You are currently viewing The subtle art of taking it personally (part 1): Who do we think we are?

The subtle art of taking it personally (part 1): Who do we think we are?

This post is the text of a video essay I’ve hosted on YouTube here:


“Never take anything personally”, because “nothing is personal”.

We’ve all probably heard this popular piece of advice and corresponding belief, which can sound good on the surface.

It has a sort of “hakuna matata” vibe to it.

There’s something comfortable about the notion that the challenging reactions of others have nothing to do with us.

And interestingly, there’s an opposite type of comfort in the idea that others’ reactions have everything to do with us.

But how true is it that “nothing is personal”, and what does it actually mean to never take anything personally?

How do relationship dynamics like interpersonal impact, exchange of feedback, and requests for change enter the picture, if nothing is personal?

Why do we often over-personalize external events and the conduct of others, and at other times completely underestimate our influence and power in relationships and groups?  How do these two oppositely-skewed frames of mind both protect us and limit us?

What are the nuanced contextual factors that determine how personal something toward us is, and how much or how little we should attune to others?

And how can we gain self-confidence and peace of mind by refining and correcting our understanding of what is personal, in order to reflect the complex reality of reciprocal influence and mutual attunement?

These are some of the questions I’d like to address in this series of videos.

Taking it personally isn’t black and white

Some verbs are binary.  To be or not to be.  To marry or not to marry.  To graduate or not graduate.  To live or not to live.

But most actions exist along a continuum.  We can jump one inch or one foot.  We can speak a little or a lot.  We can think few thoughts or many thoughts.  And we can take things personally to varying degrees in varying ways, depending on the situation.

We often think of scalable actions in all-or-nothing terms, because that’s often close enough for our purposes, it conserves metabolic mental energy, and because our limited brains have to overgeneralize the infinite complexity of reality in order to navigate it.

But all forms of over-generalizing, including black and white thinking, comes at the cost of distorting the world’s nuance.  So there’s always some tension and a balance between conservation of our cognitive resources, and maintaining an accurate and high-enough resolution image of reality.

When it comes to how personally we take things, I think it’s worth some attentional energy to look at relationship situations and interactions case by case, because, as I’ll explain, it leads to healthier connections with others, more confidence in our value and our power, and a better world.

To modify the famous Aristotle quote about anger, “anybody can take it personally or not take it personally — that is easy. But to take it personally with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

What does “taking it personally” mean?

Socrates said that the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.  So it’s probably a good time for me to give a definition of “taking it personally” before getting tangled in semantics.

My definition of “to take it personally” means to assume that other people’s words and behaviors are a response to us.   So “not taking it personally” means that we assume that others’ words or behavior have nothing to do with us.

That’s a vague definition if we don’t define what we mean by “us”.  If we don’t define what “personal” means.

What “I” identify with as “me” is subjective.  It’s what I consider my “personhood” or identity – who I am as a “person”.  If another human reacts to what we identify with, we consider it “personal”.

But what we identify with as person changes with our psychological and spiritual development across the lifespan.  Therefore, what we consider to be “personal” also changes depending on what we identify with at a given time and place in our life.

Infants, if they identify with anything at all, are focused on their moment to moment bodily sensations, and may not even really comprehend their individuality in the first months of life, instead having a sense of being merged with their mother or other caregivers.

Toddlers identify largely with concrete attributes like being a boy or girl, their name, or their possessions.  Little Tommy’s identity, if we were to ask him and his preschool friends, might be something like, “that boy with the really red firetruck”.

Very young children might define who they are in additional terms such as the activities and people they like or don’t like.

As we get older and grow into teenagers and then adults, we gradually build on to our identities, to include our abilities, interests, friendships, relationships, social roles, expectations, beliefs, moral values, ideologies, cultural backgrounds, social groups, and eventually, intricate personal narratives that are grounded in an increasingly complex collection of life experiences and tendencies of thinking, feeling, and behaving.  As we grow older, we come to understand all of these attributes as deriving from both our genetics and our increasingly deep pool of life experiences – our nature and our nurture.

So the notion of what is “personal” isn’t that easily defined, and it’s probably the case that no two people have precisely the same sense of what constitutes their personal identity, and no single person has precisely the same sense of that identity at every stage and season of their life.

As we alter the set of attributes that we feel define us as a person, we create an evolving identity.  And others’ responses to discarded aspects of our identity will no longer feel personal, and their responses to newly acquired parts of our identity will now feel personal.

Therefore, what we humans “take personally” (to be a response to our personal identity) is also in flux across our individual lifespans over time, and across space among the different personalities and psyches of the human population.

The personal form and the impersonal formless

An axiom of some spiritual and mystical traditions is that our true identity is simply pure consciousness.  That our genes, temperaments, beliefs, abilities and life narratives are no more a part of us than little Tommy’s firetruck is a part of Tommy.  That they are things that we have, but not who we are.

