Like all children of the 90s, I grew up vividly aware of Michael Jordan. While I wouldn’t say I was exactly a fan — my attention span for sports at large was limited at best — it was impossible not to get swept into the cult awe and reverence at Jordan’s excellence. He’s still arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, an insatiable competitor whose success was often heralded as the result of a tireless work ethic that’s at the heart of the American dream. He embodied a growth mindset so powerful that he famously left the NBA at the pinnacle of his career to play professional baseball, a sport he hadn’t played since childhood: “I’ve always believed that if you put in the work, the results will come,” he said. 

“Like all children of the 90s I grew up vividly aware of Michael Jordan.”

Being much more interested in watching sports movies rather than any actual games, I had missed a lot of the deeper dives into Jordan’s mentality and resulting success. So when the 2020 meme of Jordan holding out his arms in an expressive gesture with the caption, “… and I took that personally,” started making the rounds online, I laughed and showed it to my husband. 

“I’ve never related to a basketball player more,” I joked. But Aaron made a face I know to mean Yikes. He shook his head. “I thought you were a fan,” I said. 

“I am,” he said. “I mean, as much as you can be a fan of a tragic hero.” 

As it turns out, Jordan has quite the history of taking things personally. His memory for perceived snubs both on and off the court is famously documented. The meme itself was created from a scene in the ESPN documentary “The Last Dance,” in which Jordan lists many of these moments. For his 2009 Hall of Fame speech, he used his time to call out other players who he believed had crossed him over his career. He even went so far as to fly in an old high school teammate who’d been kept on varsity over Jordan their sophomore year. “I wanted to make sure you understood,” he said, addressing their former coach, “You made a mistake, dude.” 

“It’s pretty incredible that the greatest basketball player of all time used his Hall of Fame speech to stage a revenge dress moment for a coach from his youth.”

I recognize that I’m coming to the party here 15 years late, but it’s pretty incredible that the greatest basketball player of all time used his Hall of Fame speech to stage a revenge dress moment for a coach from his youth. Many have called Jordan petty and bitter for moves like this, and it’s hard not to see it that way. But it’s this precise fixation on each minute insult and slight that is at the heart of Jordan’s success: By taking everything personally, he created a potent motivator to fuel his every move. Even the smallest offenses were added to this fire, becoming equally as adversarial as the rest, just another hater Jordan had to prove wrong. It was a fire that both fueled his career, and in other ways, absolutely burned him alive.

Tragic hero indeed!

Taking something personally means believing that other people’s actions are because of you. 

Your friends go to lunch one day and don’t invite you. A cashier turns off their lane just as you join the line. Your sibling starts a new job and hasn’t returned your texts or calls for over a week. A colleague is nominated for an award and no one tells you until you’re at the work event, watching them accept the accolade.

There are several ways to experience all of these examples, but taking them personally might look like this: Your friends left you out on purpose. The cashier didn’t like the look of you. Your sibling is mad at you and doesn’t care about you anymore. Everyone at work secretly thinks you’re incompetent and conspired to award your colleague to humiliate you. 

Centering yourself as the target of every circumstance that makes you uncomfortable can feel true, but that doesn’t make so. Because while we are undoubtedly in the starring role of our own lives, we usually aren’t in everyone else’s.

“Centering yourself as the target of every circumstance that makes you uncomfortable can feel true, but that doesn’t make so.”

Taking things personally is an ego problem, a conflict that stems from of our sense of identity and measure of importance. “Those of us who struggle with disappointment, frustration, or anger tend to take things very personally. Led by the ego, we may forget that we are not at the center of the universe,” writes Moshe Ratson MBA, MFT. “The amount of worry, anger, and suffering you experience in your life is proportional to your sense of self-importance.”

It’s easy to see how someone like Michael Jordan might have a hard time shrinking his self-importance into a modest enough size to not take everything personally, but for most of us regular civilians, the shift in perspective might not be such a leap. Keeping a check on our ego is an essential component of having healthy, close relationships with others. If we never grow out of the early childhood developmental stage of egocentrism, it makes it impossible for others to be in our lives without relinquishing their own needs, desires, and identities to honor our own.

“The amount of worry, anger, and suffering you experience in your life is proportional to your sense of self-importance.”

– Moshe Ratson MBA, MFT

Taking things personally is not only harmful to our relationships, it’s not exactly healthy for ourselves. Letting yourself believe that every interaction is an act of cruelty against you specifically can create a personal hell that is very hard to escape.

Let’s go back to the ego problem. Someone who centers themselves in every scenario could actually be struggling with deep insecurity, and has built their identity and sense of worth on external validation. (This played a part in Jordan’s own motivational narrative: “I want approval,” he has said in interviews. “I want that type of confidence.”) Psychological theories on ego strength come into play here.

“When it comes to mental well-being, ego strength is often used to describe an individual’s ability to maintain their identity and sense of self in the face of pain, distress, and conflict,” writes Kendra Cherry, MSed. “When a person has good ego strength, they can manage the challenges that they face without resorting to harmful or unhealthy coping mechanisms.”

