How to Not Take Things Personally—A Practical Guide to Help You Not Internalize Those “Ouch” Moments in Life
Do you often feel hurt by something someone has said or done? Does it feel like people are rude or insensitive to your feelings all the time?
Why is she looking at me like that? People are so rude!
Why did my boss not say hi to me this morning? Is he angry with me?
I spent so much time working on this project, and they’re saying the ideas lack pizazz? They just don’t like me!
I’m sorry to tell you this but instead of looking out there for the source of your hurt feelings, you may need to look inside. You may be taking things way too personally.
Before you say “it’s them, not me!” let’s have a reality check moment, shall we? We begin with a little introspection.
How to Tell If You Take Things Too Personally
Here are some signs that you have the tendency to take things personally:
- You spend a lot of time guessing whether people are upset with you.
- You’re easily offended by the words and actions of others around you, including strangers.
- You remember “grudges” for a long time.
- You get upset and defensive when you receive any kind of criticism.
- You think negatively of people who disagree with you and you’re certain that they don’t like you.
- You feel that everything is a big deal.
- You’ve been told that you like to overreact to things.
If you nodded your head more than a couple of times while reading the above, you’re taking things way too personally. What this means is that every little thing other people do or say to you—whether intentional or not—can send you for an emotional roller coaster ride. And when that happens, even the smallest day-to-day interactions with people can tire you out or make you anxious.
That’s no fun.
But that’s not the only reason why you need to stop taking things so personally.
Why You Need to Stop Taking Things Personally All the Time
I learned the hard way why you shouldn’t take things so personally all the time.
Life wasn’t easy growing up. My father left when I was just 5 years old, and for that, I was bullied a lot when I was a young kid. China in the early 90’s was not a kind place for a divorced, single mother, nor was it a loving cradle for a child of a broken home. And I learned to internalize a lot of things.
I would dwell, with anxiety, on every off-handed remark someone made to me—no matter how insignificant. My heart would sink with half dejection and half anger any time I felt I was being slighted—even if it was obvious there was no malice intended. And if I thought that someone didn’t like me, I would hold on to the thought until it fermented into a bitter mixture of resentment and self-pity.
Take for example the time when I worked as a barista at a busy coffee shop one summer. The owner of the coffee shop was a hard-to-please man who seemed to favour the prettier girls who worked there. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked, I wasn’t a great employee in his eyes. I could feel it from his icy looks of disdain. Then one day he told another coworker—one of his favourites—that he felt I was too slow and wasn’t sure if he was going to keep me for the rest of the summer.
I took it personally and I took it hard.
Not because I really needed the job, but because I SUCKED. I was a failure in someone’s eyes and the thought of that ate at me.
I cried every day after work because of another cold look, another critical remark, or another exasperated sigh I overheard and felt certain was meant for me.
The stress of it all overwhelmed me. I started having headaches almost every day. Finally, I gathered up the courage to leave because I couldn’t take it anymore, but it was too late. A month after I quit the job, I was diagnosed with blood cancer.
It’s no secret that stress can make you sick, or even kill you. And taking things personally—as I learned from my own experience–can cause a great deal of stress. Now I’m not saying that taking things too personally was the direct cause of my illness, but I’m sure it didn’t help things.
Have I done this to myself?
I used to ask myself this question early on in my cancer journey, not so much anymore. I know I don’t have any say over what has already happened in my life, but I CAN take charge of what happens NOW.
So I decided I wasn’t going to mull over every little unpleasant thing that people say or do to me anymore, and I’m in a much better place today because of this one simple-but-not-so-simple change.
And you too, can make this change. You’ll find that once you stop letting things get to you, your life will be filled with less anxiety and self-doubt, and more joy and abundance.
But the question is: How can we stop taking things so personally all the time?
How to Not Take Things Personally: 5 Things to Remember
1. Ask Yourself These Two Questions When You Receive a Criticism
Before you start cursing, crying, or lamenting that the criticism is unjust, ask yourself these two questions:
- Is this something I can control?
- Is this important to me?
Things within our control include our actions, thoughts, and attitudes. If the criticism is for things we can’t control—like our race, the gender of people we’re attracted to, or what our parents did for a living when we grew up—then don’t even give a nanosecond more thought to it. You can’t do anything about it, so why bother wasting another brain cell thinking about it?
If it’s something within your control, then ask yourself if it’s important enough for you to make an effort to change. For example, I used to feel bad when others criticized me for not having a lot of friends. Then I realized the number of friendships I have wasn’t as important to me as the depth and quality of my friendships. Now I take it as a compliment when people say that I don’t have a lot of friends because I’m proud of the fact that I have fewer people in my life, and I get to build a deeper bond with every one of them.
So if someone criticizes you for something that’s not important to you, don’t sweat it.
2. Dive Deeper to Get a Good Look at the Whole Iceberg
I once read somewhere that our actions are like the tiny tip of an iceberg that rises above the water and our intentions form the massive chunk of ice beneath the surface, hidden from plain view. In order to correctly assess the whole iceberg, you need to dive deeper.
For example, have you ever found yourself in this situation?
You’re huffing and puffing because of something someone said. It was mean. It was hurtful. And you could have sworn it was directed at you. But then, you drum up the courage to ask the person why they would say such a thing. They look at you with a look of confusion.
