We love to take things personally; the teller's tone at the bank, your partner's iPad obsession. your child's desire to watch cartoons instead of talk to you, the poor treatment a parent or care-giver may have given you when you were a child.
Somewhere along the line we learn that other people's behavior, thoughts, beliefs, words and ideas somehow have something to do with us. This is because the ego must attach to something (anything) to make a "self" out of. In some ways it's a necessary part of our ego development, but like most ego development something usually goes awry. So what would life be life if we stopped taking anything personally?
(Wouldn't be weird if the post stopped right here and I just didn't expand at all, like, what if I totally left you hanging right now? I won't but what if I did? Would you take it personally?)
We usually end up creating scripts about how the world or other people do "this" or "that" to us (or because of us) to reinforce our stories about who we are. We learn, in one way or another, that the world revolves around us and that other people's behavior, thoughts and ideas are our business.
This works out well when someone does something we approve of, but when someone transgresses us, such as calls us a name, lies to us, or commits some other terrible or minute deed we take it as an opportunity to be outraged, sad, angry, indignant, smug, arrogant or responsible for what that person did, said or thought. It is the ultimate narcissism, and we all do it.
When you think about it we have become the center of the universe and seem to mistakenly believe that we have anything to do with what other people are doing. As though we have all that power. Even if you hypnotize someone to do your evil bidding, it's still not you doing it, you may have the dominant will at the moment (and could get some interesting karma in return) but ultimately it's still the other person performing the deeds. On some level they agreed to the proverbial contract you laid out and are thus carrying out your deeds according to their desire (however conscious or unconscious that may be).
The spiritual principle of "don't take things personally" is one that many traditions have heralded throughout the ages from the Buddhists to the Toltecs. In fact, this post was inspired by Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements where he clearly discusses this principle.
If someone calls you a (insert your favorite insult here) then it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with their perception of you. You may have actually behaved like a (_____) but their projection of the term onto you is their own perception of your behavior. Someone else may find your behavior perfectly reasonable, maybe even desirable. The assumption here is that we all are interacting with projections of the world, not the Real world. There is no real objectivity, only our projection of what real is. Reality in fact is mostly a consensual agreement between people and is subject to change.
Some people may think, "I never take anything personally", but somewhere in their psyche there is usually the subtle belief that what other people do, say, think or feel is their business. We can even take natural disasters personally thinking, "Why did this happen to me?!" But when we go there, we are in (as Byron Katie says) "God's/Reality's business", and taking it personally will only exacerbate our suffering.
If someone murders your child, brother, dog, lover (or kills you) it may be painful but it's not personal. It's a reflection of that person's fear or confusion at the time.
This idea does not free us from ethical action or taking responsibility when we have transgressed someone if we feel we need to do so. In fact, it holds us to a higher standard of behavior because when we recognize that nothing is personal we can extend compassion to those who may still be under the belief that they are responsible for other people's thoughts, beliefs, words, ideas or actions.
Your business is what you do, think, feel and say. Everything else will drive you crazy.
Once you've lived through hell, which in this case is the suffering of taking things personally, you will often want to help people get out of it.
As a child I was extremely sensitive. A wayward glance from someone was internalized and I immediately moved into thinking what I did to make the person look at me that way. I lived a great deal of my life in that space, believing not only that I was somehow responsible for what other people did, thought, felt, etc; but they were responsible for my moods and hurt feelings and so should "be careful how they treat me." While on one level this may be true, we should all be careful, the reality is that we will live in a great deal of pain expecting people to do that.
Moreover I used other people's "insensitivity" to be pretty callous myself, justified in continuing war because other people didn't recognize my sensitivity. How insensitive is that?!
I would respond by interpreting other people's glances (sometimes accurately or sometimes inaccurately) and behaving accordingly. Sometimes my projections of the other person's behavior were off, and I found myself aloof or cold when their glance was in no way connected to me. I rejected before I was rejected.
I can still fall into this trap from time to time, until I remember I can be free from that unnecessary suffering. Even if someone criticizes the hell out of me I have learned (after a lot of work) that while the criticism may be founded in some truth that I need to take a look at, it's more a reflection of the person's projection of me and not the ultimate Truth. We all look at the world and other people and see what we want to see, this is what the great mystics of the world mean by the world of illusion.
Truth (or Enlightenment) at it's most core level, is really a deeper and deeper understanding that nothing is as it seems. It is the realization that the whole universe is nothing but a mere projection built from millions of impressions built up over time. It is the realization that we are simultaneously birthing and living our experience, and if anything is personal, it is that.