solidified the target more clearly for me. I am adding it to my teachings. I put a link on my business facebook account to your article. NICE JOB!
STEVE D. ARECCO

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