“What did you say?” She asked.
“Look, Sharon, I am quite busy now; I will call you later in the evening,” replied Donald.
“Busy. You’re always busy! You never really have my time,” Sharon said.
“You don’t expect me to leave my job to start a chit-chat with you, do you? Well, I could, if you don’t mind us being hungry and broke for a long time. Start a hobby in the meantime till I’m back, okay,” he replied.
“Are you calling me jobless? Is it my fault I didn’t find any? I wonder what kind of bad-mouthed partner I got married to. Get off the phone!”
Maybe you do have a better response to what Sharon gave — or maybe not. Let’s see another scenario, shall we?
Tony was excited to secure a seat very close to the stage at his favourite music concert. A lady walked in and requested to sit on the free seat just beside him. After a few seconds, she stands up and leaves for another seat just behind Tony. Tony became depressed and his head was drowned with a thousand thoughts.
Was he wearing a prominent body odour?
Was he too ugly for her to sit next to?
Did he brush his mouth properly before coming?
Did he look too nerdy? Did he emit negative vibes?
Did he dress awkwardly?
At one stage of our lives, we’ve probably taken people’s actions and words personally, sometimes, even to bitter extremes. Only for us to later realize that they never even had a bad intention towards us and most likely acted to comfort themselves or try to be humorous or whatever reason they’ve birthed.
Unlike Sharon in the introduction of this article, we should seek other possibilities for her husband’s response: he could be extremely overwhelmed that day, or was having a deadline to meet or for some reason, was just not in the mood to talk. He was possibly not implying that his wife was jobless or that she was a menace.
In Tony’s case, anything could make a lady change her seat that had nothing to do with him. She could be the type that was not so comfortable with sitting at the front, or she had sight issues (long-sightedness, perhaps) or maybe found a friend she finally recognised a few seats behind her.
Not every action done by another is a pressure cooker ready to make you mad at the moment. Sometimes, our interpretation of people’s actions is a reflection of the fear or trauma we’ve harboured during our early lives. It is good we identify these things and name them so we know when they try to get in the way of a proper judgment of other people’s actions.
First up, why do we take things personally?
There are several reasons why people unconsciously take things personally and they are usually centred around the nature of our past situations, upbringings and values.
- Past fear and trauma
We have some not-so-good memories of our childhood. Some have worse memories than others. These memories can pose a cloudy judgment in our current dealings with others.
A classic example is a female boss who would see being corrected by male employees as a threat and unacceptable, especially in front of another person, because she grew up with boys that abused or bullied her.
- Personal Values
Things that conflict with our values are usually spark plugs on our nerves. But sometimes, we allow ourselves to generate so much more than sparks.
For example, imagine you’re walking down a market with a friend and she says that the beggars you both saw deserve to remain in that state until they make a change.
Since you have a value for “charity” you might attack her statement, wage a “wordy” war with her or may even call her “heartless.” This can occur even though:
- You are not the beggar being described nor are you related to the person.
- She is probably right — until someone makes a firm choice to stop being something, the person will continue being that thing.
What are the signs you take things personally?
- You have a poor strategy to taking criticism well.
Criticisms are like orange seeds, compared to their fruits, they taste rather bitter. However, they are needed to make that desired betterment we need.
Many people have not really learned to absorb criticism well or see it as a building block to creating an upgraded version of themselves. People in this category would see the not-so-positive comments as a threat and as such would want to attack them without even critically thinking about it.
- When there is a disagreement with others, you feel attacked.
People who take things personally sometimes have a sense of you-must-agree-with-what-I-say principle, which, for certain, is a terrible mindset in a world where the thinking pattern of every individual is unique. They feel extremely bad when friends or loved ones disagree with them and conclude that they are being attacked and so view every act or word towards them as a personal attack.
- You often find yourself in the pool of guilt.
In this case, you might often be engrossed in a sorry state of yourself probably based on past mistakes or unpleasant events you’ve witnessed. With this kind of mindset, you tend to even twist general statements as a fault caused by you.
For example, if your boss tells the members of your team that sales dropped in the last quarter, you might feel that you are the cause of the decline since you got employed roughly before that quarter. This leads to your thinking that your boss was talking directly to you and you’re the pain in his…
The Effects of taking things personally
One can be said to be in control of one’s life when one’s emotion is not easily stirred by others. Here’s what I mean: I can’t say I am in full control of myself when someone else can almost always trigger my anger at their will — that’s emotional slavery if you ask me.
Taking things personally shows that the person who triggered your reaction is really in charge of your action at the moment.
