What Would Aristotle Do?

The power of reason.

Why Do Some People Take Things So Personally?

They must not care about me!

QUESTION:

I have noticed that people who feel that so many others "mistreat" them, often perceive things as being directed towards them when they are not. If they're not invited to a gathering, it's because they weren't wanted there, not because the gathering was limited in size. If someone forgets to call them, it's because the other person doesn't care, not because that person has a lot on their plate and just forgot. If someone is distant, it's because that person is angry with them, not because that person has a lot on their mind. Why do so many people assume that other people’s actions/words revolve around them? These same people often engage is passive-aggressive and blaming behavior. Oh, and they never accidently "mistreat" anyone else.

MY RESPONSE:

Dear Anonymous,

The answer to the question you raise, “Why do so many people assume that other people’s actions/words revolve around them?” is complex.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

First, all human beings, not just some, construct reality from their own subjective perspectives.  Indeed, we cannot but perceive and understand things through our own systems of values and beliefs. This can lead us to conclude that our own personal beliefs and values are objective truths that apply not only to ourselves but to others and to the external world. Thus, if we want or desire something, we may come to think that it is desirable, and that others should also want or desire it; and if we think that something is important, then we may assume it must really be important.

While we all wrestle to some extent with this egocentric predicament, some people find it especially hard to emotionally appreciate that the world does not revolve entirely around them and that, like themselves, other people also have their own subjective perspectives through which they perceive reality.

Second, as I have discussed elsewhere (in my book, The New Rational Therapy), many of us are metaphysically insecure. This is fundamental insecurity about reality itself. Typically, metaphysically insecure people demand perfection and thereby do not allow themselves to accept the inescapable imperfections of existence. Thus, they tend to become preoccupied with and experience anxiety about the possibility of negative things happening.

Now, metaphysically insecure people who are also highly ego-centered will tend to construct hypotheses (explanations) about reality based on their anxieties. Thus, if a friend acts troubled or preoccupied, such a person will tend to take it personally and think the behavior is aimed at him, even if there is no particular reason to draw such a conclusion.

According to Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), we can cultivate moral virtues, which allow us to overcome such irrational tendencies. According to LBT, there are a number of common human irrational tendencies, each of which has its respective virtue that trumps it. The virtue for demanding perfection is metaphysical security or acceptance of the imperfections in reality, including that of human beings.  The respective virtue for ego-centric “world-revolves-around-me” thinking is empathetic understanding or the ability to connect with others.

In my book, The New Rational Therapy, I discuss philosophical “antidotes” that can be applied toward attaining these virtues. For example, one antidote toward becoming more empathetic would be to try to see what interests we have in common with others rather than concentrating on what makes us different. Thus, we all feel pain, suffer disappointment, get tired and grumpy, sick, hungry, and so on. By realizing such commonalities we can more readily learn to construct alternative non-egocentric hypotheses, which explain, for example, why someone might not have been his or her usual friendly self on a given occasion.

So the answer to your question is that a significant number of people are insecure about reality and tend to read these insecurities into the actions/words of others and take them personally. Such individuals could therefore benefit from building up their metaphysical security and becoming more empathetic. If you want more details, please read my book, The New Rational Therapy. There are substantial excerpts of it contained in Google Books.

Best wishes,

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D.

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

more...

Subscribe to What Would Aristotle Do?

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.