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It's Not About You

Learn to depersonalize each other’s preferences in relationships.

Key points

  • We are wired to personalize unpleasant situations with others.
  • When others have a preference we don't like, we make it about us.
  • Mindful awareness helps you depersonalize others' preferences while maintaining boundaries.

We take the preferences of our friends, family, partners, and children far too seriously.

We personalize what they prefer. If they prefer to have dinner at five, that's an affront to us when we are preparing dinner for a “sane” time. If they prefer to chill out and stay in on weekends, it is a personal invalidation of our desire to go out and do things.

The very fact that that's their way makes it an obstacle in our way, something they put in front of our needs. The typical habit for folks is to make their preferences our problem—or, more accurately, their preference is their problem because they are foisting it on us.

My 10-year-old son loves to have our dog lick his hand. Smack, smack, smack, and my skin begins to crawl. “Stop letting him lick your hands, dude.”

“Why?” he asks. “I like how it feels, and so does he.”

And then I start making sh*t up. “Because it’s unhealthy, he licks his behind, and then you let him lick you, and then—because you almost never wash your hands (notice me inserting yet another preference affront). You’re going to get either him sick or he’s getting you sick. Either way, just stop it.”

Is it potentially going to spread germs? Sure, maybe, that and a billion other unsanitary things a 10-year-old does. Is that really the issue? Nope, I’d be lying. I just hate the sound of that lip-smacking and dog-tongue-on-skin licking. Just typing this makes me cringe.

His preference is his preference. It's not about me. It is, however, about my reactions, preferences, and peccadilloes, disowned as they are in those moments. Sure, it’s important to have rules for our kids and employees—those we’re responsible for. Truth be told, many rules are as much personalized preferences as they are logical and necessary boundaries; the former are much less likely to be owned by us.

Doesn’t it seem odd that we personalize others’ preferences? Of course, it’s our own issue, our reaction to them, and our responsibility. We easily forget until we remember to own the moment.

Now, do we need to negotiate, express ourselves around what we prefer and what the other person prefers, and see if we can show up to each other, see if we can address both our leanings?


Do we just cave to what others prefer? No, that's called codependency.

Maybe your friend is having lots of one-nighters and lots of flings and never getting serious with anyone. Maybe they don’t seem to have an interest in going deeper into a relationship with someone. If you're their friend and if you love them, sure, you can have concerns. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s their preference and that it's not yours.

If your child prefers a way of dressing or even a set of beliefs that run contrary to what you raised them to wear or believe, yes, that may be hard, painful even.

And yet again, it’s theirs and not yours.

Practice: Deference to Preference

Are you willing to see that the element of preference in another is theirs and it's distinct from you?

1. Take a listening and looking break and choose someone in your life whose preferences you’ve been personalizing. Instead of proceeding as if their preferences are yours to manage, get curious as to what thoughts and feelings are yours about their preferences.

2. Look at whether your thoughts and feelings are the other person’s responsibility.

3. Leap (if you’re willing, and I recommend you try) by letting the other person know that you’ve had X, Y, or Z reactions to their preference and that you’re not asking them to change anything. Let them know that the relationship matters to you and that you own your reactions instead of pushing responsibility onto them. You may not like their preference, but you respect them enough to own your own reactions as your responsibility to manage.

4. Listen and look at how the other responds to such an ownership leap from you. What matters about this next moment?

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