We cannot control what others do or say, and we can only control how we respond. Today, next week, a year from now, or anytime in the future, someone will say something you do not like. It might be a passing comment about something you enjoy, a remark about your clothes, or simply some behavior that you were not expecting. Whatever it may be, you have the power to control how you will respond.
To answer the question, “Why do I take things personally?” Well, there is a choice to take it personally—to be offended, worried, and even anxious about what someone else has said. But, you can also choose not to take it personally—to understand that the other person is speaking only from their perspective and to feel confident in your truth.
The wise choice is to let it go, see it through, stop assuming, and not be so involved and attached to things that do not deserve your worries. Still, it is not always easy to make that wise choice. Sometimes it is hard not to take things personally. Instead of asking for clarification, we jump to conclusions and assume.
We will explore why we occasionally take things personally even when we know we do not need to throughout this article. Later, we will offer some simple yet effective tips and advice on how not to take things so personally.
Why Do I Take Things Personally?
Several people in the same situation can react in several different ways. One person might get offended, while another takes no offense. For example, in a group setting where they try to decide where to eat, you might suggest Mexican food. If another group member says they do not like Mexican food, you might hear, ‘I don’t like your taste in food,’ or ‘You have bad taste in food.’
If you were not to take things personally, you would see the situation as a way for someone to authentically express themselves, which has nothing to do with you. In another example, an employee might receive criticism from her boss about the way she is managing a project. If she tends to take things personally, she might view that criticism about her work as criticism about herself. Someone who does not take things personally would see the criticism as an opportunity to improve her work—she would not see it as a reflection of her self-worth.
So, why do some people take things so personally while others remain unbothered? Often, it comes down to a hard-to-break emotional habit known as personalization.
What Is Personalization?
Personalization is the tendency to believe that what others do or say about what they do is a reflection or comment about oneself and one’s self-worth. Typically, this is true with people who struggle with low self-esteem. Their lack of self-esteem drives them to seek validation from others.
There is a deeply held belief that one is not good enough, and the mind, an ‘excellent servant but a terrible master,’ seeks to affirm that belief. So when someone makes a comment that could potentially be taken personally, the mind clings to it. It says, ‘Yes, they are right—I am not good enough,’ or ‘I knew it, there is something wrong with me.’
Low self-esteem is a prerequisite for many emotional and mental health issues. It leads to negative self-talk, heightened negative emotional reactions, and limiting beliefs about oneself and one’s abilities. When low self-esteem (feelings of not being good enough, worthy enough, lovable enough) is confirmed by some external sources, such as comments, criticism at work, and even a breakup, it tends to grow deeper.
If external events easily influence you, and you tend to personalize and internalize them as a reflection of yourself, the good news is that you do not have to struggle with that forever. Taking things personally is an emotional habit, and just like any habit, it can be broken and replaced. It takes some conscious effort and practice, but it is entirely possible to break that habit and rest in your authentic self, free from the worries and concerns of what others say and do.
How to Stop Taking Things Personally?
The first thing to understand if you want to start taking things less personally is that not everyone thinks about you as much as you think about yourself. You might find yourself obsessing over what someone said or the tone of voice they said it in and convince yourself that it was all about you. You might even spend hours or days obsessing over it. The problem with thinking like that is that it takes so much unnecessary time and energy, and that person who said it may not have even given it a second thought.
Even when things are directly about you, you still have a choice in how much energy you put into it. Even if someone calls you names, unconstructively criticizes you, or makes a dismissive comment about something you like, you still do not have to take it personally. For your own sake, it is much better not to.
1. Challenge Your Thoughts
When you internalize the events happening around you, your ego (the part of your psyche that seeks validation from others and is deeply concerned about the role you play in your communities) will use what happened to confirm its limiting beliefs and opinions about yourself. This internalization, or personalization, serves as a defense mechanism.
