The Four Agreements is one of those self-help books that don’t need no introduction.
Twenty years after its release, its teachings are still widely practiced by millions across the globe. Its author, Mexican shaman Don Miguel Ruiz, draws from ancient Toltec wisdom to articulate four pieces of advice (called “Agreements”) that, if followed in everyday life, are supposed to lead the way to happiness and self-fulfillment.
The second agreement, Don’t take it personally, is probably one of the most popular: it frequently crops up in psychology columns, self-help blogs and well-meaning life advice from relatives. The reasoning goes as follows: nothing others say or do to us (insults, criticism, physical abuse, even positive things like compliments) is ever about us. Instead, it’s a mere reflection of their own beliefs, fears or insecurities. Ruiz teaches us an effective way to deflect insults and negative comments by realizing that, far from telling some objective truth about us, they stem from the arbitrary lens through which others filter the world. There is thus no need to feel angry, or sad, or mull it over for hours. It’s a simple yet powerful piece of advice, with the potential to relieve a great deal of emotional pain.
That being said, I feel this otherwise valid concept is being dished out a bit too liberally these days, without much critical thinking behind it. Never taking things personally sounds nice in theory, but it’s also too simple. There are things missing from this conversation: it’s important to explore the full range of this agreement and search for nuance, rather than just blindly going along with it. That’s what I will attempt to do with this article.
An easy justification for being a bully
Whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem and not my problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me. Others are going to have their own opinion according to their belief system, so nothing they think about me is really about me, but it is about them. You may even tell me, “Miguel, what you are saying is hurting me.” But it is not what I am saying that is hurting you; it is that you have wounds that I touch by what I have said. You are hurting yourself. There is no way that I can take this personally. Not because I don’t believe in you or don’t trust you, but because I know that you see the world with different eyes, with your eyes.
As I’m sure many won’t have failed to notice, this could easily serve as justification to behave like a raging asshole. If every piece of criticism of feedback is merely the product of our interlocutor’s biased worldview, how can we become aware of, and take responsibility for, our harmful actions? How are we supposed to grow? This blogger touches on the issue in more detail here: the incident he refers to illustrates quite well the limits of this kind of reasoning. If nothing is ever about you, then you can never do wrong, by definition. You may say hurtful words or neglect a loved one and not feel one shred of responsibility: sure, they’ve told you you’ve hurt them, but hey, it’s all in their dream. This rhetoric is creepily reminiscent of gaslighting: after all, narcissists and abusers tend to follow the exact same logic to submit their victims. “Pff, there you go again, inventing things out of whole cloth, getting offended at the smallest things. Playing the fucking victim. I’m not hurting you – you are hurting yourself.”
I can already guess the rebuttal: “but that’s not really what he meant,” “that’s just distorting the agreements,” “obviously it’s not supposed to justify treating others like shit.” The thing is, Don Miguel Ruiz doesn’t explicitly address the issue. He doesn’t differentiate between situations where we should listen to others and situations where we shouldn’t. At the very most, we get an elusive message about the importance of “trusting ourselves” and especially trusting ourselves “to make the right choices”, which may be an off-handed way to advise critical thinking and avoiding acting like a douchebag. But there’s little else. The text is pretty uncompromising. It’s a pity, because when a rule presents such a glaring loophole, said loophole should be addressed accordingly. What’s especially interesting about this agreement isn’t how right it is, but all the ways it can be wrong, and how to work things out by ourselves.
Now, don’t get me wrong. “Don’t take it personally” is excellent advice in a variety of situations: like the theory of the empty boat, it has the potential to make our life considerably smoother by sparing us from a lot of unnecessary turmoil. For one, it reminds us we’re not the center of the world and a lot of what others do or think isn’t a personal slight against us. Like Ruiz says, it’s a good recipe for “immunity” in the middle of “hell”: realizing that your friend is mocking your dreams, not because your dreams are stupid, but because they’ve failed at theirs, will allow for greater peace of mind and the ability to trust yourself. Remaining calm in the face of backlash is undoubtedly a precious gift.
The problem arises when we try to apply this mindset to each and every situation regardless of context, as I’m afraid this piece of advice tends to be interpreted. Sometimes, it is personal and we must absolutely listen to the signals our friends, relatives, colleagues are sending us: they’re pointing out a character flaw, a nasty pattern that they’ve noticed after spending some time with us. Something that needs correcting.
