How to Stop Taking Everything So Personally
Most of what I’ve learned about not taking everything that happens so personally comes from the work of Barry Oshry. Barry’s life work over the last 50 years or so has focused on the power and possibilities for individuals and groups living and working within systems. (e.g. families, organizations, communities, churches. . .). Barry taught me that much of what happens in organizational life feels personal, but it is not. The universal experience of taking everything so personally is often born from the stories we make up about the motives and intentions of others. I find that the same dynamic exists for people in their non-work lives as well.
Center Ring or Side Show? Where are you spending your time?
From Barry, I learned about what he calls the Side Show and the Center Ring.
Stop and think for a minute. If you go to a circus, where do the REALLY BIG things take place – in the Side Shows or in the Center Ring? Center Ring, of course. The circus Side Shows are usually the place you find the acts like walking on coals, swallowing a sword, fire eating, etc. The Center Ring has the high-flying trapeze artists, acrobatics, magic shows, tightrope walking. . . the really big, exciting events.
Our everyday lives present their own version of circus events. In our interactions with others, many of us habitually spend our time and energy wrapped up in the drama of a Side Show. Something happens between us and another person, and instead of trying to understand why he/she is behaving as they are and work to sort things out between us (that would be taking a Center Ring stance), we reflexively move to the Side Show. From there, we make up a story about the other person. The story is rarely positive. Once we have our story created, we blame, judge, whine, complain and find creative ways to emotionally “opt out” of the relationship, feeling like a victim and with no serious consideration of our part in whatever way the situation went off track. Some people lead their lives from there, and wonder why they feel so stuck, lost and hopeless.
Living and Working in the Center Ring or Side Show? The choice is ours to make
If you recognize yourself in this description of the Side Show, you have lots of company. All of us go there from time to time, me included. Noticing that you are taking everything so personally can be a really good thing! Consider it a clue, a signal, or an indicator. The Side Show is like a siren song. The Center Ring is a place of power. The choice is ours to make.
Suggestions for Living and Working in the Center Ring
- Work on learning to notice when you start making up a story about another person’s actions or behavior.
you’ve noticed you’re on the way to the Side Show, ask yourself. . .
- Why might a reasonable person have behaved that way?
- What might be going on here that I should find out more about?
- Practice empathy (walking in someone else’s shoes, stretching to see the issue from the other person’s position)
- Suspend judgment and ask clarifying questions to find out more about what you don’t know
- Assume positive intentions from the other person and declare your intentions as well
- Look for how you may have inadvertently (or maybe on purpose) contributed to the problem between you and the other person
- Take responsibility for your own behavior and actions
- If you’ve made a mistake, own it, make amends as best you can and move on
- See it all from a learning perspective and maintain a sense of humor
I promise you that whole-heartedly working with these suggestions will make a positive difference in your life and in your relationships with others. There is great potential and power in the Center Ring. Living and working there creates new possibilities for making things happen. It frees you up to not take all that happens so personally, and to bring the best of who you are to every situation and person that your life touches. Use this power wisely, and with good purpose!