“I take things too personally” is a remark I hear frequently from my patients, associates, colleagues, and friends. Many people become hypersensitive, defensive, and full of self-doubt because of this problem.
- If you fail to get an invitation to lunch, a party, or a 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 angry with you?
- If your spouse comes home crabby, do you feel responsible, guilty, irritated, defensive, or crabby yourself?
- If your guests want to go home early, does that immediately suggest they dislike your company?
- If your daughter is unhappy, do you start concluding that you have to be unhappy in order to show her how much you care?
- If several of your colleagues are going to lunch together and you are not invited, do you worry they will talk about you at lunch?
We can have our whole day ruined because someone else’s behavior rubs off on us and we feel responsible. We find that whenever someone else is upset, we feel great pressure that somehow we are to blame. As a result, we take their behavior personally, which makes us defensive, anxious, miserable, and insecure.
It is important to gain some understanding as to the root of this problem and look at some possible reasons why we become hypersensitive and take things too personally. With this understanding, you will gain some valuable perspective on how to handle the problem more effectively.
Consider these roots of taking things too personally:
- 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 everyone. 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. This often creates a crisis whereby other people now have to reinforce us and give us the approval that we’re okay.
For example, Mary works as Bob’s assistant. One day Bob comes into work grumpy and crabby. Mary needs regular approval; she feels bad when Bob is upset and crabby. She feels responsible in some way and consequently becomes upset herself. Mary takes Bob’s behavior personally and thinks his crabby mood occurred because of her. Mary is also insecure and dependent on the opinions of others. Now she has created a crisis that Bob has to fix! He sees that she is upset and has to reassure her that she’s okay and that his bad mood has nothing to do with her. Her crisis has forced him to give her the approval she perpetually wants. Mary is a people-pleasing, placating, over-achieving accommodator. She rarely thinks she is good enough, therefore, she manufactures a crisis regularly to get approval and reassurance from others. Her problem of taking things too personally serves her quite well.
- Obtain insurance for belonging to others and against having to be alone.
Many of us have a 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 can avoid feeling alone. If you have a great need to take care of other people and belong with them, you 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.
- Allows you to avoid maturing, growing up, and being an adult.
When taking things personally, many people exhibit childish and infantile behavior. Sometimes they pout, behave in a socially inappropriate way, become silent and cold, or 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 themselves. They tend to lose track of whose behavior is whose. This condition, referred to as over-generalizing, occurs when individuals think that they are 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 compromised.
- We get to enhance our narcissism.
Narcissism is the tendency to be wrapped up in ourselves – thinking that 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 chronic need to be significant and important. 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 often missing and unfortunately is 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 consider asking yourself the following three questions:
- 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?” You may realize that you are seldom if ever responsible; 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 or she is ready.
- 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 owned by someone else. So, the answer to this question will typically be a very reassuring “no.”
- 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. On the other hand, must you? 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 feel responsible for situations happening around you and begin to doubt your own adequacy, these questions can help control that temptation and you can recover faster.
So again, remember to ask yourself:
- Am I responsible for this person’s actions?
- Is this my problem?
- 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 will waste less time on unnecessary conflict, anxiety, or hypersensitivity.
In conclusion, ask yourself the following:
- What am I noticing about my tendency to take things too personally?
- What are my options?
- What am I learning about these options?
- What will I now do differently?
Remember, an unhealed person can find offense in most everything someone else does.
A healed person understands the actions of others and has very little to do with them.
Every day you get to decide which one you will be.
So put your ducks in a row and get yourself squared away!