Henry maneuvers his shopping cart into the shortest checkout line in the market. He’s tired and hungry after a long day’s work, and in a hurry to get home and make dinner for his partner. Unfortunately, his line turns out to be the slowest. The checkout clerk is as slow as molasses. She can’t seem to remember the price of anything; she constantly makes mistakes on the register; and she’s completely unfocused on what she’s doing.
Henry’s righteous indignation mounts as the minutes tick by. How can this big supermarket chain be so contemptuous of its customers as to hire such brain dead employees? He sighs loudly and shifts his weight from one foot to another to signal his displeasure. He and another man in line make sarcastic comments to each other about the clerk, and he hopes she overhears them.
Another store employee arrives to bag groceries and asks the clerk, “Are you doing okay?” She replies, “I’m all right. I’ve only got one more hour, and then I can go to the hospital and see him.” Their conversation makes it clear that she’s referring to her husband, who is in the final stages of terminal cancer.
Henry awakens as if from a trance. His first reaction is shame at his self-preoccupation, and then he feels a wave of compassion for the clerk who has to work at a market full of impatient customers while her husband lies gravely ill in a hospital bed. His impatience gone, he quietly waits his turn. When he arrives at the front of the line, he searches for something comforting to say to her, but he’s afraid of embarrassing her, so he just makes eye contact and offers her the warmest smile he can. As he carries his groceries out of the store, he looks around at the other customers, and realizes how rarely he ever gives a thought to what’s going on in the lives of all the strangers he passes as he rushes through his day.
Most of us can recall some incident like this from our own lives. Personalizing what happens around us is a universally built-in bias in our brains. That’s why we can’t too often remember the humbling, but strangely freeing, truth that most of the time we are bit players in other people’s dramas (if even that), and most of what goes on around us isn’t about us at all.
But we have powerful conditioning, which drives us to forget this truth. Just as most of us have an “inner critic” that harshly critiques our own behavior, we also have an “inner prosecutor,” which builds “cases” against others. The prosecutor creates stories about how others have intentionally targeted us in order to ruin our day and make us miserable.
The more this part of ourselves convinces us to be hyper vigilant for violations of our “rights,” the more we live in an inner prison of fantasies of victimization. That isn’t to say that it isn’t important to see other people realistically, or that there is no place for moral judgment. But case-making is a form of obsessive thinking that only makes us feel worse. When we do it, we increase our likelihood of over-reacting and complicating the problem.
There are some steps anyone can take to overcome the natural bias toward taking things personally. The first is just to notice the way you feel when you’re doing it, and then do your best to relax the sense of being personally targeted. Pay attention to how your mood lifts when you question your personalizing instead of just letting it run automatically.
It also helps to remember that, while we may be wired for personalizing, we’re also wired for compassion, and we can intentionally feed and strengthen this capacity. If, for instance, you deliberately direct your attention to sensing the ways in which the other person is suffering, you’ll probably find that they start to move from the “them” to the “us” category. Your compassion won’t let them off the hook or weaken you, but it will make you feel better. The more we teach ourselves to take life less personally, the easier time we have living in a relaxed and peaceful state.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit tommoon.net