The Costs of Taking Things Personally

Taking things personally means to see them as being directed at you as a punishment or retaliation.

For example, I am speaking to a friend and they make an excuse and leave.

  • Some examples of taking it personally are:
    • Thinking the person is mad with me;
    • Thinking that I did something wrong that made them leave;
    • Thinking that they hate me.
  • Some examples of not taking things personally are: 
    • Calmly standing there wondering what just happened;
    • Calmly walking away;
    • Becoming concerned whether my friend is OK.

Taking things personally hurts. If I assume it is something I did that made the friend run off, I am blaming myself and that hurts. Feeling wounded may make me act in unresourceful ways: quick to anger or act like a wounded puppy-dog. These internal states will most likely lead to unsatisfactory interactions with others. I feel crummy and others who talk to me feel crummy. It can ripple out from there.

Taking things personally is self-centered. In all likelihood, the reason they are behaving this way has nothing to do with me. However, something is clearly going on with my friend. I need to Forget about the scenarios in my head (in which I did something wrong)and go help my friend.

Not taking things personally is freeing. Instead of getting hurt, I am calm, more in the moment and more aware of what is going on.

Not taking things personally gives me the choice to behave compassionately toward my friend. I don’t have to be compassionate to not take things personally. However it is much easier to be compassionate if I don’t take things personally. When I feel the hurt of taking things personally, there is not much room left in my heart for compassion.

A practice for outgrowing the need to take things personally:

When I notice either the feelings or thoughts that come with taking things personally, I will think of three non-personal ways to interpret the what was said or what was done. For example,

  1. My friend may have gotten some bad news;
  2. My friend might not be feeling well;
  3. My friend could have a telephone interview and is too nervous to remember to say goodbye.

Another way people take things personally is hard for most of us to admit to because it is completely irrational. It is taking events that obviously have nothing to do with us personally. I have caught myself taking a traffic jam personally. That would require everyone on the highway getting together and hatching a diabolical scheme to all rush onto the highway when they see me coming.

Advanced practice:

Sometimes things people do or say are meant personally. Another name for these actions and words is passive-aggressive. I will use the word bully for the person who is being passive-aggressive.

Just because something is meant personally, you don’t have to take it that way.

-Marty Lowenthal

Marty’s quote is counterintuitive. Yet it is very powerful when one does it. The bully wants to get a reaction out of me. My reaction is the addiction of the bully. Not only do I feel great that I didn’t take the bait, but the other person is denied the sweet nectar of upsetting me. They will try to get my goat by baiting me a few more times. If I never take the bait, they will give up. To me, this is powerful. I just disarmed a bully.

Now imagine being so at ease in the situation that you can feel compassion for the person who is trying to hurt you. After all, they must be unhappy if they waste their time bullying others (inspired by my discussion with Myles Butler).

Can you imagine what your life will be when you stop taking things personally? You will have less heartache, will thwart passive-aggressive people, be less self-involved, be more present, be more free and you may even choose to be compassionate if the situation calls for it. You no longer waste energy of defending yourself in a situation that doesn’t warrant it. You may feel more confident and more relaxed.

©2016 Stephen L. Martin

Painting: Lyubov Popova–The Model

2 thoughts on “The Costs of Taking Things Personally

  1. There’s a great (though admittedly simplisitic) book that talks about this called the Four Agreements. In it, the author talks about how even when people are personally attacking you, it’s always a result of their own internal state. For example, a happy person wouldn’t be rude to someone, even if they were rude first.

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