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3 Reasons to Take Things Personally

by | Jan 14, 2019 | Communications

“Don’t take it personally.”

When someone says that, the implication is that you’re being overly sensitive. You’re not separating your internal feelings from the objective external situation. Whatever “it” is, it’s not about you, so…well…get over it.

I’d like to offer an alternative way of thinking about this. It’s true that many times taking things personally is a waste of energy and we can make mountains out of molehills. Don’t sweat the small stuff, right? Know how to pick your battles, right? Yes, and plenty of other clichés reminding us to not let small things rob us of our perspective on what really matters and what doesn’t. That said, I believe that taking things personally can actually lead to positive outcomes, and the negative connotation around the use of those words deprives people of the opportunity to think about the situation in a more insightful way.

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Although there’s no universal definition of what it means to take something personally, generally speaking, it means that you believe that the way people are interacting with you is a reflection of how they think or feel about you as an individual – as opposed to the situation you’re in. In other words, you’re assuming that actions or words are subjectively targeted at you as a person instead of any external, objective circumstances. It also implies that some level of injustice has taken place, or that you’ve been unfairly treated or judged.

I’ll illustrate the concept using myself as an example.

Last week I was scheduled to take a flight from Houston to Lima for a one week business trip. After boarding, all passengers sat on the plane at the gate for two hours due to aircraft mechanical problems. Two and a half hours later, after we were told the flight would be cancelled, everyone scrambled to deplane and then scurried to customer service agents to be rerouted. Grumpy passengers, pushy crowds, and hungry, screaming children set the scene. After finally speaking with a customer service representative and going all the way back home, I sent an email to my core client group explaining the grim circumstances and that I would be delayed by a day. As the person living through the miserable ordeal that wasted a whole day, I was hoping for an email response empathizing for my situation at best, or acknowledging it at the least. The night went by with no response. I woke up to no response. In fact, I went back to the airport, took the flight to Lima, went to my hotel, slept, woke up the next day, and went to the client office for our meeting, all with no response.

Nice.

Did I take the lack of response personally? You betchya. Why? Most often, as was the case with me, when people take things personally, they don’t realize that they’re making faulty assumptions or having unrealistic expectations. They feel judged, attacked, slighted or disrespected, and a gray cloud disrupts their mood before going home and venting to their friends and family about their unfair colleagues. Clearly, that’s neither productive nor beneficial.

Ruffling the Feathers

Many people have no problem finding enough things to take personally. The amount of time it takes for an emotional reaction to rise out of an external circumstance can be a nanosecond. Have you ever experienced a situation similar to the ones described below? Would any of them rub you the wrong way? Or would you not think anything of them?

  • You weren’t invited to the kick-off meeting for an annual corporate project that you led the previous two years.
  • You’re sitting at a table with your boss and three peers. After discussing an important matter, your boss asks your three other colleagues what they think about the issue, and then skips over you and starts talking about the next agenda item.
  • You’re the sole outside consultant who’s been working very closely with a small company of ten employees for the past twelve years. You remember and recognize their key birthdays every single year, while they haven’t even acknowledged yours for about eight.
  • Your boss sends regular team emails out to you and your four peers, and pretty much always puts your name last on the message distribution list.
  • You’re the most senior person in a five person meeting with a potential new vendor, and the vendor doesn’t even acknowledge your presence during the entire hour.
  • Your colleague has a reputation of responding to email really quickly, but tends to not respond to yours at all.
  • Your boss consistently and bluntly criticizes the smallest issues with your work or even working style, and acknowledges your positive contributions on the rarest of occasions.
  • We see a trend…when we take things personally, we typically judged, attacked, slighted or disrespected.

Why Do We Do It?

Why do we let such situations bother us, moving our days from good to bad within the blink of an eye? I’m no psychiatrist, but I’ve logged enough hours on planet Earth to understand some baseline characteristics of human nature.

  1. We make false assumptions. In many cases, we assume that others will interact with us in the same way we would with them. When they don’t, we sometimes assume we did “something wrong” or that the other person is unfairly upset, unkind, or otherwise unjustly incriminating, leading us to having a negative reaction.
  2. Similarly, we have unmet expectations. Expectations are assumptions on steroids. When you have expectations, you’ve got skin in the game. And when they’re not met, the letdown can be strong and hard to not take personally. If the company you work for had a good year financially and you assume you’re going to get a nice bonus at the end of the year but don’t, you’ll probably be anything from disappointed to angry. If you expect the bonus and don’t get it, however, then you’ll probably take it very personally and have a sit down with your boss.
  3. As social animals, we need approval and validation from others. Interactions perceived as a lack of approval from general group members or the leader of the group will make us feel rejected and alienated.
  4. Many people tend to prioritize what other people think about them above what they generally think about themselves. In other words, if there is a discrepancy between someone’s positive self-perception and someone else’s more negative reaction to what the person did, then the less favorable opinion of others will often take precedence. This dissonance contributes to the feeling of taking something personally.
  5. The last point is indicative of lack of self-confidence. If what others think of us carries more influence than our own self-perception, then we don’t have a strong belief or trust in our own value.

