Don’t Take Things Personally (Even If it IS Personal)

Man points finger at another man while yelling

Sometimes, when we feel upset about another person’s actions, we’re taking something personal that probably is not personal.

A cardinal theme in cognitive therapy (what I do daily with people) is helping them challenge the idea that something is meant as personal, when it’s not.

In thinking it over, I realize the error goes a little deeper.

It’s not just that you’re taking something personally that isn’t really personal. You’re also giving the (perceived) judgments or actions of others too much importance, when you do.

Let’s say somebody does something you consider offensive. We’re talking about a minor offense, not a major one, but something that you still might consider offensive. (Examples: Not replying to your phone call or text; using what you consider your parking space at work; forgetting your birthday; and so forth).

The first thing to ask yourself is, “What’s the evidence (if any) FOR this being a personal attack? And what’s the evidence (if any) AGAINST it, including evidence in support of other explanations?

I realize this takes time and work. However, your emotions will not do this work for you. Your emotions will reach quick conclusions, often without sufficient evidence or conclusive proof. It takes an analysis of facts, and a process of reasoning, to figure out what’s really true, or what’s at least more likely true, than what your feelings will tell you.

I don’t assume you have to do this for every last little feeling you have. Your life would become paralyzed by introspection. That’s neither necessary nor good.

At the same time, faulty assumptions have a way of piling up, over time, and resulting in states of anxiety, depression, or other syndromes involving a lack of serenity that many people experience. This lack of serenity (with serenity defined as peace of mind) makes life more painful and difficult than it would otherwise be.

The starting point for not taking things personally is remembering that everyone has their own flaws, problems, or daily challenges, to some extent. Some have more than others, and some handle what they have better than others. Some people are high in character and integrity (probably rare), while others are moderate or low in these areas. I’m not denying differences, and I’m not suggesting you should not or cannot rate/treat people as they deserve to be rated/treated. What I am suggesting is that you maintain perspective before you jump to conclusions or let your emotions run away with you.

When you remember that other people have problems, then you’re less prone to take things personally. You might say, “This person was not considerate in this case.” You might even conclude, “I don’t want to do personal or financial business with this person any longer, if this is how he/she is going to be.” All of those are options. However, you do not have to view their minor or moderate offenses as personal attacks, because they rarely are. More often, people’s seeming or actual inconsiderate behaviors reveal more about their own stress, problems, errors, contradictions/confusions and even (in extreme cases) lack of character than anything about you.

That’s where granting the issue too much importance comes in. Some people hold on to their hurt or resentful feelings about others. They refrain from forgiving — which by itself is fine — without ever knowing the full facts about why the person acted as he or she did. In most cases, the hurt or resentful keep these feelings to themselves and never take any action towards the offending person (by saying something to them, ending association with them, etc.) In that respect, much of the hurt is self-inflicted.

In therapy sessions, I find it necessary to ask people, “Why is this so important? Let’s assume this other person’s behavior was a personal attack against you. There’s no proof of this, and there’s even evidence to the contrary. However, let’s assume it was a personal attack. To attack you, or show blatant negligence towards you, doesn’t this say something about him (or her), and not you?”

That’s where self-esteem comes in. If you know you are a valuable and worthwhile person, then you will honestly find it puzzling when another acts offensively against you, whether it’s intended or not. The question springing to mind is not, “What’s wrong with me for this individual to reject me?” or leaping to ask, “What did I do wrong?” The question that springs to mind is, “What’s wrong with this person for acting in this way?”

Too many of us have internalized the idea that self-regard is narcissistic, unhealthy, mean or unseemly. But I spend the bulk of my working week helping people repair the emotional and life damage done by such silly and self-defeating ideas. If you think highly of yourself — where it’s deserved, and where objective evidence supports it — then your feelings are not nearly so prone to be hurt by others. Lack of self-respect and self-regard creates an emotional vacuum in which you come to depend on approval of others more than you should, and more than you objectively require. As a result, you are more easily hurt or put off when another seems to offend you.

With high self-respect, you’re less subject to emotional reasoning, conclusion-jumping or unfounded conclusions. At the same time, when people do really hurt or step on you, it somehow does not matter, not nearly as much.

Because you know it’s the other person’s problem, not yours.

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