The problem with taking things personally (and a three step process to stop doing it)

We tend to take a lot of other people’s behaviour personally, whether it’s someone who pulls out in front of us in traffic, a rude comment from a shop clerk or a partner who doesn’t take out the garbage. We think to ourselves things like:

  • How could they do that to me?
  • Why are they being so rude to me?
  • They don’t even care about me.

When we have these thoughts, we feel frustrated, hurt, and angry. We feel hostility towards the other person.

In this episode of Mentally Stronger, I explore the problem of taking things personally and offer a three-step process to shift to a more mentally strong way of being.

Here is a scenario to consider…

Imagine you’re having a relaxing picnic with your partner on a warm spring day. There’s beautiful food, wine and cushions. You go for a swim and come back. Suddenly, you see the whole picnic spread all over the grass. The wine is spilled and the food is all over the place. The picnic is ruined.

As you run back towards the picnic area, what do you see? Some teenagers running away, laughing and holding some of the food. You realise they snuck up to the picnic, flipped over the blanket, trashed everything and took some food as a practical joke.

How do you feel? 

Now, imagine the same situation again. You have the picnic set up, you have a swim, you come back to the food and wine spilled all over the place, and what do you realize? A strong wind has blown the blanket and thrown things everywhere. 

This time, how do you feel?

The end result is the same in both cases: the wine is spilled, food is all over the place and the picnic is ruined.

But, when you feel personally targeted, everything feels much more aggravating and upsetting, right?

If you think about it a little bit more deeply though, in both cases, it’s not personal. Whatever is going on inside the heads of the people who ruined the picnic has been set in motion by a stream of thousands of causes and effects that preceded the event. 

These could include the upbringing of those people, the stresses in their lives, culture and socioeconomic factors, their health or lack thereof, their temperament, and the media they’ve consumed. Even how their parents, grandparents, or guardians were raised and the generations before them. All these causes and effects have been rippling downstream and have led to their choice at that moment. 

 In a way, it’s really not any more personal than all the causes and effects that would set the wind in motion and cause a similar mess. 

Why we should try not to take things personally

On a daily basis many of us take other people’s behaviour personally in small and big ways. When our neighbour doesn’t wave back to us (“Fine! I won’t bother to be nice to you anymore”); when our co-worker doesn’t help us after we ask for it (“Thanks for nothing, jerk”); when our loved one doesn’t listen properly (“You don’t even care”). 

But, if we can take a step back and realise that their actions are much more like the wind, we see it’s not personal. It’s much more about what is going on for them in their lives in that moment than it is a personal attack on you. 

It’s worth pondering the fact that we don’t know what might be going on in someone’s life in any given moment; they may be really stressed, they may be in pain, they may have other priorities that are important to them, they may have a different way of seeing the world.

In any case, whatever someone’s actions are, they have been set in motion by a long and winding stream of causes, most of which are beyond even their conscious control.

When you realise and understand this, you keep the situation in context and so it becomes much easier to retain a calm and clear-headed state of being. You are also much more able to respond wisely instead of reacting fast and irrationally.

How to let go of taking things personally 

Here are three steps to help you put these ideas into practice in your daily life.

Step 1: Be self-compassionate in difficult situations 

Having your beautiful picnic ruined is unpleasant no matter if it was the wind or a bunch of teenagers. So, when you get hit with a difficult event, take a moment to give yourself compassion for what you’re going through. 

Also, as an extension of self-care and self-compassion, you might want to take any helpful action to look after yourself. That might mean setting boundaries, holding people accountable, or changing environments. 

Step 2: Be curious, not furious

Try not to make assumptions about the motivations of other people. We don’t really know what’s happening inside them, whether they ‘did it on purpose’ or ‘don’t care about us’ so, instead of assuming, try a more open-minded and curious attitude, asking yourself:

  • I wonder what’s happening for this other person?
  • What could the big picture be here?

For instance, the rude shop clerk who you assumed was being nasty ‘to you’ might actually be having a really bad day after a fight with her spouse, or she might be suffering from an illness or back pain. 

I speak more on being curious, not furious in this blog post, if you’d like to delve deeper into this topic.

Step 3: Try to have compassion for other people

Now this isn’t always easy, especially when someone’s actions have had an adverse impact on you. But if you can connect to compassion and understanding for what others are going through, you will feel a sense of strength, calm, and ease within yourself. 

Your compassion for the other person does not mean you’re letting them get away with it or that you will be walked all over. 

You can still hold someone accountable even as you have compassion for them, and you can still have healthy boundaries and speak up for your needs while showing compassion for them. So don’t be afraid to have compassion as it actually makes you mentally stronger, less reactive and more able to take affective action as needed.

So, those are the three steps. Have compassion for yourself, be curious instead of furious, and have compassion and understanding for others as best you can.

When you do this you keep things in perspective, regain inner calm and are able to bring out the best in yourself and others.

So this week my invitation is to see if you can take things a little less personally and live with more wisdom, compassion, and mental strength.

I hope this is helpful for you. All the best with this practice.

Take care and stay strong.

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