What It Means to “Take Things Personally”

What does it mean to “take things personally”? As if it’s automatically and always a mistake.

The basic error is assuming it’s all about you, when it’s not. While from your own point-of-view, your own life is — and should be — your central concern, the same is also true for others. So when you interpret something someone else does — or fails to do — as an attack on yourself, you’re probably mistaken. Your feeling that another has you in mind when they do something you dislike has to be based on evidence, and often that evidence isn’t there.

It’s a matter of interpretation. Our emotions make quick, lightning-like interpretations for us all day long. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The problem develops when you fail to stand back and take time to examine some of those interpretations.

You might call it fact-checking. Because of dishonesty in politics and government, that term has taken on a cynical veneer. But it’s actually the most useful technique available for checking our feelings against the facts of reality. We would all do well to implement fact-checking into daily life, as a way to provide a check and a balance against runaway, often inaccurate feelings.

For example, “What’s the factual evidence that this other person had me in mind when he did, or failed to do, such-and-such? Based on the known facts, what other explanations are available?” Really think about it, and be honest. Try to see from the other person’s point-of-view what might lead them to act a certain way, even in a way you don’t like. Ask yourself if you have ever done the same thing. If so, did you intend to harm other people specifically, or was there some other motivation?

It might seem tiring and cumbersome to do this. But this sort of fact-checking is absolutely necessary, on a regular basis, to make sure you’re not letting your emotions run away with you and lead you to assume things are personal that probably aren’t personal.

When people tell a therapist, “I don’t want to fact-check and keep a journal because it’s too time consuming,” it’s kind of like going to the dentist and saying, “I don’t want to brush and floss because it’s too time consuming.” Seriously? Maintenance of your emotions is just as important for your overall sanity and serenity as maintenance of your teeth is for your dental health.

None of this means you’re still not going to be annoyed, disappointed or even angry if someone does — or fails to do — something you believe they should have done. That’s a separate discussion to have with yourself. “What am I legitimately entitled to, and what am I not entitled to?” But even when someone is negligent or disappointing in some way, it doesn’t logically and factually follow that it’s an attack on you.

Follow Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1