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Don't Take Anything Personally: Commenting on Commenting


I recite Don Miguel Ruiz' Four Agreements as part of my daily mantra practice (mantras are positive affirmations reflecting qualities I want to cultivate in my self). I have already blogged about the ambivalence with which I sometimes view his Fourth Agreement, Always Do Your Best. I recently ruminated about my ambivalence regarding his Third Agreement, Don't Make Assumptions, in a comment on my friend Dan's Unfolding Leadership blog. I now want to turn to his Second Agreement, Don't Take Anything Personally, in general, as well as its application to the blogosphere ... renewing a practice I followed for a week, almost exactly one year ago, relating blogging to other inspiring books, e.g., Love is the Killer App, Blogs are the Killer Platform (riffing on Tim Sanders' book), The 8 Blogging Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey), Your Heart's Blog: The Practice of Unfolding (Oriah Mountain Dreamer).

[BTW, just for completeness, the First Agreement is Be Impeccable With Your Word.]

On the book jacket of The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, Don Miguel defines his Second Agreement as follows:

Don't Take Anything Personally: Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.

This agreement is very much in alignment with a concept we embrace in The Mankind Project: recognizing that "each man is my mirror" [MKP is a men's organization, hence the gender bias; although much of our work is confronting and resolving issues with other men, many of the concepts and practices apply equally well to all people].

Much of the work I've done around this concept has been on not taking any negative projections of others personally. If someone expresses anger at something I do or say - or something I don't do or don't say, as is often the case - it is usually because I have touched some wound they have suffered in the past. While I find it easier to see projections by others, I am increasingly able (or willing) to see projections in my own behavior, when I'm willing to reflect on why it is I really feel anger, sad or fear about something.

One of the ways I try to practice greater awareness of the real causes of my anger and to take greater responsibility for my feelings is to stop using language that suggests that someone else has made me angry. No one makes me angry (or sad or fearful). I often feel angry /sad / fearful, but projecting this onto others diminishes my power and accountability. Instead of saying (or thinking) "he made me angry...", I substitute "I feel angry that he...". This, then, opens up a space in which I can reflect - usually at some future time - about what it is about me that was triggered by words or actions (or inactions) of others.

While I've been practicing this agreement when it comes to emotions I typically label as negative, I find it far more challenging to apply this to emotions I typically label as positive, e.g., happiness. For example, when someone says or does something that makes me about which I feel happy, I really want to take that personally. If someone compliments me on something I've done, said or written, I want to own that, just like I have often taken ownership of criticisms others have directed at me. And yet, if I apply the Second Agreement consistently, even these positive projections are still, well, projections, and I'm no more justified in accepting responsibility for anything positive anyone says or does than I am in accepting responsibility for anything negative anyone says or does.

Applying this to my own projections - when I say something positive about someone else - I can gain somewhat greater insight into the process. I recognize that the nice things I say about others typically revolve around actions that either reflect qualities I perceive in my self (so they are, at some level, saying "way to be like me!") or qualities I want to cultivate in my self (saying "I want to be more like you!").

One of the dimensions in which I see these projections play out most clearly is in my experience of the blogosphere. The comments I post on others' blog entries are usually triggered in some way by the blog posts on which I'm commenting, but my comments themselves are always about me. I truly intend to express something that may be of value to the author of the post and/or his/her readers, but the only thing I can be sure of is that posting the comment is somehow of value to me (though it may not always be of positive value).

The example I mentioned at the beginning of this post is a good case in point. Dan Oestreich wrote a characteristically introspective and inspiring post, Just Keep Me In The Light, sharing his experience at a workshop, in which he noted (among other things):

Anyone who leads — anyone — cannot afford projection, cannot afford to assume.

This triggered one of my many internal struggles: can we not afford to assume, or can we not afford not to assume? So I posted a comment, in which I wrote about this struggle:

I think it’s impossible to drive a car without making assumptions about the other drivers on the road. Sure, one wants to be prepared for unexpected actions and reactions on the part of other drivers, but if one doesn’t assume that most people will abide by most traffic laws most of the time, one wouldn’t be able to drive.

Tying this back to leadership, how can one lead if one isn’t willing to make certain assumptions - about the competency, integrity and dedication of those whom one is leading? Of course one wants to “trust but verify” but isn’t alot of that trust based on assumptions? I think we cannot but help make assumptions … perhaps the key is to be more conscious about when we are making assumptions.

