Maybe You Should Take It Personally

Maybe You Should Take It Personally
Capuchin monkeys. (Simon Dannhauer/Shutterstock)
Loretta Breuning

People often say that you shouldn’t take things personally, but that doesn’t really help you. It mostly helps the person who’s saying it.

It helps a friend to stay on your good side by agreeing that your boss or your spouse is the problem.

It helps a parent bond with their child by agreeing that a bad grade is the teacher’s fault.

It helps a politician win your vote when they blame “the system” for your frustrations.

Blame feels good in the short term, but it makes things worse in the long term. It makes you feel powerless, so you don’t invest effort into steps that could actually improve your life. Blame places your focus on what you can’t control, so you ignore the things you can control.

And you don’t even realize that you’ve made a choice when you place blame. You think you’re just seeing the facts.

To recognize your choice, watch a video of monkeys cracking nuts open. They fail over and over, and they don’t eat if they don’t crack them, because no one shares nuts in the monkey world—not even their mothers.

Without nuts, a monkey lacks protein and thus lacks the strength necessary to win in the reproduction game. Stress chemicals surge when a monkey fails, but it tries again and again. A young monkey can take years to get the hang of it.

Monkeys don’t blame their failures on the successes of others. A monkey’s brain is too small to construct abstract theories. It sticks to the concrete evidence.

The human brain is large enough to rearrange facts in creative ways. The big human cortex can always find “evidence” that others are responsible for your failures.

That feels so good in the short term that you ignore the long-term harm that’s done when you avoid responsibility. When the harm adds up, you can always do more blame-shifting to relieve the stress.

Taking responsibility is hard because it feels bad in the short term. It’s harder still when friends, politicians, and even parents support the blame-shifting mindset.

But you still have a choice. You can choose to build skills, even if you’ve failed many times before.

You can build study skills, even if your parents blame the school. You can build relationship skills, even if your friends say your boss is a jerk and your spouse is a jerk. You can build life skills, even when politicians invite you to blame “the system.”

Life is more satisfying when you stop playing the blame game. You enjoy your own power instead of feeling like a powerless victim. You may love your new life so much that you want to tell others about the value of taking responsibility.

You may get a bad reaction. Friends may stop counting you as a friend if you don’t agree that their bosses or their spouses are the problem. Family members may grow cold if you don’t support their victim theories. Voters may shun you if you don’t blame “enemies” for their frustrations.

So, it’s easy to see why the victim mindset is popular. Indeed, it’s hard to see how a personal responsibility mindset can ever compete.

It’s hard to build friendships based on personal responsibility. It’s hard to build families and governments based on personal responsibility.

Yet, you still have a choice.

You can be popular in the short term or get results in the long term.

That choice is mirrored in YouTube’s selection of videos on monkeys cracking open nuts. Most of those videos make it seem like monkeys get the nuts easily. They fit the entrenched belief that life in the state of nature is easy and that our lives are only hard because our system is bad.

Videos that fit that mindset are more popular, and primatologists who fit that mindset are more popular, too.

They lure you to believe that you can have unlimited nuts without effort if you “change the system.” That belief feels so good that people embrace evidence that fits and ignore the rest of the story.

Loretta G. Breuning, Ph.D., is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She is the author of many personal development books, including “Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels” and “How I Escaped Political Correctness, And You Can Too.” Dr. Breuning’s work has been translated into eight languages and is cited in major media. Before teaching, she worked for the United Nations in Africa. She is a graduate of Cornell University and Tufts. Her website is