And on a purely spiritual level, this might very well be true.

On that level / from that point of view, nothing is personal because no aspects of our personality or bodymind constitute our identity.  On  this “formless” level, we may all be one collective consciousness, and the question of how personal things are is irrelevant to that universal force.

I think that the personal form and the formless spirit are both real, yet incomplete by themselves.  And that the infinite expresses itself through the finite, such as humans and animals and every other form.  And as long as we’re in human form, I believe that it’s normal and healthy to identify, partially, with the more substantive aspects of our form, such as our bodies, our personalities, and our sense of purpose.  And on that human level, others respond to those aspects of us, and we respond to those parts of others, and we might call these responses “personal”.

The life arc of personal identification

As we age and mature, most of us decrease the amount that we identify with our form, the bodymind, and increase the amount that we identify with the formless – spirit, consciousness, presence, God, or whatever label we find resonant.

Some people claim to have completely dropped all identification with the form level, and this is sometimes referred to as enlightenment.  Whether they have completely or not, I think it’s safe to say that most humans’ identities become less tightly bound around their bodies, their personal story, and even their minds, as they pass through their big life journey.

When people talk about getting older and “taking themselves less seriously”, I think they’re often referring to this more liberating sense that they can accept their mistakes, limitations, and imperfections, which is all possible to the extent that we don’t consider those things who we are.  In order to make peace with our imperfections, we have to dis-identify at least somewhat with the bodymind, since that’s where all our imperfections come from.  Otherwise, we feel that we ARE an imperfection rather than HAVE imperfections, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to be at peace with that belief.

It makes sense to gradually let go of identifying with the bodymind as we age, because the bodymind becomes less powerful as we inevitably pass the peak crest of the wave of our life energy and gradually move toward decline, and eventually, death.  Having reached mid-life, I’m more aware of how parts of my personality, like them or not, are going to more-or-less persist until my last day.  And I have a much fuller sense now (than I did when I was 20) of how much time and energy big achievements and substantial personal changes take, and of what could be realistically possible for me moving forward.  In this season of life, I have what feels to me like a moderate balance of personal identification with my bodymind form, and with the formless eternal consciousness.  I can remember that when I was 20, the lion’s share of my identity centered around my bodymind and my personal story.

And it’s not difficult for me to project this trend forward into the future and imagine that when I’m in the autumn of my life, that the majority of my personal identity will probably not be built from my bodymind, but from the universal consciousness that transcends individual bodyminds.

Some might say that it’s ideal to dis-identify with the bodymind as much and as soon as possible in life.  I don’t really agree with that.  For one thing, it’s just not how it goes for pretty everyone.  And many who claim to have done this actually haven’t, and have simply mistaken an egoic narrative of enlightenment with actual enlightenment, which I believe lies on a continuum.  It’s also not obvious to me that children, teenagers, and young adults would be better off skipping over developmental phases of egoic identification with their bodies and minds that seem to be normal and par for the course of growing up.  I tend to align more with the idea that developing a strong ego (or, identification with form) is actually an important waypoint on our journey to a more authentic spiritual position later in life.  Finally, pretty much everyone in old age who I’ve met still identifies to some extent with their bodymind, personal story, relationships, and general humanness.  Identification with our personal form does and should tend to decrease and taper off as we age, but it seems to almost never go away entirely.

I say almost, with an open mind that I just haven’t yet met anyone for whom this is the case.  The closet I have seen would be someone like Eckhart Tolle, who I think has said that even his most intense egoic reactions are quite mild and brief.

Bearing all of that in mind, what we take as “personal” depends on our psychospiritual development, and the concept that some things are personal has at least some relevance for just about everyone and every stage of life, to varying degrees.

Personal identification with our free will

Just as most of us at least partially identify with our bodyminds while we’re having our human experience, most people also partially identify with our free will as a central aspect of what we feel makes up who we are.  By free will, I mean the existence and soundness of our choices — our own good judgment, discernment, and agency.

On the level of form, the bodymind, its difficult to find the source of free will.  Free will skeptics and hard determinists make convincing logical and materialist arguments for the absence of free will.  They say that if everything we do is simply the product of our genes, environment, and up-to-date conditioning at any given moment in time, and we did not choose our genes or our initial environment, then how have we ever had any choice?  They reason that any choice we make and it’s consequences will simply become part of our continuous up-to-date conditioning and epigenetics, and determine our next choice for us.  And that this is how it’s been for each of us since day one.  Free will skepticism and hard determinism posit that free will is nothing but a thoroughly convincing illusion.

It’s hard to take anything personally – even our own actions, let alone the actions of others – if we believe that we’re just observing soul passengers in bodymind vehicles that deterministically react to each other, like atoms colliding in space.