But – and that’s what’s terribly frustrating – other times, those opinions and signals won’t mean anything real about you. They will stem from others’ wounds and personal beliefs. And that’s the thing: there’s no handbook to find out which is which. It’s entirely up to us to assess the situation and try to be honest with ourselves and others, to find out if the criticism is justified or not. Rather than never taking it personally, a more appropriate piece of advice might be to cultivate the lucidity to find out when we should, or shouldn’t, take it personally. That’s infinitely more challenging. And frustrating. Which is probably why the rule of never taking things personally seems so appealing: it’s easy and demands little effort. Life and people are terribly complex and full of grey areas and it’s reassuring to have basic rules to cling to or a specific lens through which we can make sense of the world. It makes the mess seem somewhat manageable. But how we should react to or interpret an event depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s not personal; sometimes it very much is. Blindly following a “Don’t take it personally” mindset in every situation because someone told you to in a book isn’t a wise attitude. In fact, it’s the very opposite of wisdom.
Beyond the individual: when suffering is political
If we adopt this agreement, Don Miguel Ruiz tells us, there’s a good chance we’ll reach a state of “bliss” in the middle of “hell”. All agreements are supposed to lead to this state, but choosing not to take things personally has the power to cancel up to “seventy-five percent” of all negative agreements we’ve previously made with ourselves. Phew. Seventy-five percent? It sounds amazing. Where do I sign?
And yet. Something else that’s missing from the “Don’t take anything personally” rhetoric is how it applies beyond interpersonal issues or personal problems in general: when it comes to political and social matters, I’m not sure it’s of great use. Take an Indigenous woman from Canada – one of the country’s most marginalized populations. I’m not sure how it would make her feel better to know that the men enacting the laws keeping her down, and those endangering her life, aren’t doing it to her personally. What does it change exactly? And even if she were to be impeccable with her word, ignore what people tell her, never make assumptions and do her best in every circumstance, are the problems caused by the conditions she faces going to disappear somehow? Does her extreme poverty become tolerable and blissful once she adopts this attitude?
The second agreement may be powerful stuff in specific circumstances, but it feels incorrect to give it so much weight, as though it were a definite cure for most of our ailments. Don Miguel Ruiz focuses here on self-inflicted emotional pain, without much regard for external factors that contribute to suffering (impoverishment, job loss, female sexual objectification, etc.) * Frankly, sometimes, whether you take it personally or not doesn’t make one lick of a difference.
And that also applies to individual issues. To use a personal example, I was once kicked out of my house by an unstable flatmate who informed me, via a note on the table, that she wanted me to leave in a month’s time. (Apparently, I hadn’t been walking her dog. I wasn’t aware I was supposed to walk her dog.) While comforting me, a friend reminded me of the golden mantra: “Rule number one, don’t make it personal.”
Honestly? That was the least of my problems. After all, I was well aware, seeing my flatmate’s bizarre behavior (the less said about it the better), that it probably didn’t have much to do with me. That didn’t make anything better. I didn’t care whether or not it was personal, I cared that I was momentarily stuck with a passive-aggressive, unstable person while having to find a flat as soon as possible (because there was no fucking way I was going to stay one entire month in there with her.) It was a deeply unpleasant and unsettling situation, believe me.
Before advising others not to “take it personally,” perhaps it would be wise to step back and wonder if that’s actually the problem, or if that’s really what our interlocutor needs to hear at the moment.
Is it really possible to become immune to emotional poison?
There’s something else that I find problematic when it comes to the second agreement: the idea that it’s possible to become totally impervious to others’ harsh comments or abusive behaviors. Yes, I understand it’s an ideal (after all, the author does speak at length of the importance of “doing our best”), but it’s still presented as an accessible mindset, something we can achieve through trial and effort: Don Miguel Ruiz explicitly states he has managed to do so, after all.
But words hurt. Others hurt. We don’t have no armor, or if we do, it’s full of holes. Implying that feeling pain because of what others do to us is a choice reeks of victim-blaming; it goes hand in hand with Eleanor Roosevelt’s “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” or the dumb mantra “Sticks and stones may break my bones…” Sorry, but it’s not that simple. I mean, tell the people living with narcissistic relatives that they should take it upon themselves to ignore the daily abuse and jabs at their self-esteem. People don’t need our consent to treat us as inferiors, or to enact laws that will ensure we remain so. After all, why would it be important for us to “be impeccable with our word” otherwise?
