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Critical thinking

I overheard a snippet of conversation between two young sales assistants in a shop in Dundrum Town Centre last month.

"Honestly, babes, nobody in here has ever had a bad word to say about you," said one to the other.

The girl who nobody had ever said a bad word about seemed pleased with this testimonial, but she said nothing and went on folding T-shirts.

"You're, like, the only person in here that nobody bitches about," she continued. The other girl smiled now - this seemed to placate her.

I felt anxious, though, and not just because I couldn't find a pair of jeans in my size. Their conversation took me back to the twisted bonding exercises of my schooldays and a time when it was considered beneficial to tell someone to their face what someone else had said about them behind their back.

Thankfully, age helps us mature beyond this tit-for-tat nonsense. Well, in most cases. I've encountered one or two people who, even in adulthood, are still compelled to share the opinions of others. And just as many who are only too happy to hear what they have to say.

Imagine this scenario: you're having a phone conversation with a friend. After saying your goodbyes, you realise that they didn't end the call. You can now hear the friend talking about you to the person whose company they are in. Do you stay on the line and listen, or do you hang up?

Those who say they would listen might argue that they could be privy to something that they may need to know. They might even contend that they were meant to hear this conversation.

They're only fooling themselves. As the saying goes: what others think of you is none of your business. And as experience tells us, nothing good ever comes from these situations.

This philosophy is part of The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Second Agreement in Ruiz's bestselling book is: Don't Take Anything Personally.

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"Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream," he writes.

"When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering."

When we take on the opinions of others, we tend to extrapolate. If he thinks I'm this, then she must think I'm that… Rarely do we stop to consider context or perspective.

"Whenever we hear an opinion and believe it, we make an agreement, and it becomes part of our belief system," continues Ruiz.

Journalists know all too well the pitfalls of taking things personally. Online reader comments these days can be particularly bruising.

The general advice is 'don't read the comments', but occasionally we do. And then we remember why we don't...

In many ways, reading the comments is a microcosm of why we shouldn't take things personally elsewhere. We get to see, in black and white, just how detrimental it is.

Reading the comments tempers your writing. A particularly damning comment keeps running through your head and you wonder if the piece you're currently writing reflects this criticism.

Then you rewrite. Then you erase. Then you look back at the comments to see who else hates you. It's a flesh-eating process...

As a journalist friend once noted, you start writing to please people and you stop being true to yourself.

This is what happens when we take things personally, irrespective of industry or ilk. We allow the opinions of others to inform the decisions we make.

There's enormous liberation in not reading the comments - good, bad or indifferent.

Ruiz calls it "immunity in the middle of hell" and believe me, the comments left by some readers can be particularly hellish. The flip-side is that some people have very nice things to say. The challenge is not to cling to those opinions either.

"One of the highest places you can get to is being independent of the good opinions of other people," writes motivational author Dr Wayne Dyer.

When we construct our identities from criticism or praise, we are poised between attack and defence.

If it's criticism, we find ourselves rehearsing our riposte and adopting a me-against-the-world attitude. If we overly identify with praise, we can become defensive of our status and terrified of falling from grace.

Ultimately, it's all ego and we're best remembering that a pat on the back is only six inches away from a kick up the arse.

This brings us back to a place where we are not trying to please our fans or silence our critics. It's the place of integrity, and that's where the real work happens.

"As you make a habit of not taking anything personally, you won't need to place your trust in what others do or say," adds Ruiz. "You will only need to trust yourself to make responsible choices... The whole world can gossip about you, and if you don't take it personally, you are immune."

If somebody wants to tell you what someone else thinks of you, you're best telling them that you just don't want to know. Otherwise, just don't read the comments.

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