In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

How to Stop Taking Things Personally

Learning how to hold your space and keep your power

As social beings, we define who we are in part, by, and through the relationships we have. Most of us interact with an assortment of people on a daily basis, from our most intimate relationships to strangers on the street. Obviously, how involved we are with certain individuals will color the level and intensity of our interactions with them. There are those people with whom we get along quite well while there are those who may be harder to connect and communicate with, who may give us an emotional run for our money. While some people have a tendency to take things personally a lot of the time, with almost anyone, the focus here is on relationships where a significant attachment has been formed.

We are often dependent upon others for our happiness, our security (emotionally, financially, and any other way), and sometimes for our safety. We often look to others to fill our needs. When these others are supportive, encouraging, caring, and giving we may feel fairly satisfied in our life. But when those we are attached to are judgmental and critical, even aggressive and abusive toward us, we may find ourselves in conflict, caught between the need to have these people in our life for whatever reason, and satisfying our own needs. Sometimes, we make a “bargain with the devil” and end up giving a lot of ourselves away in order to placate a significant other, to make them happy, to keep the peace, to make them stay in our lives (because we think we need them).

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Taking things personally is often a by-product of this bargain. When we take things personally we are giving certain individuals more power over us than they deserve or should ever be allowed to have. In effect, you are allowing someone to question what you feel and believe. You are trusting someone else to tell you who you are, instead of relying on what you know to be true about yourself; what really defines you as a person without any outside influence. In essence, taking things personally keeps you tied to someone else and, in the extreme, can even make you feel like a victim.

So, instead of just reacting when someone pushes your buttons, these are some things to consider when you find yourself caught up in an interaction/confrontation where you feel your personal integrity is being challenged.

Focus on what this relationship really means to you. How heavily invested are you in this individual? Do you always need to be agreeable, to make no waves, to go along in order to please this person and to keep the peace? Do you perceive that there may be a high price to pay if you disagree or challenge them? Do you really need this person’s approval? Is all the trouble keeping them happy, as they challenge you, really worth the effort?

Change the focus of the interaction by putting yourself in this other person’s shoes. Try to understand what the other person is feeling/thinking/trying to convey to you. Is this the way they interact with many people, not just you? Is it their usual way to be critical, to insult, to blame or shame? Maybe that person hasn’t mastered how to communicate in a healthy way. Perhaps they lack certain social skills and feel the only way they will be heard and paid attention to is by being rude or aggressive in their language, or by bullying to get their way. Perhaps, they have issues with relationships in general, with boundaries, with seeing things as either all good or bad, right or wrong.

Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly when you are being confronted. Don’t make assumptions about judgment or criticism seemingly directed at you. Maybe it’s not about you at all, but rather about them and their own perceptions projected onto you. In fact, it’s almost always about them, their issues, their needs, and their desire to control you and/or a situation.

A corollary to this is to know what makes you feel vulnerable. When you are aware of your sensitive spots, the things that trigger your emotions and reaction, you can prepare yourself if an interaction arises that attempts to draw you in.

Create a space between yourself and your reactions. Your initial response might be to react emotionally. If possible, don’t follow that kneejerk reaction. Take the time to rein in your emotions and assess what’s really happening before you respond.Ingeneral, it’s a good idea to create a healthy personal space around yourself. (A good visual is to imagine yourself in the middle of a meadow with a white picket fence surrounding it. That’s your space. No one is permitted within it unless you allow them to enter into it.) When you create a space/buffer between yourself and another person, personal boundaries have less of a chance of being crossed and/or blurred.

When you are ready, respond in order to gain clarification. Hopefully, your emotions will take a back seat while you ask this individual to fully explain what’s on their mind and what they want from you. Listen carefully so you can discern what makes sense and what doesn’t based on their fantasy or need to have you behave in a certain way. Tell them how what they’re saying/doing makes you feel. In some instances, they may not realize how aggressive, rude, insulting, bullying, and insensitive they are being; that their words are hurtful and that what they’re asking of you is unreasonable. Explain that if the goal of the interaction/confrontation is meant to be conciliatory they’re going about it in the wrong way. Perhaps, give them a way out by suggesting an alternative solution.

If it becomes clear that this person can’t respect you and your space and insists on creating a situation over and over again that’s meant to make you uncomfortable, feel badly about yourself, personally attack you, devalue and belittle you, and constantly attempt to bait you, you need to rethink the relationship. If it’s family it may be hard to divorce yourself from them but you can limit your time and the nature of the relationship you have with them. If it’s someone else, break off all ties with this person for your own sake.

Finally, learn to rely on yourself. Of course, relationships will play a prominent role in your life. But the more you know about yourself the less you need others to tell you about yourself. When you develop a life orientation that is based primarily on your own personal resources, rather than on external influences your dependency on outside forces is diminished.

 

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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