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The Power in Not Taking Things Personally

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

As an Orientation Leader, your training week prepares you for a number of tricky scenarios that might come up during Orientation Week. Homesickness and sunburns? Predictable and likely. But the most inevitable outcome of gathering a bunch of 18-year old kids from different backgrounds together? Social friction, questionable comments, and hurt feelings.

“Don’t be afraid to correct your first-years,” my orientation coordinator told us. “We could all benefit from being called in.”

I was surprised by the language my orientation coordinator used: “call in.” Not “call out,” which I always felt carried an undertone of hostility or aggression, a suggestion of being subjected to a very public, negative censure. The phrase “call out” sounded almost Medieval to me: like being exiled out of a village, singled out to be excluded.

Being “called in” brings the focus to what is gained. Instead of being forced out for our mistakes, we’re given the chance to do better in a way that makes sure everyone is respected. The positive framing of a “call in” also helps us overcome two very normal human traits which can impede our ability to improve: sensitivity and pride. Our egos can mislead us into thinking that being corrected is being challenged, or that being held accountable is being personally attacked. Once again, a “call in” reminds us to look beyond ourselves and to be mindful of the communities we are a part of and participate in.

The crux of what I have learned about receiving (and giving) constructive feedback as an orientation leader, classical pianist, and English student can be summarized as: “don’t take things personal, and don’t make things personal.”

As a classically-trained musician, I’m no stranger to getting constructive criticism. During festivals and competitions, after you and your fellow musicians perform, the adjudicator publicly critiques each competitor’s work. Though this may sound harrowing – and if you had an adjudicator who was particularly ruthless or wasn’t overly concerned with tact in their delivery, it probably felt that way in the moment – adjudication was helpful for improvement. The point of adjudication was never to say “your technique is terrible, your passages and scales were uneven” or “you have no artistry, your legato wasn’t smooth” and adjudication never stopped at naming mistakes. Critique would be followed by suggestions for improvement. “Your passages and scales were uneven…SO try practicing them slowly, or staccato, or with dotted rhythms.” “Your legato wasn’t smooth…SO try staying closer to the keys and minimizing your wrist movement.”

Adding that second section and focusing on what can be changed is often missing from how we handle feedback. Don’t make things personal. When you’re addressing an issue with someone, focus on the behaviour and actions. Since our actions are external and changeable, focusing on our behaviour can make us feel empowered and solutions-focused. If you shift the label to the person – attributing it to their character or something innate, it can feel like a personal attack.

If “don’t make things personal” is a maxim for giving feedback, “don’t take things personal” can be a maxim for receiving it in a way that is positive and helpful.

As an English major, receiving feedback can feel especially nerve-wracking and personal. Submitting a personal reflection paper which reflects your individual opinions and experiences can feel a lot more vulnerable than completing a Scantron exam that will be graded by a computer. If I’m feeling overly anxious while waiting for feedback on my writing now, I remind myself that my professor is grading the work that is in front of them. They are evaluating my paper, my essay, my submission – not necessarily evaluating my talent, my potential and my character. A grade on an assignment is just that: a grade on an assignment, it’s not a final or definitive statement about me.

Adopting this mindset has helped me quell anxieties not only after I submit essays, but even before I begin to write them. I used to be paralyzed by perfectionism, pressuring myself with the belief that everything I turned on had to be an immaculate reflection of my abilities at my best. Releasing the idea that every paper has to meet this standard has been liberating. Now, I extend myself grace. Some assignments will take place during busy weeks or challenging personal situations, and their quality and grade might reflect that, and that’s okay. Moderate fluctuations in my grades or performance aren’t damning proof of inconsistency or lack of (or even reversal) of progress and improvement: fluctuations and hiccups are human, and they come with the turf of having a full, rich spectrum of human experience and having an existence that isn’t confined to school.

Following the advice “don’t take things personal, don’t make things personal” has brought so much peace to my life. Releasing the need to take things personally has spared me from overthinking or dwelling and instead helps me to just forgive myself, move on, and do better. Similarly, avoiding making things personal has taken a lot of stress out of difficult conversations, moving them away from feeling like oppositional confrontations and more towards feeling like productive, collaborative compromises where both people feel like their needs are heard, affirmed, and met.

The next time constructive criticism or a personal confrontation has you feeling like you need to nurse a bruised ego, try just detaching and leaving your ego out of it altogether – take the lesson and move on.

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Mariel Matsuda

Queen's U '22

I switched my major from Psychology to English Lit after three years because I realized I was better at reading books than I was at reading people. Big fan of literary theory, good-quality olive oil, and studying to movie soundtracks.
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