Don’t Take Anything Personally: The Second Agreement

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fifth Agreement" by Don Miguel Ruiz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the second agreement of Toltec enlightenment? What does “don’t take anything personally” actually mean?

In The Fifth Agreement, don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz describe five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust the way you see the world and your place in it. The second agreement is this: Don’t take anything personally. In other words, understand that not everything is about you.

Keep reading to learn more about the second agreement: Don’t take anything personally.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

The second step on the Toltec path to reclaiming your personal freedom is to understand that the words and actions of others are based on their own relative perceptions: They’re not actually about you. Thus, don’t take anything personally.

Why is this the case? Because, as we’ve discussed, we all live in our own private world. We see things differently and we hold our own subjective beliefs. The authors explain that due to this subjectivity, everyone you know has an image of you in their head wholly based on their subjective perception of you and your actions. This image includes assumptions about who you are, what you think, what your life is like, and what you’re good and bad at. 

Ultimately, these assumptions can’t possibly reflect the truth of who you are because nobody has a clue what’s going on inside your head.

People Don’t Know You as Well as You’d Think

The naguals say we shouldn’t take it personally if others don’t see us for who we really are because, bluntly, nobody can. In fact, Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of No One Understands You and What To Do About It explains that we think others know us better than they really do. We assume anyone can tell what we want, what we think, or what we mean—but that’s not the case at all. It’s possible for someone to get close, but it takes so much effort that most people won’t bother.

The mental picture others have of us, Dr. Halvorson says, is built by a two-part system of thought. “System one” thinking is automatic, hasty, and reflexive; people engage system one when they see a small slice of us and make a series of snap judgments. In contrast, “system two” requires conscious effort and focused intent; people engage system two when they deliberately put aside their snap judgments and get to know the real you.

Often, people don’t use system two at all: Unless they make an intentional effort to be open-minded, they go with their first impulse and leave it at that. Even those who make the effort are still missing a lot—they only see what you show them and they may not eliminate all their assumptions, biases, and filters. Take the perspectives of others with a grain of salt.

They’re Not Angry at You

Because most people don’t know the real you, if someone’s angry or frustrated because you didn’t do what they wanted, don’t blame yourself for it. According to the authors, people expect you to act in a way that conforms with their imaginary version of you—remember, they think their perception of you is real. If another person claims to want something from you, they really want it from the person they think you are. The real you isn’t obligated to do anything they want, to be what they want you to be, or to play along with their imagination. In short, it’s not your fault if you don’t live up to someone’s expectations.

Relatedly, the authors say, don’t take anything personally when someone mistreats or misunderstands you. When others lash out at you, they’re responding to a perceived offense in the reality they see—not yours. The people around you don’t act according to the reality you see—they act according to their own reality. Nothing they say or do happens because of you.

How to React to Demands and Attacks

The naguals don’t explain what to do when others blame or mistreat you—they just explain why you don’t need to take such attacks personally. In the heat of the moment, though, it can be difficult to know what to do, so here’s what therapists recommend: Maintain your composure and don’t overreact to the situation. Here’s how they suggest you do that:

Pause and take a deep breath. Instead of reacting immediately, slow the situation down to give yourself time to think. This interrupts the fight or flight response.

Recognize the other person’s perspective. Their opinion and perspective are real and important to them, but they don’t match your own. So, as the naguals say, don’t take their words personally—but accept that they feel the way they say they do.

Respond respectfully. You’re not obligated to do what the other person wants from you, and you don’t have to apologize for choosing not to fulfill their desires. However, you’re still responsible for your words—so don’t use them to strike back.

Consider what life would be like if you don’t take anything personally. It just might change things for the better.

Don’t Take Anything Personally: The Second Agreement

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Don Miguel Ruiz's "The Fifth Agreement" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Fifth Agreement summary :

  • The five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust your outlook
  • How to rediscover your true self and recapture the freedom you felt as a child
  • A five-step process to escape the mirage of “the real world”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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