Don't Take it Personally

Taking it Personally

Someone I care about was giving a talk recently and I was placed in a situation as an audience member in which I thought others were acting disrespectfully toward him.  As I mentioned this as a fact to someone, I realized that the situation couldn’t be avoided given the circumstances, and that there was nothing to defend or solve for. 

I was taking the situation personally.  I needed a reality check.  

You’ve been in similar situations, I’m sure, when something someone said or did made you feel this way.   

  • Perhaps you feel snubbed in a group or by a certain person.
  • You perceive that you’re the only person who isn’t noticed or addressed.   
  • When a person references something negatively that is of importance to you and then replies, “Hey, only kidding, of course.”   
  • Or when you’re bothered by the assumptions a person must have as he places his hand on top of yours and pats it, rather than giving a good solid handshake.

When we take things personally, we head in the direction of negative.

What Are You Telling Yourself?

Perceptions are based on past memories related to a person or similar situation, or the general way you tend to think – mostly positive or mostly negative – and even your current mood.

It’s through our perceptions that we form perspectives on things outside of ourselves.  We see or hear something and form an opinion of what’s occurred.  Sadly, often we make unfair conclusions about the other persons involved, even their character.

Perception is relative.  And it can also be very powerful.  Once it enters your mind, it can percolate into self-talk that creates a negative response where none is needed.  It's "making up the facts" to suit a negative you:

  • A person at the Farmers' Market didn't greet you as warmly as he usually does, and you were secretly hoping for the hug you usually get.  You tell yourself, "John seems a little cool toward me today."
  • You attend a cocktail party hosted by your boss that you didn't want to attend, and complain to a coworker, "Phil gets a kick out of making us all suffer." 
  • Your daughter informs you she doesn't prefer the jeans you picked out for her and you exclaim, "Sally, from now on just get them yourself!" 

How Not to Take it Personally

Rather than dismiss the situation and the person in it as “Rude!” try these strategies to offset your self-talk from the start:

  • When you feel a sudden emotional surge, don't react.  
  • Pause and breathe.  
  • If you can’t pause and breathe and ask yourself what you are feeling, say something like, “John, would you mind saying that again?  I’m sure I’m misperceiving what you said.”  
  • Consider that you are simply taking it personally.  You are in the whirlwind of upsetting yourself by thinking what someone said or did was critically directed to you or someone you care about.  

The things people say and the manner in which they behave have to do with them, not you.  When you take something personally, it’s usually an indicator that you need approval in some form or another.  

As someone once said, the only approval you need is your own.  And when you have this, the things others say and do aren’t taken so personally.

The Etiquette Place Holder

Even when you are perceiving negative responses, you can choose to use a place holder – to give yourself time to see more.  This is the role courtesy plays.  

When you start to take things negatively, intentionally choose courtesy.  Reworking the examples above, your etiquette-ful responses might go like this:

  • To your friend at the Farmers' Market: “John, before we say goodbye, I'd like the hug I usually get!” 
  • To your coworker at the cocktail party: “I have to admit I'd rather have stayed home this evening, but let's do our best to get out there and mingle.”
  • To your daughter about those jeans: “Sally, I'm disappointed you didn't like my choice.  How do you want to work in more choice on your part?"  

In other words, you can step outside of your negative self-talk etiquette-fully and give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  With a little practice, you’ll find it is possible to consciously commit to giving others the benefit of the doubt.  It's far more fun than staying stuck in judgmental perception of motives.  

And, turning it around, when you think someone may have interpreted you as being rude, or when you sense they’ve taken something personally, make an immediate gesture to change the subject or include the person by asking a question on a different subject.  How you treat others today will influence how others treat you in the long run.

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