Your low self-esteem keeps you on alert and in survival mode because you might worry that you will lose friends, social life, or relationships due to your perceived flaws as a person. As fundamentally social creatures, we need friendship, we need love and affection, so we figure that if we pay close attention to what others say, we can exert some control over the outcomes. We figure we can just change our behavior, such as not saying anything to keep others happy and maintain the good opinion they have of us. That can lead to anxiety, depression, and tendencies to please people.
So, when you start to take things personally, when you start to believe that you are a bad person or that you are not good enough after some undesirable external events, ask yourself if they are true. Ask yourself for objective evidence that your beliefs from all the negative things that happened are true. Challenge your thoughts and ask yourself if the way you feel after the external events, comments, criticisms, and moments of rejection are all about you, or if it is just your ego and low self-esteem trying to feed itself.
2. Consider the Cognitive Triangle
Taking things personally is a habit we can break. One of the most effective and straightforward approaches is to use some self-administered cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). CBT is an evidence-based psychotherapy that can help people with a wide range of emotional and mental health issues.
A licensed therapist delivers it over several weeks. However, you can take techniques and approaches from CBT and apply them to your life without the aid of a therapist. Therapy always helps, so it is wise to consider it if you are struggling, but remember that you have more power over your mind than you know. Applying some CBT techniques to your thoughts as you reflect or write in a journal can positively impact how you feel.
The CBT approach tackles the cognitive triangle—the interconnected relationship between our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, our behaviors to those thoughts and beliefs, and our feelings. For example, if you believe that you are bound to fail or that you are not good enough at your job, and then someone criticizes your work, you might take that criticism personally. As an emotional response, you might feel angry at the person and start acting in a passive-aggressive way toward them at work. Later, you might realize that you have been passive-aggressive and angry, and if you already struggle to validate your experience, you might feel bad about that too.
So, next time you take something personally, ask yourself if what happened reflects a pre-existing negative belief you have about yourself. If so, consider how you are reacting to what happened. Are you angry at the person who made that comment or your boss who criticized your work? Or are you disappointed in yourself because of the negative perception you have of yourself?
3. Be Kind to Yourself
It is important to bring love, kindness, and acceptance when addressing the cognitive triangle. You might open up the box of your mind and see its inner workings, but that will not fix the problem if you continue to judge and criticize yourself for how your mind works. The only way to let go of the tendency to personalize is to accept it. You are doing your best to survive. Thank the habit for its service, and let it go for a healthier, more mature, more grounded, and detached approach to navigating life and what happens in it.
4. Understand Why It’s Better to Not Take Things Personally
If taking things personally is a choice, not taking them personally is also a choice. Sometimes we choose to take things personally because we feel our ego or sense of self is on the line. In reality, it is not, but you are the only person who can accept that for yourself. There is a choice not to take things personally. If you need more reason than the simple relief of not getting caught in an unnecessary and draining mental trap, then it will be the better communication you can have with yourself and the people around you.
You can be with another person who has the freedom to say and do as they wish (within reason). You can be there freely and non-judgmentally, which allows you to stay grounded and open to what is happening. It will make you a better listener, communicator, and a more content and peaceful person.
5. Validate Yourself
You start to take things less personally when you offer yourself validation instead of solely relying on others to give it to you. When you begin to validate and appreciate yourself as someone who is worthy of love and is simply trying their best every day, other people’s opinions will have minimal impact on you.
The view and relationship you have with yourself become more important because it is your life and your business, and the only person you need to impress or be okay with is yourself. It also applies to positive comments and opinions from others. Sometimes it is negative, but sometimes when someone says something nice to us, we can personalize that too, and that is just as much a cognitive distortion and unhealthy way to see things as the negative.
“When people compliment you, by all means, say thank you. Politeness is recognizing that someone has extended kindness to you. In your mind, however, remind yourself that someone already confirmed that the dress was cute; you did – when you bought it.”Samara O’ Shea, Loves Me Not
It is normal to take things personally sometimes. We are social beings, so as much as we like to think that we are independent and do not need anybody, the fact remains that we need acceptance, acknowledgment, and validation from the community. The important thing is to balance our need for acceptance and community and our ability to stand alone in our truth as our authentic, perfectly imperfect selves.