I don’t think that the existence of free will, or the absence of free will, is provable, because we don’t intellectually understand consciousness or the foundational underpinnings of the universe.  Non-duality teacher Rupert Spira points out that matter itself has not been directly observed, because the closer we look into subatomic particles, the more it appears that matter is actually energy in space.  In contrast, Spira points out that consciousness can be directly observed by anyone at any time, by simply noticing that we are aware.  He asks which makes more sense: assuming that the foundation of reality is something like matter which we have not found, or something like consciousness which we directly experience all the time.  Under the assumption that reality is made from consciousness, the materialist case for determinism dematerializes.

How do we know that free will isn’t an inherent and fundamental property of consciousness, which could be the ground level of reality?  I have not heard a good answer to that question from free will skeptics.

Intuitively, it makes sense to me that we are all part of a probabilistic universe, and that our human experience of its probabilistic nature is our capacity for choice – to go one way rather than another – to be an active free agent in its unfolding.    And that free will could be a property of formless consciousness that is expressed by the bodymind as agency.  But I recognize that that’s just a belief, and I hold it with agnosticism.

One thing that seems clear to me, is that the universe is an outright mystery.  The vastness and strangeness of its unfathomably distant galaxies, nebulas, anomalies, black holes, bends in space-time, and expanding infiniteness, is enough to quickly bring any human mind to its modest limits.  Human analysis, when placed next to the universe, seems completely inadequate to accurately verify or negate a metaphysical riddle like free will, and such claims strike me as located somewhere near the pinnacle of overconfidence.

The pragmatics of taking it personally

Putting aside for a minute the actual existence of free will, the vast majority of people believe that they have free will and that their perceived freedom is a major part of their personal identity. Even hard determinists live their lives as though they have free will, and are still subject to the emotional ups and downs that accompany actions that feel like choice, because the belief in determinism resides in our logic, whereas the experience and perception of free will remains intact in our primordial subconscious.  So the perception of its existence seems pretty irrefutable, and that perception, at least, is intertwined with what we consider to be personal.

I think that the ubiquity of the experiential perception of free will calls into question the idea that we should not, or could not, identify with free will.  To me it’s similar to the goal of completely dis-identifying with the bodymind.  Unless someone actually IS dis-identified entirely with their body and mind (and those individuals are extremely rare if they even exist), then walking around telling ourselves that we aren’t at all identified with the bodymind is essentially pretending, and that’s counterproductive and self-confusing.  It’s like telling ourselves we can see ultraviolet or move objects with telekinesis.  It’s just not an actual part of our experience, so it’s a lie of the ego based on dubious motivations such as wanting to feel spiritually evolved.

I think it’s more authentic and healthy to acknowledge to ourselves that we identify with our bodymind to the extent that we do, and being open to that extent changing.  By the same token, we shouldn’t lie to ourselves that we don’t believe in or identify with our free will, when almost every part of us (with the possible exception of our analytical mind) experiences life as though we have free will, and as though that capacity to choose is an inherently personal part of us.

If there’s no free will, then no one has any agency over their own thoughts and actions, and so no behavior of one person toward another could be personal.   Whether it’s my behavior or someone else’s, it could only be personal if I define my personhood as simply the locus of experience that I witness but have no agency over.

But that to me would be a meaningless definition of personhood.  What does a “personal” interaction mean if no party has agency to try to attune to the other or apply corrective feedback to the way they move through life.  We’d all simply be watching an already produced movie from slightly different auditorium seats, in which every line and event was prewritten and inalterable.  If we have no say in the movie script that is the collective human drama, then everyone’s behavior (including our own) is as personal as going to a theater and watching Jack Nicholson predictably shout, “you can’t handle the truth!” to Tom Cruise.  In our lives we’d have as much responsibility to learn and evolve into more empathic human beings as we would have responsibility to get Jack to say something different to Tom as we sit in the theater.

So the relevance and coherence of this video series rests on the assumptions that the vast majority of human beings will experience and identify with their bodymind form, as well as a sense of personal choice and agency that we call free will, and that we should not judge or attempt to override those experience-based self-identifications with self-denials that stem from only rational analysis or metaphysical theories like hard determinism that may or may not be true, but that we don’t have any direct experience of, especially when the rubber meets the road of our day to day lives.  I want to pragmatically address the way we experience and navigate our connections moment to moment,  such as how we should think about the balance between taking responsibility for our impact on others and letting go of what truly isn’t about us.  Metaphysical debates like free-will vs determinism or dualism vs non-dualism are valuable and interesting, but I still experience relationships roughly the same whether or not I’m told that my every action is predetermined by the atomic inertia set forward at the big bang, or that all finite human experience is merely a dream of an all-encompassing cosmic consciousness.  At the end of the day, I’m this human, in this body, with this mind, making these choices – God’s dream or not, alien simulation or not.  And if we’re going to use some word that pertains to those aspects of us, the word “personal” seems likes as good as any to me.  So that is how I’ll be using the word “personal” and the phrase “taking it personally”, going forward.

…continued in part 2.

Leave a Reply