Finally, here are ways to help you not take things personally
- Recognize that you might be reacting to a more underlying hurt than what is said or intended at face value.
- Don’t assume; ask for clarity and intent. Before you print out your judgement on the other person(s), ask to know what they actually meant. Try to decipher what they were really trying to pass across.
- React only after a 10 seconds pause. Trust me, we are often at our peak of eagerness to react to a statement that seems to have tapped our nerves. And most times, we react in ways our sane mind would not have done so. This is why we find ourselves using curse words we never imagined we would use, or resulting in regretful physical violence toward our friends and loved ones immediately after they hurt our feelings.
This is why we should enact a delay in reaction. This would give us a little time to quickly weigh our actions more consciously. Delaying for a few seconds may sound unreasonable to do but it would certainly save you days, months and years of regrets.
- Recognize your worth
When someone tells you (as a group or individually) that you’re brainless or crazy. Just tell yourself things like:
brainless people die really quick these days. I’m still alive and so they aren’t talking to me, really.
Idiots can’t cross the road twice; I just did so yesterday.
Do you get the point? Find a deviation from what you could have absorbed and belittle the statement so much that you can easily wave it off your mind.
- Understand that many people say or do things because they have been hurt themselves.
When someone acts a bit rude or violent or cold towards you, there could be an underlying cause.
Let me give you a real-life scenario. There is this particular girl I met in school — to protect her identity, I would give her the pseudonym “Lily.”
Lily was known to be the rough stone in our faculty. She was considered hostile, rude, loud and unapproachable. One day, her friend left school quite early and we somehow had the opportunity to walk home together.
As we spoke, I saw a different dimension of her: the warm, kind Lily that was full of humour. I later found out in our discussion that she had a rough childhood where she was bullied and treated like garbage.
I could then connect the dots on why she tries to be rude and dominating before someone else possibly acts in that way before she does. I realized on the spot that our childhood experiences still rub some patches on our present selves.
- Aim at the body of the animal not its tail. Focus on what matters, not the peripheral. Look at the big picture of what they are trying to communicate rather than drooling over a single word or sentence out of an entire speech that tapped your nerves.
Tony Robbins said, “where focus goes, energy flows. Where energy flows, what you focus on grows.” Reflect on that quote and see why taking things personally, like any habit, can be reinforced with a consistent focus on them or be retarded with a consistent focus on the bigger picture of things.
- Question your belief
Are you disturbed when someone says they’re busy and can’t attend to you at the moment? Would you immediately judge them as selfish with their own time? When you find yourself pricked after a particular trigger, question the reason why. Were you always given attention while growing up such that when certain people don’t do so now you feel annoyed or entitled to their own time?
- Finally, don’t jump to conclusions (pun intended).
The human brain is wonderful in many ways. One of such ways is its ability to fill up the gaps in sentences, events and any expected logical sequence.
Try this out one day, have a friend blot out some words in a paragraph and you can still make some sense in your way of what you think the paragraph or sentence is conveying.
This is, however, faulty sometimes, especially when dealing with some people. Our brain might try to fill in gaps or make quick assumptions that are not true. This can cause a disparity between you and the other person especially when your interpretation is way different from what they even intended.
Communication between people can be misunderstood by the receiver or wrongly laid out by the speaker — often in a bitter way. However, we should aim to not be reactive to every word or deed that we receive. We should learn to find out what the other person intends or learn to not always react to every little thing. Taking things personally in nearly every situation is like deliberately allowing anyone to control your emotions. As a smarter thunder, you don’t give such power to just about anyone, would you?
Action plans for Smarter thunders
- Practice delaying your responses for some seconds whenever you feel triggered. Biting your lips suddenly or mentally counting up to 10 while focusing on your breath might help. Remind yourself that you don’t have to explode at every trigger. Tell yourself to let go sometimes.
- Write out about five things that exactly trigger you to take things personally, the likely cause of the trigger and how you can belittle those remarks.
For example, Williams always makes me angry when he compares my height to a ruler. I wouldn’t mind him because that’s an exaggeration and the joke is getting boring anyway.
- Try to think of the not-so-obvious possibilities in many situations or discussions. Ask yourself if they are intentionally trying to hurt you or maybe just trying to sound casual or funny or relatable, or perhaps, struggling to fit in.
- Get busy. There is a high chance that you would probably spend less time arguing or reacting to what you took personally when you know you’re occupied with tasks and activities than when you are not.
- Do you know someone who takes things personally? Don’t tell them not to, share this article with them. Doing so will not just help them improve their mindset, it would also help other people like you find this article easier.