Don't take it personally but...
It's a tough lesson but we are not that important in others' lives. So why don't women shrug off criticism like men?
ON my gravestone (we'll forget for a moment that I want to be cremated) I'd like the phrase, 'Don't take it personally, even if it has your name on it' carved. It's the most important piece of advice I refused to take for the first 40 years of my life. The fact that I've recently cottoned on to this, may determine my ability to survive the next 40 years or so. So, you'll forgive me for saying that I feel kind of strongly about it.
Regardless of the messenger or the context of the message, many of us still take slights, insults and criticisms personally. We think we get them for a reason, that either we deserve them or that they're going to improve us in some way. At least women do. Men not so much.
Actually, I know very few men who take anything I tell them personally (unless it's about how fabulous they are). They're more likely to just shrug their shoulders and mutter "that woman is bonkers", under their breath before proceeding to ignore my well-meaning advice about their hair/hygiene/table manners/dating habits etc without any ill-effects whatsoever.
So this advice should really carry the addendum that it is, with perhaps a few exceptions as yet unknown to me, aimed firmly at women. We've all been subject to sentences that begin, "Don't take this personally, but ... " that are followed by very personal insults. However, for some reason women are supposed to take them on the chin, suck them up and think that we're getting them for a good reason and all that.
Through the years, and though I hate to make such arbitrary judgment calls, I've noticed that men don't seem nearly as influenced by the negative opinions of others as women are. Why is there still such a disparity between the way men and women handle criticism? Is it because we still rear, even unconsciously, girls to be sensitive and nurturing, subservient to what others think of them, and boys to be tough, confident and independent-minded?
In mixed schools boys still tend to control the dynamic of the classroom – acting out to attract attention, while girls stay quieter, work harder but have far less to say for themselves. And, despite girls doing better than boys in exams, this trend tends to continue after college. Ask many women why they won't work in areas like politics and media and one of the reasons given is that they feel they may be too sensitive for the macho cut and thrust of it.
We often lack the necessary confidence needed to ignore the inevitable criticism given to anyone who puts their head over the parapet. The problem of maternity leave and childcare is, of course, a major barrier to women being more prominent in public life, but "taking things personally" has its effects as well.
Perhaps it's because we expect women to give more weight to the opinions of others; implicitly suggesting that we can't trust our own rationality. One of the most forceful reasons for repeatedly refusing women the right to vote (and just about everything else outside the home) was because we were viewed as hysterical, irrational and ruled by emotions. Then we were told "not to take it personally". And that way of thinking hasn't completely gone.
And of course in many cases the people giving us these messages mean the complete opposite. They want us to take it personally; they want us to be hurt, to feel inadequate or degraded. They want to put us back in our boxes – the one that suits their narrative.
I know when I was younger I used to spend hours of my life just going over what he/she meant when they made a particular comment or acted in a certain way. Or why such-and-such a horrible thing could have happened to me.
What, I would wonder, had I done to deserve the bitchy treatment I was currently receiving from A? Or the dismissive comments from B? Why did C insist on putting me down in company while assuring me, in private, that he had my best interests at heart? Was I really to blame for D being unfaithful to me? How could I stop E from continually trying to sabotage my job? And of course, what did F mean when he said I took things too personally?
It was all such a head-wreck. It caused me a lot of heartache until I realised that in the vast majority of cases, even if the insult "had my name on it" so to speak, it wasn't really about me at all. It was all about the person delivering it. I was just unfortunate enough to be the recipient.
Because one major life lesson we need to understand is just how inconsequential we really are to each other: that we don't really matter. That's not a bad thing; it's just a fact of life. It doesn't mean that nobody cares about us (although if we are honest few really do), just that we are far less important to the lives of others than we often imagine.
There are actually very few people in this world whose opinion we should take personally – the rest is just noise. And we need to pick those few carefully – all criticism is not created equally. We don't need to blindly accept insults or negative criticism from people in our lives but we often need to remember that it's their issue, not ours.
Again, it may sound depressing that of all the people you know there are very few who actually really matter, but look at it from the other perspective; if they don't matter, then their opinion of you doesn't matter either.
Most of the stuff in life which hurts us – including emotional reactions from others, illness, mistreatment at work, even the deaths of those we love – is like a log put in motion by a myriad of other causes along the river. We're not meant to take it personally and it doesn't happen for a reason. It. Just. Happens.
Yes, I know that all sounds very syrupy and New Agey, but what it boils down to is that we don't really have any control over much of what we experience beyond how we react to it.
It's a tough life lesson and I know that I, for one, am still confronting it daily. But compared with where I used to be, I feel practically Buddha-like. But still, as a woman, I think we tend to listen too much to the criticisms of others and, in consequence, judge ourselves far too harshly. We need to give ourselves a break – and remember not to take it personally.
Am I bitter I didn't cop this until I hit my forties? Well, yes, I am. I'm absolutely raging if truth be told. But I'll try not to take it personally.
Cathy Kieran (left) is 39 years old and lives in Greystones with her husband Paul and two children, aged five and six. She runs a stationery company aimed at helping families to become organised. It's called www.busymum.ie and her experience of taking things personally was actually related to the name of her business.
"My experience of taking things the wrong way was when I started my business and got some negative feedback from a few people in the media about the name I had chosen – Busymum. At the time, it dented my confidence as I had new products designed to help families organise themselves better and I had worked so hard to get them out there.
"I was very upset personally about the criticism, which was stupid as it wasn't about me. But it has made me do a few things such as explaining the concept better.
"I know dads are busy, too, and in many houses the fathers are doing the organising, but as someone who collected fancy paper as a child, I was a Busymum and thought that mums like me would be far more likely than dads to buy an organising calendar or shopping list.
"I also realised that there were lots of other businesses out there, local and international, that have a target market of mums and have 'mum' in the title. So, finally, I grew a thick skin and realised that in business if you put yourself and products out there, you have to be prepared for all feedback.
Paula Sheridan (right) from Carlow is married to Dan and has four children – Etain (19), Sorcha (18), Sadbh (16) and Milo (10). The 50-year-old is a candle artist and craftsperson who runs her own business called www.candledesigns.ie. She had an experience of taking things personally when a potential customer questioned the effort she put in to her work.
"As an artist or craftsperson, taking things personally is inevitable because I put so much of myself into my work, which involves engraving and painting candles – so it is 'personalised' for my customers.
"An experience of taking things personally occurred a few years ago when a potential customer rang to enquire about the cost of a Christening candle.
"I described what it would look like, how it would be designed to her wishes and how much it would cost. Her comment at the end was, 'sure I could do that myself'.
"I was both annoyed and hurt at the same time. She completely ignored and didn't recognise the value I place on my work and the time and effort I have put into perfecting my product. I take such pride in every candle I engrave – it gives me such pleasure to see how delighted my customers are when they see their own candle.
"My husband was very supportive and agreed with me that no matter what I said to this lady she wasn't going to change her position. Although it niggled at me, I came to the conclusion that there are always going to be people who don't appreciate one's individual work and there's no point in compromising or not valuing your work just to get that order."