Arthur*was hurt when his fourteen year old daughter told him he was looking like an old man. "I know I'm not supposed to take it personally," he said, "but she was talking about me. How else should I take it?"
In just the past week I have heard echoes of this question more times than I can count. Wondering if this was a phenomenon exclusive to my own clients, I searched the Psychology Today website for the phrase "taking it personally" and found an eight page list of blogs and articles. The New York Times had fourteen articles, Huffington Post had ten and Slate had five.
The issues that people were trying not to take personally ranged, from difficulties finding a job to a therapist's interaction with a client to an athlete's unsportsmanlike snub of a competitor. So why do we have a problem with taking things personally? Is everyone who struggles with it a narcissist? And what can we do about it?
The why is pretty simple. During infancy and early childhood, we experience the world as revolving around us. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, a pioneer in developmental psychology, showed that a young child looking at a picture believes that an adult on the other side of the table sees exactly what he sees (even though the adult actually sees the picture upside down). When the picture is turned so that it is right side up for the adult and upside down for him, the youngster continues to believe that they are both seeing the same image. Part of our intellectual and psychological growth includes the gradual understanding that we do not always see the same thing as someone else. In Piaget's experiments, older children had the ability to imagine what the person on the opposite side of the table was seeing. (1)
This ability to recognize that someone else has a different perspective is a little different from empathy. According to current research, the capacity to respond to another person's feelings develops very early. (2) Yet a young child does not always know how to sort out what is about or inside her and what is about or inside the other person. It takes much longer for us to be able to separate our own experience from someone else's; and sometimes, especially in moments of vulnerability, this distinction can get lost.
That's when we end up taking things personally, even though in reality they reflect something about the other person, not us.
When I was a young therapist, I had a client who started every session with a criticism of something I was wearing or something about my office. Since I was just starting out, I was very sensitive about how I appeared. Did I look professional enough? Did my office? She always prefaced her remarks with, "I never say these things to anyone else, but I'm supposed to say everything I think in therapy, aren't I?"
I did not know how to respond to these digs. I felt both hurt and irritated, but I did not think it would be therapeutic to tell her as much. In fact, since I believed that therapists were not supposed to get upset with their clients, both my sensitivity and my irritation seemed to me to indicate a major inadequacy on my part.
I discussed my concerns with my supervisor, who did not seem to share my fear that I was too self-involved to be helpful to anyone else (which is the answer to the second question: taking things personally does not automatically qualify us for the diagnosis of narcissist.) Healthy self-interest is part of what is sometimes called "healthy narcissism." As we mature and begin to see that we are not the center of the universe, we try to balance taking care of ourselves while recognizing that our feelings and perceptions are not the only viable ones. Sometimes, though, it's not so easy to figure out another person's perspective.
My supervisor told me that my reactions were understandable, but that there was probably another way to look at my client's behavior. He asked how I would think about her comments if I did not take them personally.
Like Arthur, I had troubles getting my mind around the idea at first. The words were directed at me, so how could they not be personal? But as I thought about it, I remembered something else this young woman frequently said. She had always been a "good girl," never arguing with her mother or older sister. Could she possibly be practicing being a little less good with me? And at the same time, could she be checking to see how I reacted when she said these things to me? Without knowing that she was doing it, could she be hoping that I would show her a better way to handle the kind of criticism she often heard at home?
Just putting these ideas into words for myself changed my feelings from hurt and irritation to empathy for her. The next time she put me down I asked her if she was being intentionally critical. She said, "No, of course not!" After a brief silence she added quietly that she hadn't realized it, but she could see that what she said could have sounded mean. I told her that the point of therapy was to understand why we do the things we do, and asked if she had any thoughts about what might have been going on for her at that moment. As she began to tentatively try to answer the question, it became even clearer that her words were not about me.
In a similar way, Arthur's feelings about his daughter changed when I asked him to try to think about what her comment meant about her, not him. It is, I believe, often useful to let someone know when they have said something that bothers us, but it is much easier and more productive to do it when we aren't taking the comments personally. We discussed the idea that adolescents often criticize their parents in an effort to feel more separate from them.
Eventually Arthur was able to ask her about it without seeming critical or angry at her. She flung her arms around him and said that she had been worried - he had looked so tired that day. Her grandfather had recently been ill, and she was frightened that her father would succumb, too. "And that would be horrible," she said. They had a brief but meaningful conversation about her fears about loss and death - his, her mother's, and her own. And then she did her schoolwork.
The comments were actually about Arthur; but they were not about what they seemed to be. By not taking them personally, Arthur was able to have an extremely important conversation with his daughter. Ignoring her words or pretending that what she said did not bother him would not have led them to the same place. But they could only get there when he could recognize that what she said had much more to do with her than it did with him.
*Names and other identifying information have been changed to protect privacy of individuals and families.
1. Piaget, J. (1972). The Psychology of the Child. Basic Books, Inc.
2. Siegel, D. (2007) The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being . WWNorton & Co.