What Other People Say

Years ago, one of the leaders of the company I was working for harshly criticized me and left me feeling incompetent and stupid. I shared my feelings with the owner of the company. Instead of empathizing or assuring me I was not an idiot, she said “When people say things about you it has very little to do with you. It has more to do with them. The sooner you realize that, the easier life will be.”

It blew me away.

I didn’t need to take to heart everything people said about me. I didn’t even need to push back against it. It simply didn’t apply. It wasn’t my business. It was an interior monologue that had had slipped out through the speaker’s mouth.

What Other People Say Isn’t Always About Me

Sometimes a cutting comment from a friend, a coworker, a manager or a random person on the internet ruins the day with one sentence. We find ourselves blinking in the aftermath asking Why did they say that? What do they know I don’t? Did they want to hurt me?

It’s easy (or at least easier) to off the comment with a dismissive “haters gonna hate” and walk away defiantly.

It’s harder to realize that sometimes, when someone – even people we care about – says something, we might as well not be in the room. It has to do with their own issues, their own insecurities, their own hurts that it will ever have to do with us.

People don’t do this because they are assholes or mean or fake friends. They do it because they are human. Everyone walks through life carrying insecurities and old hurts and deep fears. They become such a part of our own personal background noise we often don’t hear it anymore. Someone mentions a work frustration and that touches a nerve which reminds me how inadequate I feel at my job and next thing you know, I’m telling my best friend if they’d just stop being a space cadet and work harder everything would be fine.

I certainly don’t mean to say we should never listen to others. We all need a help making the little course corrections that being human requires. But maybe we can call practice taking what people say with a grain of salt.

Here are a few steps that may help with that salt taking:

Trust your instincts. When someone says something that hurts, ask yourself “Does this make sense? Does it fit the way I see things?”

Separate the message from the way it was delivered. Some of us *coughcough* are often late. If I am running late (just as a random example) I would consider a causal comment or a gentle reminder of what time I was supposed to be somewhere completely reasonable and justified. A mini-lecture about how inconsiderate I am and how I can never be trusted to do what I say I’ll do is probably about something other than me. I can take message (“Please be on time”) to heart and let the delivery (“You are a careless and dishonest person”) go.

Consider the context. Did the comments seem to rise naturally from the situation or did they come out of the blue? If they seemed to come out of the blue, they most likely had nothing to do with you, despite what it sounded like.

Be aware of the speaker’s life. What’s going on with this person? Is there something you know about that might be influencing them more than you?

Watch for patterns. If this person always (or often) has something negative or dismissive to say, it’s a safe bet it’s about them and not you.

I write this in the hopes it will encourage us all to have a little more compassion, a little more graciousness when someone’s words hurt. When you get the sense someone is reacting to their own stuff rather than you, the best course of action is probably to step back emotionally, let their words go as much as you can and give it time. It it’s obvious their comments are about something besides you, you can ask them what’s up. If it is a consistent problem or a big issue, you can sit down to have a deeper talk.

But tread lightly, because …

What I Say Isn’t AlwaysAbout Other People

Everything I wrote above is about me. And you, too. What we say, how we react to the people we care about is more about what is going on in our own heads than anything they have said or done.

Again, it’s not that there aren’t real issues we all need to address. Sometimes something just needs to be said. But be aware of your own baggage. Notice your words and how they sound once they leave your mouth. Let’s see what we can do to make our world a little more gracious.

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