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The Art of Not Taking Things So Personally

Responding versus reacting when someone is upset with you.

Source: Luz Bratcher/Flickr
Source: Luz Bratcher/Flickr

We know that taking things personally can set us up for disappointment. But what does it really mean to not take things personally? And what needs to happen inside us so that we don't?

It’s painful to be slammed with shaming or critical comments, such as, “You only think about yourself,” or, “How can you be so ignorant?” It hurts to be objectified as a person with repulsive traits rather than be seen in our goodness, beauty, and wholeness.

As human beings, we affect each other. We’re not immune to feeling injured when a friend or loved one sears us with a dismissive comment. But how we relate to our feelings and understand the situation can make the difference between wallowing in misery and moving on.

We have little control over how other people view us. We have more control over how we view ourselves and how we respond to how we’re treated. We can practice self-regulation so that our nervous system is not wed to how others relate to us. We can recognize that how others relate to us says more about them than us. By looking clearly at things and holding ourselves with dignity, we can gain some distance from a difficult interaction.

Oftentimes, we’re so personally merged with a situation that we react mindlessly. If a loved one or friend is angry with us or accuses us of trying to control them, we may have an immediate fight, flight, freeze response. But instead of getting defensive, we can practice self-soothing. We can pause, take a deep breath, stay connected to our body, and consider the following possibilities:

Hmmm. It seems that my partner just got triggered. I want to be sensitive to their feelings regardless of whether or not I did something that triggered them. If I did, I’ll take responsibility for that as I explore what was happening inside me that led me to step on their toes.

Such an exploration might lead to an apology: “I’m sorry I criticized you. I can see where I came across as trying to control you. But deep down I was feeling hurt and it came out as anger. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable, so I got defensive.”

Perhaps my partner was getting triggered by something I said that has little to do with me. Maybe old hurts were getting activated from a prior relationship or from childhood trauma. Don't be so quick to blame yourself when someone is upset with you.

Backing off from blaming ourselves or our partner gives us some space from a situation. We listen openly and non-defensively without taking it so personally. We maintain our boundaries rather than immediately sink into a shame pit or react in a defensive, snarky way. We hold our own feelings and their feelings with more spaciousness, while exploring together what just happened.

Gaining a Clearer Perspective

Oftentimes we take things personally in the sense of feeling responsible for everything that goes wrong. Immediately thinking we’re to blame, we lose our sense of self.

It’s a little easier to not take things personally with people we don’t know, but it can still be challenging. Perhaps we’re tailgating without realizing it. As we pass them, they flip us the finger.

Rather than take their road rage personally, we might consider the following:

  • They may be having a hard day.
  • They may be having a hard life.
  • They may have been traumatized by a traffic accident in the past. We may have triggered their survival fear, which led to their rage response.

These considerations can give us perspective. We’re not bad; they’re not bad. We had no ill intentions, yet we nevertheless were a little careless in our driving. We don’t need to succumb to toxic shame, yet a touch of healthy shame might remind us to be more mindful next time.

Whether we’re triggered by a loved one or stranger, we may respond personally because we’re a person—a human being who thrives on kindness and recoils when we’re poked.

The good news is that we can regain our footing as we remember to take time to pause before reacting—and being more mindful when we are reacting. We can bring gentleness to our sensitive spots and a spacious awareness to the situation so that we see it in perspective. We can learn to tap inner resources and realize that not everything is about us. When we’ve missed the mark (the literal meaning of the word “sin”), we can acknowledge it, repair broken trust, and be more mindful moving forward.

Gradually, we can live with more compassion for ourselves and others.

© John Amodeo

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