It’s been a while since I raved about the book The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. Last year I wrote about the first agreement, Be impeccable with your word, and the second, Don’t take anything personally.
The third of the Four Agreements is Don’t make assumptions.
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Once again, it sounds simple, but it’s not, quite. It can be scary to be straight with someone, especially if they’re wound up tight. But consider how much grief you could avoid, for yourself and for others. Think about how often you get bogged down in things because you assumed someone meant something by a look, or a comment, or an email. Think about how many times a friend has told you another friend did this, said this, and asked you what you make of it, or urged to you agree that the other person is a jerk. It’s also true that we often make assumptions about other people’s actions based on our own issues and feelings, though we may not even be aware of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all just look one another in the eye and say “What did you mean by that?” or “I was hurt by what you said” or “It made me angry when you took credit for the work I did”? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just clarify complicated things? In so many instances, a potentially charged situation could be quickly diffused.
I just did a workshop with my older daughter through the Girls Leadership Institute, an organization co-founded by Rachel Simmons, who wrote The Curse of the Good Girl, which you should read if you’re the parent of a girl, if you used to be a girl, or if you’ve ever met a girl or a woman. If you are female, I guarantee that you’ll see yourself in this book: as a schoolgirl, a teenager, a college girl, a woman. It’s about how girls communicate (or fail to), how we often sabotage ourselves and our friendships by not expressing our feelings or even letting ourselves feel them, by not letting others know what we need and want.
This workshop, for second and third grade girls and their moms, met for a month, once a week. The girls (and we) came away excited about their new pals and empowered to communicate better with their friends, their siblings, and their parents. The workshop literally gave them tools for standing up for themselves and being the wonderful, beautiful, authentic girls they are. Things like:
Say how I feel.
Ask for what I need.
Make eye contact.
Stand on both feet.
Use a firm, clear tone of voice.
Ask a question.
Apologize if you’ve done something to make the situation worse.
Remind the other person what it means to be a friend.
Instead of assuming a friend was “just kidding,” didn’t mean to hurt them, or that their hurt or sad feeling doesn’t matter–that they’re “too sensitive” or that they overreacted–they are now able to identify how something made them feel, talk about it, and do something about it.
Needless to say, these are skills for everyone, not just 8- and 9-year-old girls. I’m so grateful that Kate is starting to learn about this now, though, because it takes many of us a lifetime to figure it out. A lifetime of unnecessary anger, resentment, and hurt.
It’s so easy to see how learning not to make assumptions can indeed transform your life.
This is the second — and my favorite — of Don Ruiz’s four agreements. (Click here to read about the first one, Be Impeccable with Your Word.)
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Can you see how healing this can be if you really internalize it? It’s not easy to do, but man, is it freeing when you start to get the hang of it.
When I first read what Don Ruiz has to say about not taking things personally, it really resonated with me. Perhaps because I have a long history of taking everything personally.
What was really eye-opening was when he took it to the extreme, with the example of someone you don’t know coming up to you on the street and saying, right in your face, “You’re stupid!” Who’s that really about? You, or this random person? It’s about the other person, whom you’ve never seen before in your life. But the majority of us would still be affected by that experience. As Ruiz writes: “If you take it personally, perhaps you believe you are stupid. Maybe you think to yourself, ‘How does he know? Is he clairvoyant, or can everybody see how stupid I am?'”
He goes on to say, “When we take something personally, we make the assumption that [others] know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world.” We try to make it about us, when it’s so not about us. And the way we choose to react to whatever it is can have implications. It can cause us needless suffering.
For example, for most of our married life, when my husband would come home from work and snap at me in a mean way (not that he does this every day, but when he does), I would take it personally. I would decide it meant he thought I was a bad wife, a horrible cook, lazy, a bad mother, you name it — whatever it was, I now realize, that I might have been thinking about myself that day. What he was actually upset about, almost always — no, actually, always — was something that happened at work or elsewhere. When I made it about me, we’d end up in a stupid fight that wasted time and emotional energy for both of us.
When I finally decided to stop reacting — because after years of getting to know this person and having this same fight again and again, I realized it wasn’t something about me that he was upset about — he’d apologize and then take the opportunity to vent to me about what was really frustrating him. That’s way more constructive for both of us.
The anger I often feel as a mother has much the same shape. Usually when I blow up at the kids, it’s because I’m anxious or stressed about something completely other than what they’re asking me about or telling me. The mess in Kate’s room is really not that big of a deal, but because I’m overwhelmed by all the organization I need to do on some PTA project, or whatever, it puts me over the edge. Did Kate make the mess just to piss me off, which I can then use to prove that I’m a horrible, angry, mother? Of course not — she was just playing and being creative and having fun, as she should do as a seven-year-old.
It’s not all about me.
This idea was also once illuminated for me quite powerfully when someone accused me of something so over the top that I had to take a deep breath, sit with it and think, “Is this really something you could say about me, or something I would ever do?” And I decided, rather quickly: absolutely not. It became crystal clear that whatever led this person down that road was hers, not mine. Letting go of responsibility for that was a huge relief.
Not taking anything personally is not just an easy way to avoid responsibility for things that are yours to own, or that are your fault. But I’m pretty good at owning up to things. It’s the rest of the stuff, the stuff I used to take on just because other people handed it to me, that I’m able to let go of when I remember this agreement.
And that’s made all the difference.