Four truer words were never spoken. Before you read further, stop and ask yourself what the phrase "it's not about you" means to you. Seriously, pause for a moment and complete this sentence: "It's not about you means..." Ok, now read on.
However you completed the sentence will provide insight into how you perceive your role in many of your personal and professional relationships. There are two main ways to interpret this phrase: 1) we mistakenly personalize another person's behavior, or 2) we believe another person's behavior reflects our own self-worth. Let's talk about each one of these.
First, too often we make other people's behavior--words and actions--about ourselves when we personalize behavior that isunrelated to us. Think about when your coworker and friend walked right by you in the hallway one morning with only a brief hello. Did you think he might be upset with you for some reason? Was it what you said in yesterday's staff meeting? Hmmm... maybe you should've invited him to your dinner party after all. Now you're off and running, using valuable brainpower and energy second-guessing yourself.
In this scenario, we assume our coworker's abrupt behavior was about us, something we said/should have said or did/should have done. All of our insecurity "buttons" get pushed and our mind immediately jumps to conclusions that are not only erroneous, but unrelated to reality. If asked about the hurrying down the hall, your coworker would probably tell you he was late for a meeting or an important phone call just came in or he had to go to the bathroom. There are as many possible reasons as there are people. Bottom line: it's not about you.
You may also infer from your coworker's behavior that he is being rude and you become insulted. How dare he slight you when you went to great lengths to help him land his new client. And what about that expensive personalized baby gift you and your spouse gave him for his new child? Well, that's the last time you go out of your way to help him! Your mind doesn't just jump to conclusions, but sprints to the finish line. What does this tell you about yourself? When you find out that your coworker was rushing because of a meeting, phone call or bathroom emergency, you are relieved that your efforts and money were not spent in vain. Bottom line: it's not about you.
The second interpretation of "it's not about you" is when we mistakenly believe that another person's behavior reflects our own value and worth. Nowhere is this more true than with parenting, and no parent I've ever met hasn't had at least one moment of feeling this way. Young, first-time parents, insecure with their parenting ability, take every milestone as a measure of how they're doing. Your baby has three words at one year but your niece, who is three months older, still only babbles. You think your brother and sister-in-law should read more to their daughter, as you do with your baby. Two months later, your niece still isn't talking but, gosh, can she run! Meanwhile, your seemingly verbally advanced child has barely taken three steps without falling down. What are you doing wrong? By assuming that your child's physical and cognitive development is a reflection on you, you take responsibility for what are merely natural developmental differences. You've assigned unearned credits or demerits to yourself. Bottom line: it's not about you.
This comparison with other children continues through to and peaks during the college application and selection process. In all my years of parenting and working with other parents, I have found that nowhere do parents get more stressed out than during the college application process. (Potty training is a close second.) Somehow, where your child goes to college (assuming your child chooses to go to college) is proof to yourself and the world just what a great parent you are, as if "greatness" is equated with status and labels.
Of course, we're proud of our children when they excel and burst with pride at every graduation ceremony (beginning with preschool). When did our baby become this wonderful young man or woman? You can almost hear "Sunrise, Sunset" playing in the background, drowning out the graduation march. It's wonderful to be proud of our children. It's quite another thing to use our children for enhancing our own self-worth. Our child's choosing an "elite" university or a community college should be--and here's the key--their choice, not ours. It's their life, not ours. Bottom line: it's not about you.
The beauty and benefit of not making everything about ourselves is the relief we feel when we let go of behaviors that are not within our control. Sure, your boss yells at you too much, but she yells at everyone the same way. It's not about you. Yes, your mother criticizes your home decorating every time she visits, but she does the same thing in your siblings' homes, too. It's not about you. Not the first time your coworker hurried by you in the hallway? Apparently he goes on autopilot when he's stressed. Bottom line: it's not about you.
The next time you link yourself with someone else's behavior, stop and ask yourself one straightforward question: is this about me? Doing so allows you to differentiate and know whenthe annoying behavior or the proud moment is about you or the other person. In one case, the bad behavior belongs to your boss. In the other scenario, the graduation accomplishment and college decision belongs to your child. Knowing the difference simplifies your life and leaves you to control the only behavior you can--yours.