The Four Agreements
The Second Agreement: Don’t Take Anything Personally
I get the gist of what Ruiz is trying to communicate with his advice of “Don’t take anything personally,” and there’s certainly some wisdom to it, but unfortunately he’s trying to make an absolute out of something that likely isn’t meant to be an absolute, and that if it were an absolute would render human interaction and human relationships meaningless; every relationship and every interaction would be completely self-referential and solipsistic and narcissistic; other people aren’t real and there’s no real contact or communion possible between people.
Let us imagine an ordinary husband and wife—well, not completely ordinary; let’s imagine a husband and wife who have read “The Four Agreements” and who are following Ruiz’s advice. . . . (down the rabbit hole we go . . . )
Husband: “What a lovely morning. It’s such a joy to wake up next to you each morning. I love you so much, my dear, thank you for being a part of my life. But don’t take any of that personally.”
Wife: “I love you too, darling, sooo much. My life is so much better with you in it. But don’t you take that personally either.”
Husband: “Now let’s get up and wake the kids and tell them that we love them but not to take it personally.”
What an absurd relationship that would be. And what a delightful little brood of antisocial rugrats they would be contributing to society. Nothing would mean anything. Nothing that anyone said to them or that they said to another. Everyone would just glide along in their own little solipsistic and narcissistic insular self-protective Teflon bubble or monad (Leibniz). What a world. And what an utter waste of life.
These are Ruiz’s own words: “Whatever people do, feel, think, or say, don’t take it personally. . . . Don’t take anything personally. . . . Even at the extreme” (pg. 53).
And, “Whatever you think, whatever you feel, I know is your problem. It is the way you see the world. It is nothing personal, because you are dealing with yourself, not with me” (pg. 51).
And, “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do, and the opinions they give . . . come from all the programming they received during domestication” (pg. 49).
But earlier he writes, “Whatever happens around you, don’t take it personally. . . . [I]f I see you on the street and I say, ‘Hey, you are so stupid,’ without knowing you, it’s not about you; it’s about me” (pg. 47).
The first problem is that Ruiz is not being impeccable with his word: “without knowing you”—why add that phrase? Because it would seem to imply that if he knew someone well enough and then called the person “stupid,” then the remark would no longer just be about Ruiz himself, but actually about the other person, and perhaps even have merit. His wording and thinking seem, at the very least, a bit muddled here.
Secondly, he’s clearly taking everything off the table—not just words, but feelings, and actions. Ruiz wants his readers to take nothing that others say or do to us personally. Nothing. He’s using the categorical word “anything”—as in “Don’t take anything personally.” He didn’t say, “Don’t take too much stuff personally”—which would actually be sane, thoughtful advice.
Now I can appreciate the benefits of each of us trimming our need for, or our dependence on, social mirroring and what Schnarch terms “reflected sense of self” (or external validation). There’s much to be said about learning how to self-validate and form our own opinions and ideas about ourselves that are realistic and accurate. It just encourages a more examined and reflective way of life; it encourages honest self-awareness and emotional maturity and mindfulness; it encourages better and more accurate observational skills; and it encourages better critical thinking skills. And there’s also much to be said as well about not disempowering ourselves by putting ourselves in a reactive position where we are dependent on other people to define us and thus to make us feel a certain way (namely good about ourselves and who we are). Seen from this perspective, Ruiz is indeed correct when he writes that, “taking things personally is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me’ ” (pg. 48). It is an example of what’s worst and weakest in us—and what we all must face and deal with if we are to actually grow; it is an example of what Ruiz, later in the book, will refer to as our inner “parasite” that we must confront.
I also agree with Ruiz that allowing others to define us is in many ways a very unwise and sketchy endeavor because most people are inherently dishonest and lie to themselves and thus to others, so therefore they are highly unreliable in their mirroring; they are highly unreliable narrators—they are not objective and fair and honest and free of distortions; so what they have to say about us will be highly distorted and warped, and we will end up with a reflected sense of self that looks like something out of amusement park funhouse. We will not see ourselves as we truly are, but in a highly bloated and distorted way. And how can we make our way through this world with grace and dignity and goodness when our map of ourselves is so inherently flawed and distorted from the getgo? Our map of reality, of the external world, will also be similarly botched and bungled and distorted. So Ruiz is right on the money when he writes: “Wherever you go you will find people lying to you, and as your awareness grows, you will notice that you also lie to yourself. Do not expect people to tell you the truth because they also lie to themselves” (pg. 57). But he misses the mark wildly in the very next sentence when he malignantly advises: “You have to trust yourself and choose to believe or not to believe what someone says to you.”
