Darren was furious. His immediate impulse was to get back at his family members for hurting his feelings. As he fumed, Darren weighed various punishment options--stop attending family functions, refuse to answer their phone calls, call them and read them the riot act?
Claudia too couldn't understand why her new husband Darren's family hadn't invited them to their recent dinner party. Worse, her in-laws had tried to keep the party a secret from them. Darren was so upset; he couldn't stop talking about it. It would ruin his Christmas. How could they get even?
"How could they do that to us?" Darren complained to Claudia. "We are so generous with them. We invite them whenever we have a gathering with other family members. How mean to have excluded us!"
Claudia agreed. Her feelings were hurt too, that his family had excluded them, and all the more so with her being Darren's new wife.
Claudia suggested a plan that she thought would help them both to feel better. "Let's go visit my family over the Christmas holidays. They deserve a visit, and your family doesn't deserve to have us celebrate the holiday with them. In fact, I'm not going to give anyone in your family presents this year. That will help us get even."
What's wrong with this picture?
Claudia and Darren are the first ones who would be hurt by Claudia's strategy of "getting even." Darren has always loved how his family gathers to make decorations and attach them to the family tree, hang stockings for everyone, sing Christmas carols, share stories about the blessings they've enjoyed the prior year, and go all together to midnight mass. Claudia also loved Darren's family's warm holiday atmosphere; she too loved the spiritual boost of their season of joy.
Claudia's own family also were lovely, but being Jewish, their family tradition was to go skiing on Christmas day. That meant that if Claudia and Darren visited her family on Christmas weekend they would be missing the holiday altogether.
No gifts from Uncle Darren and their new Aunt Claudia? The nieces and nephews would be crushed. The relationship with their uncle and aunt could be tainted for years to come.
Saddest of all, getting even for having felt hurt was a totally unnecessary response.
What is personalizing?
Yes, Claudia and Darren both felt an initial sting when they heard of the dinner party they'd not been invited to join. Hurt feelings can lead though to wrong conclusions.
Claudia and Darren had leapt to a "personalizing" interpretation of having been left out of the party invite list. Personalizing refers to the habit of taking personally, as an insult or intentionally injurious action, something someone else has said or done.
What causes personalizing?
Personalizing happens when someone assumes that a hurt feeling resulted from someone intentionally aiming to do something hurtful to them.
The first key word in this definition is assumes. With insufficient information, it's easy to fill in the dots with immediate assumptions that others are intending to be hurtful. Leaping to a quick conclusion based on feelings leads to wrong interpretations. Better to wait a few moments to calm down. Feelings travel on a faster neurological route than thinking or information-gathering. And when you are hot and bothered, new information is unlikely to penetrate your beliefs.
Once you're calmer, information-gathering can replace quick assumptions.
The second key word here is intentional. That's why when people apologize they say "I'm sorry for having ..." and then right away add, "I didn't intend to ...." That is, they are clarify immediately that the hurtful action was unintentional. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bump into you...." Hearing that you were knocked over unintentionally immediately soothes your impulse to strike back.
How do you prevent personalizing?
In general, the more information you have about why someone is doing what feels to you hurtful, the less likely you are to take it personally, as intended to hurt your feelings.
So instead of leaping to a negative interpretation, pause, and find out more. Ask for more information.
Note that the best questions begin with How or What. How come we weren't invited to the dinner? What was your concern in not including us, or even telling us about it? These open-ended starter questions yield more information than yes-no starter words like "Did you...?" or "Are you...?"
What additional information eventually helped Darren and Claudia?
When they asked Darren's sister what the exclusion had been about, Darren and Claudia learned to their surprise that leaving them out in fact had been intended to be a loving exclusion, not hurtful.
Darren's parents had invited Uncle Pete to dinner when he was going to be in town for the weekend. Pete and Darren's dad had been very close growing up together as brothers who lived on an isolated farm in Iowa. Unfortunately though, in his adult years Uncle Pete had developed a drinking problem.
Even if they didn't serve liquor at dinner, Pete would be sure to bring a small whiskey bottle in his pocket for swigging. With liquor, Pete often turned ugly. At any excuse he would start to rage. The victim was unpredictable, but a common theme was hatred of anyone different. Could be Blacks, Republicans, or especially Jews like Claudia and her family. Darren's family wanted to protect him and his new wife, whom they adored, from the inevitable ugliness of an Uncle Pete drunken outburst.
So how do you prevent personalizing? Ask good questions instead of assuming hurtful intentions. Learn more about what is motivating a behavior in others that at first glance seemed intended to hurt your feelings. The outcome then? You are likely to get even ... that is, to get even happier.
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver Clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including From Conflict to Resolution and The Power of Two. A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is a marriage skills website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com.