Updated: Sep 8, 2022
We all know what it means to take stuff personally, because it’s really irritating when it’s happening to you. Sometimes you’re trying to share something meaningful or vulnerable, but when your conversation partner takes it personally, the deep sharing is over, right?
When you take things personally in your relationship
What you might be less aware of is when you’re the one taking things personally. Taking things personally happens all day every day for most people in most relationships. It’s been my experience that unless you’ve deliberately practiced how not to take things personally, you’re most likely doing it at various times. I certainly used to, and I have practiced very diligently how not to take things personally.
In case you’re wondering what you are doing when you’re not taking things personally, here’s my definition: You’re listening. You’re observing. You’re calm. You consciously choose your response to a given input.
Let’s break it down a bit more.
Taking things personally starts with me taking in some stimulus through my senses. I hear something, see something, smell something, feel something, or taste something. In addition to stimuli I take in through my senses, taking things personally can even start in my own head, by remembering something, or activating a certain thought.
I then make up a conclusion about what this stimulus means. Which in turn creates a certain feeling in me. And from that feeling, I take some sort of action.
As a formula, we could say, a Stimulus leads to a Thought leads to a Feeling leads to an Action.
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How taking things personally shows up
Taking things personally can show up in an infinite number of ways, some where you take things personally, some where it’s the people you relate with …
You’re sharing something about yourself or about your day with your partner and he makes it all about himself instead of just listening.
You go on a date, enjoy yourself, the next day you send your date a text and you get no response. You immediately think, “I know I didn’t show up very well; I’m not very attractive; I’m too old; I never get a second date”.
Your boss says, “We really need to shore up our numbers this quarter”, and you immediately think, “I knew she didn’t like me; I’m going to lose my job”.
You partner initiates sex, but you’re really not in the mood, and ask for a rain check. Your partner says, “Why don’t you love me anymore?” That’s your partner taking it personally. Or you might think, “Why am not turned on anymore? What’s wrong with me?” That’s you taking your own lack of desire personally.
You want to find a solution to an issue with your partner or someone. Could be about where you live, where you go on vacation, how you earn or spend money, how you have sex, how you raise your children or any other topic. You say, “there’s something I’d like to talk to you about”, and your partner says, “Now what did I do wrong?”
Any time you think or say things like, “I don’t deserve it; I’ll never get what I want; no one loves me; I’m not attractive; I’m not successful enough” Those are all versions of taking things personally, that is, you’re making whatever is happening about yourself.
Any time your partner or your kid or someone near you gets upset, and you think, “Now what did I do?” That is, you assume their upset must be because of something you did or didn’t do, that’s you taking it personally.
An example of taking things personally
Let’s play out one example, a variation of what I heard from a client this week: We’re trying to get out the door for an event. It’s getting a little tight on our timing. My partner says, “Where are the car keys?” That’s the Stimulus. In my mind, I think what she’s really saying is, “You lost the car keys! Where did you put the car keys? I told you a gazillion times to put them in the basket by the door! Can’t you do anything right?”
That’s the thought, or conclusion, I make up about the Stimulus (we call these conclusions simply “make-ups”).
I now feel irritated, angry. The action I take is to shoot right back and say, “I didn’t put them anywhere! They’re probably in your purse! Like last time!”
This is a simple example of taking something personally. She didn’t actually make a statement about me, but in my mind, she was saying all kinds of things about me. Negative things. About how I can’t do it right, and I always lose stuff.
Lessons about taking things personally
Here’s the first important lesson: Whether or not a statement, or a stimulus is about me, I can easily make it about me. And whether or not it really was about me, I’m still better off not taking it personally.
What happens when I take things personally – what we sometimes call getting triggered – is my brain kicks into fight-flight-or-freeze reaction mode. From that place, I’m not making conscious choices. I’m simply knee-jerk and either lashing back, defending myself, or checking out. It’s not a conscious decision on my part. I didn’t stop and think to myself, “Hmm, in the face of that statement, I’m going to choose anger”. Anger just showed up! In short, I took it personally. I made up that it meant something bad about myself.
Next important lesson: When you take things personally and get triggered, you’re no longer the one who controls your own mood or your own reactions.
In this case, my partner saying, “Where are the keys”, activated my thoughts, which activated my anger. And from that point of view, the only way to feel calm is to convince my partner that it’s not my fault, and she should not use that tone of voice, and that the keys probably are in her purse. Now we’re arguing, and it sucks.
Perhaps even sadder is what happens to my communication partner, and to the space of deep sharing, when I take things personally.
When my partner, or my child, or my friend, is trying to share something with me, and I start taking things personally, I immediately shut down the space of open sharing and invalidate the other person’s experience.
