Why do we fight with each other? Once an argument is past, when we look at it with clear eyes, it's seldom worth the effort. But in that moment, I'm ready to wipe you out, and you're ready to annihilate me. We've gone into out most primitive parts, where the law of the jungle applies: kill or be killed.
How does this happen? You're saying something about the news, perhaps, and I suddenly feel attacked. I come back with my own attack. And we're off to the races.
Truth is, I probably don't care all that much about your comment, but for some reason I took it personally.
We're never, ever, ever, ever going to agree on everything. That never happens. But much of the time, we can agree to disagree -- you say po-tay-to and I say po-tah-to. Our differences make life interesting, otherwise it would be all vanilla (or chocolate, or pistachio). How is it, that we can accept each other's differences so often with equanimity, and then somebody says something… and BOOM! We're out to kill each other?
The answer is one of those simple but incredibly difficult things to manage: one or both of us have taken something personally. Suddenly, I feel as though you've said I can never again have "my" vanilla, but have to give in to your preference, and have "your" pistachio. Not only have it, but LIKE IT BEST. So I'm ready to fight.
There are also those times when criticism is more direct: "I wish you'd clean up," for example. Worse, "this house is filthy, you never clean!" Now it's even harder NOT to take it personally, as the finger is being pointed at you. Interestingly, even those accusations are not truly about you. They come out of my bad mood. Or my anxiety. Or even my fear that you don't really care about how I would like to live. If you take my misbehavior personally, we're off to war.
If you don't take my behavior personally, you have more choices. This means that you take a step back, and realize I'm not speaking "objective truth," but rather acting out some feeling I'm trying not to own. You can choose not to respond at all. You can choose to say something like, "I'm sorry you feel that way." or "I really can't hear you when you speak to me that way." I may, or may not, back off, but you haven't gone postal. And I'm likely to simmer down.
So next time your hackles rise, and you want to bite someone's head off for what they just said, check in with yourself: is this a matter of me making something personal? If the answer is yes, take a step back and give yourself choices. I will if you will.