What lurks beneath
In a way, Don Miguel Ruiz’s principles remind me of cognitive behavioral therapy: become aware of negative agreements (negative automatic thoughts), replace them with empowering ones (positive thoughts.) We become scientists, able to notice the dark movements in our minds and redirect them accordingly. But this approach has its limits, and after enjoying decades of popularity, the principles of CBT are starting to show their own weaknesses. One of the reasons may be that a great deal of what we feel and do originates from the unconscious mind, far below the reach of reason. We don’t understand much of what’s happening within us. As such, there’s no guarantee that a new set of positive thoughts and attitudes (“it’s not personal”, “I can choose to listen to this person or not”, “it’s about them, not me”) is going to work, that it’s strong enough to overturn hidden and misunderstood traumas and emotions. Our mind isn’t an object that we can coldly observe and control. And your issues, whatever they are (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem…) may have nothing to do with whether or not you take things personally.
So what if it’s personal?
The desire not to take things personally implies a particular belief: the belief that, if it were personal, that would be a bad thing. But why would it have to be bad? So what if it’s personal?
Let’s take romantic rejection as an example. We always try to make excuses for romantic rejection and rationalize it to lessen the blow. It’s always the same. “It’s not that he doesn’t like you: he’s just busy/recovering from a break-up/afraid of successful women/classist/afraid of commitment/afraid of his feelings/dumb/whatever.” Whatever the excuse is, it boils down to the same principle: it’s not you. It’s him (or her). They have issues, and so they rejected you. It’s not you.
However well-intended this attitude might be, it’s also dishonest. I think that romantic rejection, no matter how you frame it, is always personal in a way. Yes, it is about you. They didn’t like you. Personally. They didn’t like the way you laugh, your love of vintage video games, your bushy eyebrows, your stance on GMOs, what have you. There are a hundred different reasons a person won’t like another person. Because we’re humans and attraction is messy and complex. And that’s not a problem. By desperately searching for rationalization, we’re cultivating the belief that someone not liking us for who we are is somehow terrible, when, really – it’s all part of the human experience. You are who you are and others are who they are and so, there are people who won’t like you.
Sure, you could say that their not liking you is the result of their education, worldview, arbitrary likes and dislikes, and that they don’t really know you that well so what do they know? It doesn’t change the fact that their education, worldview, and arbitrary likes and dislikes have led them to dislike what they have seen of you, the person they believe you are. It’s still, in a way, personal, and I don’t think that should be a problem.
It’s okay if it’s personal.
Final Words. The power of ignoring compliments
All of this isn’t to say that the second agreement is bad advice per se. As I’ve noted before, it’s very useful in a variety of situations. The trick is to know when. One thing I liked very much about this chapter is Don Miguel Ruiz’s take on compliments: according to him, there’s no reason to feel elated by compliments, as they are also a reflection of the interlocutor’s worldview. I find this to be sound advice. It’s true – compliments are often more about the other person’s beliefs and perspective than they are about us.
The glorification of women’s appearance is a case in point. “You’re so pretty”, we’re often told. Those who say it are so sure they’re making us happy, and most of the time, they’re right. But those words are essentially meaningless. Prettiness isn’t a quality per se, it stems from genetic lottery or the way you’ve transformed your face and body according to societal expectations. It says nothing about who you are and isn’t an accomplishment like finishing that novel you’ve dreamed of or overcoming your fear of public speaking. It reflects a sexist worldview (acquired through education) according to which women are things meant to be looked at (and may look pleasant in a limited, preferably expensive, number of ways). In that case, it’s certainly not about you, and there’s no reason whatsoever to feel flattered.
Even seemingly less superficial compliments like “you’re so clever” or “you’re so mature” usually mean “I think you’re clever because you have the same opinions as I do.” Who are we, after all, to determine who’s clever and who isn’t?
If we put too much weight on external feedback, there’s a chance we’ll grow restless and upset if we don’t receive enough compliments for our work, our new book, our recent marathon, when these are things we should be doing primarily for ourselves. Caring too much about others’ opinions isn’t a good way to live, whether those opinions are good or not. In this sense, I believe that managing to remain indifferent to praise and compliments is a very useful skill to cultivate.
* That’s not a complaint against Don Miguel Ruiz specifically: it’s a problem with self-help in general. Self-help, after all, is mainly about flourishing as an individual: it’s doubtful you’ll find a way to efficiently fight against political and social injustice (maybe you’ll be told of the importance of “changing yourself first” or “being full of love” or “having compassion for your enemies”, which is very nice, but ultimately quite empty.)