You know the stereotypical experience of a woman saying to her man, “Stop trying to fix me!” Well, when I’m the one trying to fix someone, that is a variation of making it about myself.
When your wife is talking about her day
Let’s say my wife is sharing something about her day, or about her friends, or about a difficult situation in her life. After 5 minutes, I begin to feel uncomfortable or impatient, and I jump in and say, “Look, you just tell your friend to mind her own business, and you can be done with it!” That’s me making it about myself, because I don’t want to take the time to listen, or I’m getting impatient.
This happens with children and parents all the time. A child comes home from school and starts talking about something that happened at school, and before the child is finished the parent says, “Oh, that’s nothing to worry about; it’ll pass, don’t pay attention to that”. That’s the parent making their own time or experience more important, and it shuts down the space for the child to share.
In fact, partners in long-term relationships often come to us with their number one desire being to be heard without their partner taking it personally. That’s the only way they’ll ever get to actually share fully what’s on their minds and in their hearts. I can’t tell you how often it happens that Sonika wants to share something with me, and when I don’t take it personally, that is, I just remain present, calm, interested, and listening, she will work her own way through whatever difficulty she’s talking about.
So the big lesson here is, when you or I take things personally, we shut down the space for deep sharing and exploration. Conversely, not taking things personally is one of the biggest gifts you can offer to anyone. Because they get to experience themselves and find their own solutions.
Of course, it’s extra tricky to not take things personally if my partner is talking directly about me. But remember I said earlier, that even if a communication has your name in it, you still don’t have to take it personally. Say my partner is launching into a speech that goes like this: “You just don’t listen to anyone but yourself; it’s impossible to trust you; you keep saying one thing and doing another; I can’t count on you!”
Most people do indeed take words like these personally when they’re coming from someone they care about. Those are statements, or accusations, that hit directly towards my core values, so it’s only natural I’d be triggered and want to defend myself, right? Yeah, it probably is; but when I do, it still only creates arguments and distance, and once again, shuts down the space for open sharing. It is a masterful skill to not take it personally even when someone you care about is throwing direct accusations your way.
I personally made a decision long ago that I would free myself from being run by other people’s opinions about me, and it’s served me wonderfully. Even more so, it’s served my wife, kids, and friends, because I have developed the capacity to just listen and remain calm and open no matter what or whom they’re talking about, even when they’re talking about me.
How to move beyond taking things personally
You start by remembering that annoying thing your teacher told you when someone had just called you a ninny or smeared their sandwich in your face in the schoolyard. My elementary school teachers always said, “It’s not about you, it’s about them”. Every time I heard that, I wanted to tell the teacher that sounded ridiculous, but I didn’t.
That idea is a good start, because there’s a lot of truth to it. Whatever another person is sharing with you, even if your name is in it, it’s still primarily a reflection of their own internal experience.
Look at what productive conclusion or meanings you can make up about a given situation, instead of taking it personally. Remember, when I take it personally, I’m typically making up that it’s my fault, that I should know better, that I don’t deserve it, that I can’t get it right, that I did something wrong, that people don’t love me, etc., etc. All makeups that have a negative meaning about me.
What else could I make up? For instance, one of the makeups I’ve taken on is whenever my partner is sharing something, whether about me or not, I make up that it’s a chance for me to practice staying calm and open in the face of anything.
I make up there’s important information in what she’s sharing that I might learn from. I make up that by my just listing and remaining calm and open, we’re going to be closer and stronger together. I make up that by not taking it personally I give her a gift, and I make her happy, and that makes me happy.
What could you make up? Specifically with the purpose of you remaining calm and open, instead of taking it personally?
It’s always struck me that taking things personally has a good deal of arrogance behind it. When I take things personally, I’m assuming that everything is about me. It’s a sobering thought to step back and reflect on that thought … Am I really so important that everything you say, or all your emotional upsets could be because of something I did? Not likely! And since I don’t want be to an arrogant person who takes himself overly seriously, that’s another good motivation for me not to take things personally.
Here’s a quick recap:
When I take things personally, I take a given stimulus or communication, and I make it mean something, typically negative, about myself.
Whether it’s about me or not, it always serves me and the other person or persons if I can remain calm and open, instead of taking it personally
When I take things personally, I’m no longer in control of how I feel and how I act. I’ve given that power over to outside stimuli.
When I take things personally, I shut down the space for deep sharing and exploration, and I deprive my partner of the opportunity to explore him or herself.
Remaining calm and open, instead of taking things personally, is one of the biggest gift I can offer to someone, or to my relationships.
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