On a related note, I also don’t think we can help but make projections. All I really know is my own experience (and I don’t even know that very well). As much as I may try to understand you for who you are, I’m not sure I can ever honestly say that any perceptions I have about you are not some kind of projection. Perhaps, again, the key is simply to be conscious of the projected nature of these “perceptions”.

Obviously, I don’t have any of this worked out - thanks for helping me to be more consciously in the question(s)!

Fortunately (in many ways), Dan is a good friend, and a fellow subscriber to the Four Agreements, and thus I know that he knows not to take anything I write [in comments on his blog] personally. I wasn't so much challenging him about his assertion as I was simply opening up my own conflict about projections and assumptions - which I hope to open up further in some future blog post (on the Third Agreement).

The tipping point for me to blog about taking things personally in the blogosophere is due, as usual, to a confluence of multiple events. Commenting on Dan's post set the stage, but it was subsequent comments on my own blog posts that helped motivate me to write [er, at some length] about this.

My wine blog receives a higher comment-to-post ratio than this blog [part of this is no doubt due to the fact that my wine blog posts are typically far shorter than posts on this blog]. Lately, I've been noticing an increasing number of increasingly deceptively complimentary spam comments (spampliments?).

Some, of course, are not so deceptive, e.g.,

I am Very thank full the owner of this blog. Becouse of this blog is very imformative for me.. And I ask u some thiing You make more this type blog where we can get more knowledge. http://www_penisenlargementz_com [substituting underscores for periods to avoid giving the spam commenter's sponsor any extra links]

Others, however, are a bit harder to decipher, e.g.,

Very nice post. I liked your writing style and the way you covered the topic.

One comment even included a reference to the wine shop (Garagiste) I'd referenced in the post on which it was commenting:

i want visit Garagiste and taste their finest wines. i always searching of good type of wines.

In fact, I left this last one up for a while, until the following comment came in, which also had the same source URL (http://www_drinksos_com, which advertises a hangover cure which I imagine is every bit as effective as the, er, enhancement advertised in the abovementioned comment source URL):

Thanks for your information. i have also had some great experince for wine tasting. there is one restaurant in my town and they have many good brands of wine.

So now I've gone and deleted all the comments listing that URL as a web page (and if jakee and tony, the names provided by the people who posted the comments listed above, from an IP address in Karachi, Pakistan - a long way from the Garagiste wine shop in Seattle - are truly trying to add value, and not simply increasing the Google juice of their sponsor through promiscuous comments, I apologize).

The point I want to make, however, is not about the complimentary spam comments, per se, but that I was so easily duped into believing them to be sincere ... which I believe is because I was actually taking them personally ... and because I was taking them personally - and positively - I didn't examine them as closely ... just as I often take personally (and don't examine closely) the positive things family, friends and colleagues say to or about me in face-to-face or other types of mediated exchanges.

Speaking of which, another good friend and inspiring blogger, Matthew Cornell, recently posted a short comment on my recent post on A New Generation of Proactive Displays which has a very similar phraseology:

Neat! Tons of potential here ... and many ideas spring forth.

Now, I know Matt well enough to believe that he is sincere about this (and that he won't take personally my choice to single out his comment here). And I sincerely felt good receiving his comment, as I do in receiving all comments that are complimentary (as another blogging friend, Noah Kagan, so pithily put it: "comments make me orgasm" (a blog entry on which, of course, I posted a rather long comment)).

However, if I abide by the agreement of not taking things personally, I would have to say that this comment is really about Matt (just like my comments on Dan's and Noah's posts are really about me). Of course, Matt is an "ideas" guy (hence his aptly named blog,, and he often sees great potential in ideas and people (which is why he has changed career trajectories in order to help people become more effective in getting things done to realize their ideas). I think I can still feel good about the comment under this agreement, since even though comment may really be about Matt, something I wrote may have helped trigger him to perceive and/or project something interesting and useful ... but in writing this, I have to admit I'm not entirely clear about this (isn't the projection of triggering something in another person taking that personally, somehow?).

Anyhow, I'm going to stop here, and invite anyone who has insights to share on not taking things (e.g., comments) personally to post a comment ... though, of course, you know how I'll probably be interpreting (projecting onto?) any comments that are posted now ...

[Update, 2007-09-11: My friend, Taneli, told me that the intention(s) behind comments can sometimes be challenging to decipher on Flickr, and sent me an example of some commenting on commenting on a Flickr photo.]

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