The Mechanics of Taking Things Personally

What happens when you take something personally? Depending on your natural temperament and the situation, your initial gut reaction will probably swing one of two ways:

  1. External blame: Your ego will flare up, you’ll get defensive, and then point your finger at others for misunderstanding you or the situation. You might feel slighted, angry, spiteful, disrespected, or resentful. The sense of injustice can be poignant. This tends to be the initial response for very confident people, or for strong extroverts (and no, those are not the same thing).
  2. Internal blame: You’ll shut down and wonder what shortcoming of yours led to this misperception of you. You might feel misunderstood, disrespected, lonely or hurt, or become cold, distant and uncommunicative. This tends to be the initial response for people with lower confidence, or for strong introverts (again, I am not making any association between the two).

Of course, given the fickle nature of human behavior, the above is a clearly an over-generalization. An initial feeling may morph into another upon further reflection on the situation. People who tend to initially accept internal blame can also clearly get fired up if they start to see a bigger picture of “injustice” come into focus. And those who initially point the blame at others may soften their view and look inward once initial an defensiveness transitions from a boil to a simmer.

That’s the good news – an initial negative reaction to a situation can be transformed into a more positive experience given the right mindset.

But is that where the good news ends for those mocked for taking something personally? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that a treasure trove of personal insights will be revealed to those willing to peel back the veil of this criticism.

3 Reasons to Take It Personally

That’s right. Taking things personally can work in your favor, so start seeing it as an opportunity instead of a fault. In other words, instead of focusing on trying to NOT take things personally, focus instead on using those instances to your advantage. A few benefits include:

  1. Identify and Address Core Triggers: Perhaps the event that you were told you took personally really did fire up one of your key triggers – the “people and situations that lure us into behaving in a manner diametrically opposed to the colleague, partner, parent, or friend we imagine ourselves to be.” Understanding that can help you pay attention the trigger in the future and then approach those situations more mindfully. For example, if it really rubbed you the wrong way when your boss skipped over you – and only you – when going around the table asking for team opinions, perhaps your trigger is feeling less important than your peers, or feeling disrespected. (Although truth be told, that was a pretty crummy move on your boss’ part.) The next time that happens (which it should not), you can be more aware of your immediate reaction and use one of the techniques below to cool your jets before they take off. Read Marshall Goldsmith’s book Triggers to delve deeper into this topic.
  2. Better Listening Skills: Identifying and addressing your triggers and reactions when you take things personally can lead to open, productive conversations with those involved. You’ll need to be willing to listen with full presence and an open mind in order to hear others’ perspective on the situation, and be willing to acknowledge any role you played. It can also prompt you to be a more active listener in general, paying more attention to context and inferences that might give you clues as to what might be really going on during certain interactions versus what you initially perceive.
  3. Improved Connections: Building on the two previous points – the more you can identify and address your triggers and reactions, the better opportunities you have to be a proactive listener to verbal and non-verbal communications. And that, in turn, can result in closing the gaps in your personal and professional interactions, ultimately leading to improved connections. And who doesn’t want that?

Pivoting to the Positive

Whether or not someone else calls you out on it, when you take something personally, you’re experiencing a negative reaction to an external situation. Justified in feeling that way or not, that’s never a good emotional or psychological state to be in. The faster you can process it and move past it, the better your day will be. How do you do that? Here are some suggestions.

  • Give the other person or people the benefit of the doubt.
  • Realize that many times, the core issue is more about your self-confidence and self-perception than how the other person treated you.
  • Don’t give others so much power over your internal state. You’re in control over that…not them.
  • Don’t make assumptions about the other person’s intentions.
  • Realize that your self-worth doesn’t come from validation from others.
  • Trust the way you deal with situations and interactions. The fact that someone else may not like the way you handle something doesn’t mean they’re right and you’re wrong. Stand firm.
  • Recognize your triggers, as discussed above.
  • Keep the situation in perspective. At the end of the day, no matter how big of a deal this feels to you right now, there are probably more important things for you to focus on or worry about.

In Summary…

Taking something personally doesn’t make us bad or flawed people. It simply makes us humans attempting to make sense of everyday interactions in ways that sometimes conflict with the best of who we really are. So the next time someone tells you “hey, don’t take it personally,” spend a few minutes observing what really took place inside and outside you during the given situation, and thinking of how you can handle this and future situations a little differently.

Does this article resonate with you? Do you have an experience of taking something personally that you’d like to share? I’d love to read your thoughts and reactions – leave a comment below!

The Author – Marina von Bergen

I’m a leadership coach and consultant focusing on effective communications and emotional intelligence in the global workforce. To learn more, please visit the About Me page for details on my professional background, my educational accomplishments, my global experience and perspective, and my arguably excessive number of certifications and credentials.

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