It is not personal. Try telling yourself “It’s not personal” the next time your're blamed for something. Make it your mantra the next time you are criticized. “It’s not personal.” This phrase seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Why? Because blame and criticism always feel like personal attacks. And when the feeling system is active, it’s difficult to shift into the thinking system.
At an intellectual level, when things are calm, I can see and understand what others are up against in their life. I can also see how my behavior creates challenges for others. In calmer times, I can see and observe what I’m up against by the behavior of others. But, when I perceive tension in the relationship system and my feelings are revved up, my focus will shift.
When one is criticized or blamed, the brain transports this message to a deep, emotional section. And it’s from that deep place the brain mounts a reactive response. It’s as if a deep force is awakened from within that surges up and out to defend the self. It’s an automatic response. And, for a lot of us, it’s strong; strong enough to override our thinking.
When I first started applying systems thinking, it was initially out of faith because I lacked experience. In those earlier years, I borrowed the phrase, “It’s not personal.” I said it to myself whenever I was in conflict with someone (either externally or internally). Over time, I began to recognize that conflict and tension weren’t about them or me. Instead, it was about the family of origin that shaped who we are.
Our twitchiness to the vibrations of anxiety in the relationship system is rooted in how our families as an emotional unit manage anxiety. Our automatic responses to anxiety are shaped by the way the family operates in the face of a challenge. And not just the family today, but generations and generations of families have each left their functional mark on subsequent generations of the family.
Another mantra I picked up along the way is, “the other is doing the best they can with what they have. I am doing the best I can with what I have. We can all do better.” It’s an acknowledgment that what is happening between us is not about the two of us. It is much broader in scope. I cannot possibly understand the other’s reactivity towards me without having an understanding and appreciation of the family. Likewise, I cannot possibly understand my reactivity without awareness and understanding of my family of origin. Ultimately, the thinking behind these phrases converted me to thinking systems. It led me to the believe that, within the context of one’s family, individual behavior makes sense.
Rabbi Ed Friedman, author of the book "Generation to Generation," said that criticism is a form of pursuit. It’s part of the force for togetherness. That’s why some people become critical as their anxiety goes up. An increase in anxiety in the relationship system will initially pull people together, even if the pull has a negative valence. This is why, when we are blamed or criticized, it’s hard to shake it off and not take it personally. We are reacting to the force for togetherness. To make it personal is an acknowledgment that one is caught up in the togetherness. This is why, paradoxically, not to take it personally is an effort for self. It is an effort towards differentiation of self. And differentiation of self is about being a better connected self.
Praise from others can be just as precarious. It can feel good, but when the feeling is caught up in the emotional process of the relationship system, it’s still part of the force for togetherness. The force for togetherness functions to align everyone’s thinking, feelings, and actions in the face of a perceived threat. Praise can just as easily get someone in line as can criticism.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with either criticism or praise. I have been aided by both in my life during times of need. But they are problematic when one’s life course is only guided by the criticism or praise of others. In this way, criticism and praise undercut one’s ability to fulfill their purpose and be all that God wants them to be.
So, as we begin a New Year, perhaps a good resolution would be not to let criticism and praise guide your ship’s sails, but instead let thinking, goals setting, beliefs, core principles and responsible living be your guide!