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The most important life hack of all (do you agree?)

[ 4 ] December 7, 2017 |

It wasn’t just the cereal bowl. It was everything.

Every morning, my first husband would sit in the living room and eat a dish of cereal. When he was finished, he’d set the bowl on the floor next the recliner with half an inch of used milk still in the bottom. Then he’d go on about his day.

  • Not thinking about that milk sitting there all day, getting warm and curdling.
  • Not thinking how easily someone could kick it over and spill it all over the carpet.
  • Not even thinking about where the previous day’s bowl had disappeared to.

I, on the other hand… could not NOT think about the bowl, the milk, the curdling, the spill factor, or the fact that I had been the one to dump out the milk and put the prior bowl in the dishwasher. And if I stayed married to this… this… person, I would most likely be picking up cereal bowls full of used milk every day for the rest of my life.

But that wasn’t what bothered me most. What turned a minor nuisance into a raging insult was my interpretation.

Every day, when I saw that damn cereal bowl, I assumed it meant that my husband didn’t respect me.

Why else would someone leave their gross old milk for someone else to clean up? I couldn’t imagine another reason. And our marriage was full of small inconsiderate acts, each of which I took as a personal insult.

As you can imagine, we had a contentious and exhausting marriage that didn’t last very long. We went back to being friends again within days of his moving out, and eventually I felt bad for being so hard on him and apologized. But while we were married? I wanted to kill him, pretty much every day.

I learned a lot of things from that relationship, but what I didn’t learn was not to take everything personally. We hear this all the time, right? Don’t take things personally. But that’s harder than it seems.

Here’s why. “Taking something personally” feels just like being right. So it’s hard to tell that you’re doing it.

The cereal bowl? It felt personal. After all, I was the one who personally cleaned up the mess every day.

Similarly, if a client doesn’t pay my invoice, I’m the one who personally doesn’t get the money as agreed. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I’m the one who personally has to slam on the brakes to avoid wrecking the car. And in all these cases, I’m the one who personally would be upset about it for the rest of the day.

It’s not called “taking something personally” if it really is personal, right?

And that’s what makes it so hard. When I’m taking something personally, it truly feels so personal, I can’t even see that there could be any other explanation.

But you know what I finally learned in coaching school? What other people do is really not about me.

  • The guy I’m dating now is an even more extreme introvert than I am. In the past, I would have interpreted his standoffishness to mean that he doesn’t like me. And then, last week, he moved 2600 miles away! He must really not love me, right?
  • My favorite client wanted to change our contract (again). She must not respect me at all!
  • And when I called last night, my mom didn’t answer the phone!

Here’s what a life of peace looks like.

  • My mom was busy doing something else last night.
  • My client just really likes contract negotiations. (This may or may not be accurate, but the mere possibility means I don’t have to be upset.)
  • My guy is exactly who he is. Sometimes he doesn’t want company—just like me. He was not happy in the South, and he may well be happier in Washington.

None of this is about me at all. My only job is to speak my truth and handle my own stuff. That’s it.

I can’t tell you what a relief it is to live this way! Not to say things don’t still trigger me—they do. In fact, I used to get offended when my coach said I should stop taking things so personally! As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t taking a single thing personally that wasn’t actually personal. How could she not see that I was beyond that advice?

But seriously, this was the #1 thing standing between me and peace. And the #1 thing I wanted in my life was peace. That’s why I’m calling it the most important life hack of all.

What’s your take? Can you think of a more important one? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to hear your perspective.

Bonus question: what feels super personal in your life right now? Is there another possible explanation (no matter how ludicrous)?

About Cara Stein: I'm a Breakthrough Coach and Creative Director On Demand. I'm also an idealist who has stopped trying to play it cool. I offer alignment, clarity, and unshakeable belief in yourself—and then I help you bring your vision to life with great sales copy and graphic design.

Comments (4)

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  1. Emily Paedee says:

    “My guy is exactly who he is. Sometimes he doesn’t want company—just like me. He was not happy in the South, and he may well be happier in Washington.”

    This one may have been the hardest to accomplish of your three examples. It’s a super illustration of the sanity-inducing spiritual quality of Detachment with Love; an amazing feat of disentangling one’s emotional raw spots from one’s heart.

    Kudos, Cara.

  2. It is without doubt the most important life hack. I don’t know you, but you have absolutely nailed it.

    I got this from an exercise we did in my meditation class in London, England. There were eight people in the room, and each person had a different explanation for, and reaction to, why someone they knew apparently ignored them in the street yesterday.

    If it hadn’t been pointed out like that, I guess I would have taken longer to get it. Great article.

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