It can be difficult not to take things personally sometimes.
- Someone doesn’t return your phone call.
- Another person is “busy” every time you invite them to do something.
- Yet another person asks you why you’re always “so emotional.”
When we interpret other people’s actions as a “report card” on our loveability, our worthiness, our safety, or our inherent goodness – we suffer.
I became acutely aware of this recently when someone left me a long voicemail, wanting to connect and catch up with me.
I left a return voice message back right away: I was happy to hear from them, had a really busy schedule at the moment, and offered to connect with them after the holiday season passed.
Two days later, I received this: “Um, hi. I haven’t heard from you and you haven’t responded to my attempts to reach out to you, and I don’t know, I guess I am just feeling really ghosted or something by you. Like what’s up with that? It doesn’t feel good. OK, bye.”
My heart went out to them at that moment. For whatever reason, they clearly hadn’t received my voicemail response, and were feeling hurt, confused and wanting information. Maybe they wanted to know that they mattered; maybe they were feeling vulnerable and wanted more understanding and connection.
I also felt some tension arise in me around the insinuation that I had “ghosted” them, and noticed myself bracing against the part of me that felt defensive and wanted to be known for the truth of my intentions. I had called. I had cared. I had responded.
If I had taken the “I am just feeling really ghosted or something by you” personally, things could have rapidly gone south. It was enough that this dear person had already taken my apparent non-response personally, without my adding fuel to that fire.
I replied – via text this time – with some empathy and curiosity about what may have happened to the VM that I had left right away. They texted back, “Ugh … sorry … I didn’t see your VM so I went darker and darker as the days went by. Sorry sorry sorry.”
We’ve all been there. Sometimes we “go darker and darker” in the absence of information, clarity and connection. We take things personally and start reacting as if our worst fears have just come to pass.
So, what can we do to stop the spiral, and to stay in connection with one another?
What might help us take things less personally?
Here are some tips:
Remember: It’s Not About You.
Understanding that all people are ever doing is trying to meet their most pressing needs in any given moment is key to not taking things so personally. When someone takes something that you said or did personally, see it as an expression of something they fear, not as something about you! If I had focused on the subtle accusation that I had “ghosted” someone, I would have been more likely to respond from a place that centers me: I don’t ghost people; I called back, I didn’t do anything wrong. However, when I focus on what they might be feeling or needing (instead of making it about me), I may guess that someone is afraid that they aren’t important, afraid that they don’t matter. I might connect with their fears, worries and vulnerabilities and when I focus in that way, my heart is more likely to open towards them.
When people respond to us with anger, accusation, blame or hurt, they are actually responding from an internal place of vulnerability or insecurity. And, this often has less to do with the actual incident itself, and more to do with unhealed parts of themselves reaching out for help and compassion.
Trust Your Goodness.
I knew that I wasn’t ghosting this person.
I knew that I had treated them with care.
I knew they mattered to me.
And, I knew there had to be a misunderstanding.
Had I felt insecure about myself and reactively had needed to “prove” my goodness, I wouldn’t have been available for a more gentle, connecting conversation.
The next time you experience a moment of self-doubt, take a few minutes to remind yourself of what is true about yourself and your actions. Relax into that truth and allow any fears to move through you before you respond to others.
Unpack Your Triggers.
When I take something personally, or feel more reactive and defensive about something than is usual for me, it’s often a cue that I am feeling unsure and vulnerable about an aspect of my identity. Maybe I have some self-judgments or this incident has touched on a place of woundedness and fear in me.
Connecting gently with your present moment feelings, memories and needs is a way of being kind to yourself. It’s not the same as self-pity, which is when you feel sorry for yourself and stay stuck in that negative emotion. Nor is it self-indulgence, i.e., wallowing in emotions like guilt or sadness because it feels good to do so. Instead, practicing self-compassion means adopting an attitude of kindness toward yourself when you’re going through a difficult time and letting go of negative thoughts about who you are as a person.
Let in Feedback
The best way to stop taking things personally is simply to accept what people are saying as information about their meaning-making system, rather than resisting it and believing it’s true about you. It’s easy to get defensive and argue when you feel criticized, but remember, all criticisms and judgments are just requests in disguise. Listen for the neutral information, this person’s experience, the meaning they made of the event and what needs are up for them. When you put your focus on their needs, with a commitment to caring about their needs – even if you’re unable to actually meet their needs, you’ll discover a well of compassion and options that weren’t available before.
And, just a quick “cheatsheet” to summarize:
- Don’t make it about you, or your identity
- Don’t get defensive or argue
- Don’t blame others for your feelings
- Don’t lash out or snap back
- Take a deep breath and regulate your own nervous system
- Get fresh air and sunlight
- Focus on your feelings and needs
- Focus on their feelings and needs
- Express empathy for their suffering
- Invite information about how they interpreted events
- Learn to reframe criticism as a gift and use it to your advantage
- Share information or clarify anything that might be amiss
- Express your own truth
- Grieve the gap between intentions and impact
- Get curious about what might help
Taking things personally can be a tough habit to break, but freedom and compassion abound on the other side! It gets easier and easier to start seeing how everything you encounter is simply an opportunity to meet people’s needs at a deeper level.
To paraphrase something that Marshall Rosenberg often said, remember all anyone is ever saying boils down to a “please” or a “thank you.”
Once you truly live into this truth, you’ll have more fun in life, and be more open to new opportunities and experiences!
And now it’s your turn ….
What helps you to take things less personally?
I’d love to know! Leave a comment below.