I think it’s fairly safe to say that however great Michael Jordan was on the court, it’s not healthy to build your life on a narrative that conflates every negative moment into a personal immortal adversary that only you can vanquish. This kind of thinking might have won him championships, but watching the Hall of Fame speech alone makes it clear that the personal cost is astronomically high. Because what kind of peace and contentment can exist in such a mind?

While having great ambition or being in a high-profile role can often make it easy to slip into egocentrism, I’ve found that being sensitive and intuitive can also trip me up. I can often get caught up in subtext and implications in interactions that make it difficult to let go of the feeling that someone else’s behaviors are secretly directed at me. 

“When I’d learn that whatever it was triggering my insecurity was something innocent, I’d feel a small relief that would get instantly overwhelmed by regret.”

I might spend weeks in a spiral about a situation that truly had very little to do with me, just because I perceived some tonal discomfort. When I’d learn that whatever it was triggering my insecurity was something innocent, I’d feel a small relief that would get instantly overwhelmed by regret.

How much time and emotion I’d spent on interpretations that weren’t actually real! How committed I’d been to living in a doomscape entirely of my own making! What a waste!

So how do we dig ourselves out of this head space? For me, it’s been by relying on another source of inspiration from the 90s: The Four Agreements.

I’m not usually one to make hard and fast rules, or to trust solutions that come in broad strokes. But the following code of conduct is expansive and adaptable enough to stand the test of time — and I’m not just talking about the decades since its publication. The Four Agreements are based in the ancient wisdom of the Toltec people of Mexico, a pre-Colombian civilization from the 10th to mid-12th centuries. The four rules promise to lead to personal freedom, peace, and happiness.

Just four rules for happiness? No wonder the book has sold so many copies since its publication in 1997. 

The Four Agreements are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally. 
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best. 

Seems straightforward, right? But these four little rules hold so much! Being impeccable with your word doesn’t just mean holding yourself to your promises, but also being precise and deliberate with your language. This means not speaking out of anger or from a volatile space — or when doing so, holding yourself accountable to the words that you used. I also read this as meaning what you say and saying what you mean: Avoid speaking in riddles, playing emotional games, or relying on subtext to communicate your desires. Instead, you use exactly the words you mean, words you can stand by that don’t leave room for misinterpretation. Imagine the heartache and misunderstandings we might avoid if we all attempted to do this!

“These four little rules hold so much!”

Related to this is agreement number three: Not making assumptions. If we all agreed to take things at face value, we might avoid the potholes of drawing conclusions with faulty logic. We all know the old saying about what happens when we assume. Yet as we develop our social skills and learn to read body language and tone, we start to also assign meaning to behavior and words that hasn’t been explicitly stated. While actions can tell us more than words, we don’t always have the whole story. Assumptions are shortcuts to breaking trust and creating conflict where it otherwise might not have existed. Not making assumptions makes room to give the benefit of the doubt to others, and to offer good faith curiosity in a relationship. It makes room for hope.

Not taking things personally frees us from suffering over realities that might only exist in our own minds. And with that space freed up, we can instead fill it with generative, healthy, fulfilling thoughts. We can invest in our interests and our own growth, and enjoy relationships that don’t hinge on the impossible terms of one party making everything about themselves. We learn to admire someone without letting that admiration threaten or diminish our own self-perception. We can experience true, unconditional love.

“Not taking things personally frees us from suffering over realities that might only exist in our own minds.”

Always doing our best doesn’t mean winning at all costs — in fact, the Four Agreements isn’t about “success” at all. It is about showing up to our life with the best possible mindset to reap personal peace and contentment. Doing our best is a moving target, leaving room for “lower performance” or “good enough” standards on days when we’re sick, going through a hard time, or just feeling down. If we know we showed up with the best that we could in that moment, we can free our minds of the self-criticism and anguish that can so easily hold us back, taking up so much space that we can’t enjoy the good in our lives, let alone see it.

Breaking the habit of viewing every circumstance as being entirely about ourselves is a practice of letting go. Relinquishing the pressure that comes with being the center of every interaction can feel a little destabilizing, and possibly even seem at odds with the natural impulse to tell the stories that give our lives meaning and order. Decentering the self makes us have to take the place of a bystander at times, someone whose role it is to simply bear witness and not the weight of every moment on our shoulders. It gives us a chance to sit courtside and watch the greatest basketball player of all time do incredible, impossible things in each game, without once having to worry about how the experience might threaten our own foundations. 

And honestly? That sounds pretty free to me.

Stephanie H. Fallon is a Contributing Editor at The Good Trade. She is a writer originally from Houston, Texas. She has an MFA from the Jackson Center of Creative Writing at Hollins University. She lives with her family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she writes about motherhood, artmaking, and work culture. You can find her on Instagram or learn more on her website.