When I decided to get married, I wanted to ensure I was bringing the best version of myself into the partnership. During my bachelorette party, I asked my closest friends what personal flaws I should keep an eye on and try to improve. One of them pulled me aside and revealed that sometimes I take things too personally.
I grimaced and recoiled from this revelation. I absolutely do take things personally and although I knew it, having one of my best friends point it out in a loving way helped to diminish my defensive impulses.
I grew up with a single mom school teacher and modeled myself after her diligence, conscientiousness, and a borderline-perfectionist orientation to detail. (Let me put it this way: if God Herself had a font, She would model it after the flawless lettering of Mary Minerman—both printing and cursive.)
My desire to excel and improve myself was mainly good, but it did have its drawbacks; I once revealed to my fourth-grade teacher that my greatest fear was getting bad grades. I even remember the moment when I started thinking of myself as “the smart kid.” It was a year after we’d moved to Laguna Beach and we were learning fractions in Mrs. Clapp’s third-grade class. She wrote three figures on the board: 1/2, 2/3, and 3/4. Without sketching any handy pie charts, she asked us which of these was the largest.
The most popular girl in the class raised her hand and said one-half was the largest because halves were bigger than quarters or thirds. I raised my hand and said three-quarters was the largest, reasoning that while each fraction was missing only one of its pieces, a quarter was the smallest piece missing, and therefore it was a more complete pie.
The teacher wrote our names next to our guesses and took a poll. Most of the class believed that the popular girl had the correct response. After all, a half is larger than a quarter. A few brave souls raised their hands in support of my reasoning. When Mrs. Clapp revealed that I—the new kid—had the correct response, I beamed with pride. More important than having the right answer was the fact that I’d finally found my place in the social hierarchy at Top of the World Elementary School: I would be “the smart kid” and I would work very hard to maintain that status.
I always thought I was pretty good at hiding my insecurities as a child, but I had my perfectionist tells. If I said something socially awkward, I would ball my fists and buckle my knees, as if this internal pressure would help diffuse the external tension. I usually would think of something more clever to say later and repeat it over and over to myself to ensure I wouldn’t make the same social miscalculation. Should that topic of conversation arise again, I would be ready with my immaculate line.
I think my tendency to take things personally arises from my self-imposed quest for perfection. If someone offers criticism, it makes me feel further away from my (admittedly impossible) ideal, but this is the wrong way to receive information from the world. Why can’t I accept legitimate feedback as a learning opportunity instead?
When my friend told me I took things too personally, something changed. Now when I feel the sting of defensiveness rising in my throat or bringing a flush to my cheeks, I put my impulses in check.
Last week, I even came up with a little mantra. I was on a hike to Tamolitch Blue Pool along central Oregon’s McKenzie River. It was a clear fall day and the valleys were bursting into vibrant fiery shades of yellow, orange, and red. Although I normally hike with podcasts, the environment demanded the undivided attention of my senses and I went without headphones. As I rounded the corner toward the turquoise pool, a large insect flew hard straight into my face.
“What the fuck? Why did that insect just try to kamikaze me?” I said indignantly, totally breaking my zen. I stewed for 30 seconds as I rounded the trail along the cliffs, climbing down toward the water’s edge.
I sat down on a cool boulder and looked up at an amphitheater of fall color and down into the cerulean depths, where yellow reflections gently swayed. I thought to myself, Wait a second. What if that insect was just trying to give me a hello? Slamming into my face is its only way to get my attention. It wasn’t a missile; it was just a zealous kiss.
This new perspective has implications beyond the aggressive insect, of course. What if I viewed all of life’s misgivings, errors, and difficult lessons as zealous kisses rather than missiles? I no longer have to take something personally if I assume the best intentions of others or accept the message as a benign teaching moment.
Thinking that my new mantra was brilliant, I shared the story with my husband.
He asked me earnestly, “Don’t you think that mantra is a little rapey? I mean, a zealous kiss?”
Ugh, “rapey?” What the fuck. Why can’t he just appreciate my mantra? I took his feedback as a benign teaching moment and laughed to myself: I like the way “zealous kiss” rolls of the tongue, even in this post-#MeToo world. Bless his heart for having that reaction.
After all, my husband’s perspective wasn’t a missile; it just was a zealous kiss.