Taking Things Personally
Imagine that you are floating in a canoe on a slow-moving river on a sunny afternoon. Suddenly there is a loud thump on the side of the canoe, and it rolls over. You come up sputtering, and what do you see? Somebody has snuck up on your canoe, flipped it over for a joke and is laughing at you. How do you feel?
Now imagine the exact same situation again: in a canoe, the loud thump, being dumped into the river, coming up sputtering, and what do you see? A large submerged log has drifted downstream and bumped into your canoe. This time, how do you feel?
The facts are the same in each case: you're cold and wet, and your picnic is ruined. But when you feel personally picked on, everything feels worse. The thing is, most of what bumps into us in life - including emotional reactions from others, traffic jams, illness or mistreatment at work - is like an impersonal log put in motion by 10,000 causes upstream.
For example: Sam’s boss told him to be certain his project report was free of mistakes. Sam’s internal response to that statement was to get angry and think, “Why on earth did she tell me that? Does she think I’m stupid?”
How do you behave when someone, deliberately or not, seems to belittle, humiliate or reject you? Do you become resentful? Do you issue a counterattack? Do you curl into the foetal position? Or do you shrug it off as “their problem”?
If it’s the latter, then you’ll be in on this secret: Life is far more pleasant if you don’t take things personally.
However, most of us can think of too many times when we took others’ words the wrong way. How did we get so prickly?
Firstly, it is a biological response our brain has been developing since childhood. Running subconsciously in the background, our brain has an alarm system alert for threats to physical and psychological needs. At the instant we register a threat, our body prepares for action. Cortisol and adrenalin are secreted. Breathing and heart rate quicken, sending increased blood and oxygen to our limbs to ready us for fight or flight.
The function of anxiety and anger is to warn of danger so that we take self-protective measures. To succeed at this task, we overestimate threat. The only sure-fire guarantee that actual risks are never missed is to give ambiguous threats the same credence as definite ones. Better to be safe than sorry.
But that's not necessarily the case. While the experience of anxiety or anger is indisputably real, the cause we attribute it to may or may not be. We're fully capable of feeling anxious even when the other person’s actions do not signal danger. Once we're anxious and hyper-vigilant, it's difficult to distinguish small slights from larger ones; they all seem substantial. Should we notice a downturned lip or hear impatience? We become convinced that we're being abandoned or demeaned.
Emotion-driven misinterpretations spell trouble for relationships. They lead to escalating accusations, disappearing trust and constricting hearts.
Secondly, our childhood experiences may not have fully prepared us for the adult world. The degree to which an adult takes things too personally is a very reliable guide or indicator of a person’s emotional health, and of how far they have progressed out of childhood.
For people who take things too personally, everything’s about them. They take offense where none was intended. They’re very thin-skinned. People become thin-skinned because they’re well bruised.
If you take things personally, you make yourself a victim of anything that others say or do. This is like riding bumper cars and feeling outraged that others are colliding into you! Some may hit you because they are being careless, or they have no control over their car. Others may crash into you deliberately. It would be quite silly to feel upset about this because we know that when we ride bumper cars, we are going to get hit.
In life you will inevitably be struck by the criticisms and oversights of others. Will you be disturbed and flustered by what other people do? Realise that it makes no sense to give people such power over you.
If you decide to no longer take things personally, you will avoid a tremendous amount of suffering. Even if someone directly antagonizes you, there is no need to be bothered because that person is certainly struggling with his or her own problems. You can choose to become involved with the trouble of someone else or you can rise above it, confidently and peacefully walking away.
Aaron Ironside is a communicator and counsellor.