The only basis we have for trusting ourselves is the quality of our thinking and discernment—how deeply honest we are with ourselves, how up to snuff our critical thinking skills are. It’s not a question first and foremost of trust; it’s a question of the quality or level of our critical thinking. If our discernment (sense of judgement) and critical thinking skills are razor sharp and we are willing to be honest with and stringently examine ourselves and our own motivations and emotions, then a legitimate and abiding sense of self-trust is warranted. But to blithely advise people to trust themselves when their quality of life and the happiness and goodness of their relationships is a product of their own best thinking—which usually means a marked lack of any real rigorous, honest, courageous thinking—does his readership a grave disservice.
The reality is we need others. We all have blindspots; we all have areas of ourselves where we are ignorant. As Ruiz acknowledges elsewhere: “[W]e need truth to open the emotional wounds, take the poison out, and heal the wound completely. . . . Truth is like a scalpel. The truth is painful, because it opens all of the wounds which are covered over by lies so that we can finally be healed. These lies are what we call _the denial system_. . . . [T]he denial system . . . allows us to cover our wounds and still function. But once we no longer have any wounds or any poison, we don’t need to lie anymore. we don’t need the denial system, because a healthy mind, like healthy skin, can be touched without hurting. It’s pleasurable for the mind to be touched when it is clean” (pp. 115-6).
Truth means seeing ourselves as we are, or allowing ourselves to be seen as we are—which takes great honesty and courage and critical thinking skills—as well as helps to create and build these. Being truthful means getting rid of the blinders and overcoming our appetite for softeners, sweetness, having things soft-pedaled to us. It means really showing up and being present in our relationships and friendships: “Relationship is self-revelation; it is because we do not want to be revealed to ourselves that we run away and hide in comfort” (Krishnamurti). It means calling ourselves out on our excessive and bloated need for comfort, security, compassion, mildness, ease, fun, enjoyment, as well as denial, softeners, et cetera. It means weaning ourselves from the nipples that provide us sweet and easy to digest half-truths and developing the stomach (and the stones) for some solid food and solid thinking. “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think” (Martin Luther King, Jr.). Amen to that!
The danger with following Ruiz’s admonition to not take “anything” personally and to absolutize this portion of his advice is that it actually stunts our thinking—especially our critical thinking skills. It promotes the development of individuals who are now even more closed-minded and avoidant and frightened—and who now have a neat new way of “legitimizing” it and rationalizing it! Instead of encouraging his readers to become better critical thinkers and to operate on insults and compliments legitimately, honestly, with calm reflection, Ruiz is encouraging his readers to dismiss them all in one fell swoop—to throw the baby out with the bathwater, not to bother trying to separate wheat from chaff, but just throw it all out—wheat and chaff together.
Not sound or mature thinking at all, on Ruiz’s part.
Why not suggest something more emotionally mature and intellectually honest? Why not suggest that instead of people not taking “anything personally,” instead advise them to honestly and fairly and calmly and dispassionately and objectively evaluate any criticism or compliment as well as the other person’s motivations for saying such a thing to us or about us? Why not suggest a path that is more truly empowering and thoughtful? Why instead suggest a path that cuts corners and that doesn’t encourage people to become more aware and to deal with things with more emotional maturity and self-control and objectivity? After all, sometimes the ugly things, the critical things, the things that are said to us in anger, maybe the truest and most accurate—
“Never forget what a man has said to you when he was angry. If he has charged you with anything, you had better look it up. Anger is a bow that will shoot sometimes where another feeling will not.” (Henry Ward Beecher, “Life Thoughts,” pg. 190.)
“It is one of the severest tests of friendship to tell your friend his faults. If you are angry with a man, or hate him, it is not hard to go to him and stab him with words; but to so love a man that you cannot bear to see the stain of sin upon him, and to speak painful truth through loving words,—that -_is_ friendship. But few have such friends. Our enemies usually teach us what we are, at the point of the sword.” (Henry Ward Beecher, “Life Thoughts,” pg. 146.)
If we truly want to learn and grow as person psychologically and spiritually and emotionally then we to let more and more of this world in and show us who and what we are. And we also simultaneously need to learn how to raise our level of thinking and to think more critically—fairly, objectively, honestly; we need to lead a very examined and self-aware life; a life of ceaseless and tireless dedication to the truth and to reality.