By Tracey Ashcraft
Don’t take it personally—it’s not about you!
While it’s certainly easier said than done, if we can remember this pearl of wisdom when conflicts arise—especially with family and friends—we will bring more peace and acceptance into our lives.
Most people really want to believe that they don’t care about what other people think of them.
However, in reality we do care how others perceive us to some degree. It is how our society works; we want people to like us.
Even in a complex society, we need other people for our survival on a primal level. However, if people don’t like us we feel threatened. We then usually feel the need to defend our position. Sadly, this creates a paradox. The very way we try to protect our survival actually threatens it. How? Taking things personally and taking a stand causes damage to our relationships in the long term.
People take things personally in varying degrees. For some, it’s easy not to take it personally when a driver cuts them off on the highway. There is an initial spike in adrenaline, but they can calm down quickly.
Maybe that crazy driver was heading to the hospital?
But what if you just received an unkind reprimand from your spouse? He just blasted you with negativity about your housekeeping. “This place is a pigsty! What are you thinking?” That’s a whole different ball game. You live with this person. He knows you. On a subconscious level your very survival depends on having harmony with this individual.
What happens to us when we take something personally? We feel hurt, enraged, criticized, small, attacked, defensive, and/or defeated. Taking something personally immediately makes us an adversary of another. We are no longer on the same team. There is a disconnect.
When you take something personally, you make the scenario about you.
However, even if the words someone is saying are about you, know this: IT”S NOT ABOUT YOU. It’s about them. Honestly, it is. If you keep getting sucked into the content of what the person is saying, you will never be free.
Do you remember playing with Chinese handcuffs as a kid? It is a woven paper tube. You put a finger in each end. The challenge is to get out of the handcuffs, but the harder you pull your fingers apart the tighter the tube gets. In the end, and after a lot of trial and error, you figure out that the answer to freedom is counter-intuitive. You push your fingers together to loosen the tube and then gently remove your fingers from its grip.
So when you are taking something personally and you defend yourself, realize that you are allowing the grip of negativity to tighten.
You are going in the wrong direction, and you need to try something different to set yourself free.
How can you stop taking it personally? Here are eight ways:
1. Don’t get in the fight. When you notice you are defending yourself—quit! It doesn’t work.
2. Don’t get lost at the content level. Go to the feeling level. If you notice you are feeling triggered by the words being said, stop. Turn your awareness to the person’s mood. Is she grumpy? Does he seem tired? Wonder about how that individual is feeling. If you shift your response away from the content of what that person is saying and over to concern about how he or she is feeling, you will witness an immediate shift. It diffuses the negative charge.
3. Tell yourself: “IT”S NOT ABOUT ME.” If you are really triggered and having trouble making the shift to the feeling level, repeat this phrase in your mind over and over until whatever is triggering you settles down. IT’S NOT ABOUT ME. Make it your mental mantra when you notice you are taking it personally.
4. Agree with the person. Initially this one may be infuriating. It doesn’t feel true. But this tip is a very powerful one. It is very disarming to agree with the other person. You immediately are on his or her team again.
5. Self-soothe. Walk away for a set amount of time. Before walking away, be sure to let the person know that you need to take a break. Let him know that you will be back. Tell her when. It is important to give the other person a timeframe for your return.
6. Meditate. Calm your mind and focus your thoughts through an inner journey. Meditation on a regular basis can help you stay more grounded in the face of a stressful trigger. It is like lifting weights for your mind.
7. Learn to trust yourself. The more you trust yourself and your own beliefs the less someone else’s opinions will affect you.
8. Work on feeling good about yourself. This is the same principle as trusting yourself. The more you feel good about yourself, the less someone’s criticism will affect you.
It takes time to develop the habit of taking it personally and then defending yourself. So remember it is going to take mindful practice to undo it. Congratulate yourself when you choose not to take it personally—and be kind to yourself when you get sucked in because it will happen. The more you practice, the less you will feel sucked-in. If you can stop taking things personally, your relationships improve, you feel more empowered and free, and you feel more compassion for others. Doesn’t that sound great?
Tracey Ashcraft, M.A., L.P.C., is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Coach. She specializes in helping adults and college students cope with emotionally intense people. She brings her sense of humor and a tell-it-like-it-is style that helps people get to the truth quickly. Sessions are offered in Boulder, CO, and via phone or video chat. For more information visit www.bestlifetherapy.com.