If you routinely take things personally, you may often believe whatever just happened must be involving you somehow… so ask yourself a question, ‘Am I that big a deal? Is it really about me again?’
Dr. Mitchell Perry
TAKING THINGS TOO PERSONALLY
“I take things too personally” is a remark I hear frequently from clients, colleagues, and friends.
If your spouse comes home crabby, do you feel responsible, guilty, irritated, and finally, crabby yourself?
If you fail to get an invitation to lunch, or to a party or wedding, do you take it personally and then doubt yourself and your popularity?
If someone else gets the contract, do you believe you have failed to deliver?
If your boss forgets to say good morning, do you automatically think that he/she is mad at you?
If your guests want to go home early, does that immediately suggest they dislike your company?
Frequently, we have our whole day ruined because someone else’s behavior rubs off on us, and we feel responsible. We often find that whenever someone else is upset, we feel a great pressure that somehow we are to blame. As a result, we take their behavior personally, which makes us defensive, anxious, miserable and insecure. We catastrophize, awfulize and become crisis junkies.
It is important to gain some understanding as to the roots of this problem, and look at some possible reasons why we become hypersensitive and take things too personally. With this understanding, you’ll gain some valuable perspectives on how to handle the problem.
1. Setting up a crisis to look for approval.
Most of us have a great need for approval and validation from others. We want to get strokes and reinforcement on a regular basis from just about everybody. Sometimes, we will deliberately set up situations in order to receive reinforcement. When we take things personally, we are invariably upset by feeling responsible for another person’s mood or behavior. Often this creates a crisis whereby other people now have to reinforce us and give us the approval that we’re okay.
2. Obtain insurance for belonging to others and against having to be alone.
Many of us have a great problem with the thought of being alone. Moreover, many of us have spent our entire lives without ever having been alone, so the prospect of being alone creates great panic and anxiety. We’ll strive consciously and unconsciously to connect and belong with other people. Taking things too personally is a device to ensure “belonging” with others. When you feel responsible for another person’s behavior, you get to belong to that person’s situation and therefore can avoid feeling alone. You may find that if you have a great need to take care of other people and belong to them, you will also tend to take personally many of the moods and situations that they own. In this way, hypersensitivity becomes a device which allows us to avoid being alone and promotes the feeling that we have a place of great significance – we get to be responsible (for someone else’s behavior!)
3. Obtain insurance against maturing, growing up, and being an adult.
When taking things very personally, many people exhibit childish and infantile behavior. Sometimes they pout, behave in a socially inappropriate way, become very silent and cold, or become dramatic and explosive. Much of the time, this kind of behavior is both childish and counterproductive to progress in relationships. In addition, when people take things too personally, they fail to distinguish themselves from the behavior of others; they are unable to differentiate between what is inside or outside of them. They tend to lose track of whose behavior is whose! This condition, referred to as over-generalizing, occurs when an individual thinks that he/she is always, in some way, connected to the behavior of others (much the way children think). By taking something too personally, you have ensured that you can behave childishly because you think you must have something to do with another person’s mood or behavior. Consequently, the process of maturing, growing, and being adult is retarded.
4. We get to enhance our narcissism.
Narcissism is the tendency to be wrapped up in ourselves – thinking the world revolves around us. Most adolescents feel this way. They are obsessed with their clothes, activities, social groups, fads, language, and their impact on others. They delude themselves into thinking they are necessary and central to the progress of everything. Narcissism is the need to be significant and important to everyone about everything.
Taking things too personally enhances narcissism because if we think we must be responsible for external events, then we’ve just reinforced the delusional need to be important and significant to everything and everyone around us. Certainly the tendency to take things too personally is quite common and extremely counterproductive. Hypersensitive people are always ready to react to others around them and are rarely, if ever, in a proactive control position. In addition, the thinking focus is geared toward outcome rather than process. For these types learning is absent and is unfortunately replaced by observing, agonizing, and obsessing about themselves.
What can you do? When you observe distressing behavior in someone else and find you’re taking it too personally, it will help to consistently consider the following three questions to recover faster:
1. “Am I responsible for what has just occurred?”
When a loved one, friend, or business associate is in a bad mood, seems irritable, pouty, depressed, impatient, defiant, etc., ask yourself the question “Am I really responsible for this person’s behavior?” Often you will realize that you are seldom if ever responsible, and the other person has chosen to behave that way for a myriad of reasons unconnected to you. Further, if the person refuses to tell you what is wrong, avoid fretting over the problem and feeling anxious about it yourself. Just let the person be miserable and give him/her permission to explain whenever he/she is ready.
2. Is this my problem?
This question is critical. There are times when “yes” appears to be the only answer. Even when the other person’s behavior has absolutely zero to do with you, it still appears to become your problem. However, it is important to remember that the problem only becomes yours when you choose to make it yours. It is much more likely, after some serious evaluation, you will conclude that the problem is in fact owned by someone else. So the answer to this question often typically will be a very reassuring “no”.
3. Do I have to get upset?
Certainly you can get upset if you want. You can become anxious, worried, and lean toward crisis junkie catastrophizing, yet do you really have to? Is it a necessary obligation that you must be upset? Remind yourself that being upset is a choice, and that you can choose to remain calm and unaffected by the other person’s behavior. Further, it is important to renounce the thinking that becoming upset is a way of showing you care about another person. There are other numerous and appropriate ways of showing high regard. Caring is typically unrelated to self-thrashing.
These three questions are immensely helpful in controlling the natural knee-jerk reflex of becoming hypersensitive and taking things too personally. Whenever you start to automatically feel responsible for situations happening around you and begin doubting your own adequacy, these questions can help control that temptation.
So again, remember to ask yourself:
1. Am I responsible for this person’s actions?
2. Is this my problem?
3. Do I have to get upset?
When one or more of the answers is “no”; you will begin to notice rapid growth and recovery in yourself, and waste less time on unnecessary conflict, anxiety, or hypersensitivity.
In conclusion, ask yourself the following:
1. What am I noticing about my tendency to take things too personally?
2. What are my options?
3. What am I learning about these options?
4. What will I now do differently?
You will see rapid growth in yourself and spend far less time consumed with unnecessary conflict or anxiety.
Check out my three-minute video on this subject:
Will Rogers, who died in a 1935 plane crash in Alaska with bush pilot Wiley Post, was one of the greatest political country/cowboy sages . Some of his sayings:
1. Never slap a man who’s chewing tobacco.
2. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.
3. There are two theories to arguing with a woman. Neither works.
4. Never miss a good chance to shut up.
5. Always drink upstream from the herd.
6. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
7. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back into your pocket.
8. There are three kinds of men: The ones that learn by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence and find out for themselves.
9. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
10. If you’re riding’ ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.
11. Lettin’ the cat outta the bag is a whole lot easier’n puttin’ it back.
12. After eating an entire bull, a mountain lion felt so good he started roaring. He kept it up until a hunter came along and shot him.
The moral: When you’re full of bull, keep your mouth shut.