Oh no, that’s not what I meant!
They explain. What seemed like the hardest kick in your stomach a minute ago now loses all of its sting—like an angry hound who suddenly turns into a docile puppy. You realize—with a quiet sheepishness—that it was all a misunderstanding.
What can we learn from this? Don’t make assumptions about other people’s intentions.
So before you react to things people have said or done, make sure you understand the context and their true intentions. Oftentimes it’s as simple as asking: “Hey, what did you mean by that?”
3. Consider the Possibility That It’s Not About You
Out of all the times that people were short with you, rude to you, or difficult for the sake of being difficult, a good chunk of them probably had nothing to do with you.
Yeah, hard to believe isn’t it?
But that’s the truth. Think back to a time when you were not so nice to someone. How much of that was due to you being tired, overworked, sick, angry because of a recent argument with your partner, or just hungry?
We’re human (unless of course, you’re a bot from Google). We all go through things in our lives that can make us snappy or moody from time to time. A few of us are better at not showing the frustration, but many of us have moments that we wish we could relive so that we could be more patient and kind the second time around.
I once had someone call me long after we had had an argument where he had made some demeaning comments that really hurt me. He told me he was recently diagnosed with a mental illness which went undetected for years. He realized a lot of his anger issues were due to the illness and now that he was getting treatment and feeling better, he felt sorry for what he had done.
And I forgave him instantly.
The experience taught me to always look beyond my own hurt feelings after an unpleasant interaction and consider the possibility that it wasn’t about me. Instead of taking it personally, I now try to show more compassion. By being kind to the other person, I’m also being kind to myself.
4. Communicate Your feelings Clearly and Directly
If you’re able to communicate with the person whom you feel has hurt your feelings, then do it. Let them know how their words or actions made you feel, but don’t accuse them of doing anything wrong. Don’t make assumptions about why they did it. And definitely don’t retaliate. Just communicate to them how you feel in a calm, respectful way.
Because if you don’t tell them how you feel, they might never know that you were upset at all. And next time, they might do or say the same thing again!
Like my husband would say: “You can’t expect people to read your mind.”
So even if you think it should be obvious that their words or actions bothered you, let them know.
And remember to use “I statements” such as “I feel…” or “I need…” versus “you statements” such as “you made me feel…” or “you did…”
With “I statements”, the focus is on your experience rather than the person’s words or actions—it can help the other person see things from your perspective without feeling attacked. “You statements” however, puts the emphasis on the other person’s actions and can trigger their defense mechanisms.
5. Don’t Waste Your Time Feeling Bad Over Toxic Encounters
A finger from a reckless driver. A rude remark from a stranger. Or a personal attack that’s both unprofessional and uncalled for by a difficult customer. We’ve all come across these kinds of encounters in our lives before, and we know what a nasty taste it can leave in our mouths—almost like the taste poison.
That’s why I have a name for these encounters—“toxic encounters”.
And the worst part is, they often happen so quickly that by the time you’re fully aware of what’s happening, the other person is gone. All you’re left with is a mixed bag of emotions, often starting out with anger, and then perhaps sadness, frustration, or self-doubt.
But while you’re grasping with the negative emotions of a “toxic encounter”, guess how the other person is feeling?
The other night I had one of these “toxic encounters” in the parking lot of a community center I’d never been to before. Not only did I not know my way around this crowded, oddly shaped parking lot, it was also raining pretty hard. So I was a little nervous, I’m sure you can understand.
I made a right turn on the first corner I came upon and found my little Mazda 3 looking straight into the headlights of a VW Jetta. Unbeknownst to me, I had missed the faint one-way sign on the ground and I was now blocking the Jetta’s way out. I signaled an apology and quickly backed out of the way, but it wasn’t enough to appease the driver. When the Jetta passed by me, I caught a glimpse of the driver’s face—it was that of a furious woman. She gave me an exaggerated eye-roll and mouthed something to me—I’m sure it must have included the four-letter word—as she drove by.
I tried my best to stay calm and diffuse the urge to curse. I consoled myself by thinking perhaps she’s had a stressful day at work or just received some bad news.
“She probably feels bad about what she did right about now,” I said to myself, giving her all the benefit of the doubt. After all, I had made a promise to myself to not take things like this personally. And more importantly, I wasn’t going to let anything sour my mood for the next hour—it was going to be my first ever foray into yoga and I was going to enjoy it to the fullest no matter what. So I let it go.
Then five minutes later, as I settled onto my yoga mat in the community center’s gym, I found her sitting mere feet away from me, having a lively conversation with another woman. She was in good spirits, talking and laughing as if nothing had happened.
At that moment I realized had I kept the negative emotions I felt from the “toxic encounter” in the parking lot, I would have been the only one feeling the ill effects. Suddenly, I was glad I didn’t waste my time feeling bad.
Some people are rude. Others are selfish. Still others are downright mean, even on a good day. We have to accept this as a fact of life.
If we take their words or actions personally, we’re giving them the power to control and play with our emotions. We’ll be the only ones hurting while they go on enjoying themselves with no recollection of the encounter, or worse yet—with a twisted sense of accomplishment for ruining someone’s day. Does that sound like a fair deal?
So when a toxic encounter happens, don’t waste your time feeling bad over something they’ll forget in a minute or simply don’t care. It’s not worth it.