A few weeks ago found me weaving my way through an art exhibit. The entire crowd was forced to go through it in a single file line.
This particular exhibit entranced me. My pace slowed, and soon there was a widening gap between the person in front of me and me. The woman behind me heaved a heavy sigh.
Which is when my mind went to work:
"Oh no. She's irritated because I'm going too slowly! I guess I'd be upset too if I weren't into this so much. Am I being rude? Is she being rude? Is she moving right up to my butt? Should I speed up?"
On and on those thoughts went, continuing until the end of the exhibit, the enchantment gone.
Shortly afterwards I was on another line, this time for coffee. Any guess who was behind me? Yep, the same woman who, as I paid up, heaved the same, heavy sigh.
The coffee turned bitter in my mouth. I couldn't take the tension. I turned around and said, "I just want to apologize if I took too long in the exhibit. I know you were right behind me and I felt like I might have been lagging."
She squinted at me and tilted her head. "You were in front of me? I didn't even notice. I was just enjoying the art."
- A co-worker makes a funny face while passing us in the hallway and we think it's directed at us. "What did I ever do to him?" we ask ourselves.
- A friend fails to respond to our email as quickly as we think she should and we're offended. "Why is she being so disrespectful?" we ask ourselves.
- Our boss walks briskly out of the lunchroom when we enter it. "Uh oh, am I in trouble?" we ask ourselves.
We go through our day reading people's actions, facial expressions and emails and we make a whole lot of assumptions about the message they really want to give us.
- Sometimes we take it personally and feel offended.
- Sometimes we feel guilty and feel embarrassed.
- Sometimes we feel like a victim which, let's be honest, sometimes we like.
Sometimes we just get lost in the web of what it all might mean, but we know it means something.
But chances are, it doesn't.
Really, it's just not about you.
I ask you this.
How often are you lost in thought when you're in a meeting? How quickly do you work through your daily tasks without noticing those around you?
Can you remember every text you wrote today or every face you made today? How about the person you may have coughed on without realizing it or the guy you never noticed you cut off in traffic?
Much of what we do in a given day has nothing to do with those around us and everything to do with what we're doing or thinking about.
Yet when those around us do the same thing we assume it has not just something to do with us --but everything to do with us.
In fact, even when something is directed right at you -- a tone or an evil look or a nasty comment -- that's often about the other person dealing with a bad day and taking it out on you. That doesn't make it okay, of course. But it does mean you don't have to take it quite so personally.
But Deirdre, you might be thinking, sometimes it really does have to do with what they think about me. I've known plenty of people who got their message across with these kinds of actions. And, to be honest, I've done the same thing at times.
And my response is of course. Sometimes others are indeed getting their message across to you with subtext, non-verbals and that perfectly crafted facial expression.
But it's not nearly as often as you think.
So stop being offended. And stop getting uncomfortable. And stop feeling guilty. And stop playing the victim.
And next time you find yourself wondering if someone else's action has something to do with you, for heaven's sake, go ahead and ask them!
You'll get the answer you need to move on. And maybe that coffee won't turn quite so bitter next time around.
Remember that other people's words and actions are almost always not about you. Think of how often you might come off as giving signals when you're not. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Then move on to what's really important in your day.