By Therapist Michael Church, PhD
Do you take things personally? If you make a point at a meeting, and someone disagrees with you, do you internalize your dismay and spend the next several hours – and most of the night – ruminating over what that person said at the meeting? The problem with taking things too personally is that you are then confronted with jealousy, anger, suspicion, and other upsetting emotions. For many people, and in certain situations, these emotions can produce arguments like neighbor disputes and conflict with work colleagues, plus more serious consequences like rage, hate crimes, and violent domestic behavior.
It is important to remember that these are largely avoidable emotional outcomes if you work at being more objective, less impulsive, more patient with others, and better able to operate in problem-solving mode rather than emotion-based mode. For instance, if you make a point at a meeting, and someone strongly disagrees with you, if you respond in emotion-based mode – “You know, Joe, if you weren’t always so stubborn and oppositional, we could get a lot more done around here!” – communication will likely deteriorate quickly. If, on the other hand, you respond in problem-solving mode – “I hear your point, Joe, but I think we’re approaching the issue from different perspectives. Let’s see if we can get on the same page.” – you are more likely to stimulate productive cooperation.
Another danger from taking things personally is that you are likely to evaluate your own and others’ feelings and thoughts as good or bad. Thoughts and feelings, however, are not good or bad but, for the most part, are natural reflections of personality, moods, and experiences. They are normal both for you and for the other person. But, as soon as you go into extremist good or bad thinking, you enter a world of zero-sum subjective evaluation. You want to win and the other guy must lose, so the social interaction becomes a personal war from your perspective. That’s not a psychologically healthy way to interact with others because it prevents understanding, cooperation, and empathy.
Another coping danger from taking things personally is that you are more likely to take responsibility for what other people choose to do. This is particularly dangerous for parents. How many parents spend thousands of dollars for lawyers and fines because their adult child broke a law? How many let the kid come back home, and watch them sleep on the couch, doing little to get a job or help with chores? How many parents fall into this enabling trap because they feel guilty that their adult child is making bad choices? How many see their adult kid’s mistakes and – laden with guilt – think, “I should have raised this kid better. I was a poor parent.” This is faulty thinking. No parent does everything right, but the past is gone; your adult child is making their own choices in their present world. As long as you enable their self-sabotaging choices in the present, you are not helping them and you are certainly not helping yourself. Your coping task is not to ruminate over the past, but to decide what options are available to you right now. And in most circumstances like this one, the wisest choice is to force current reality on your “child,” and follow through with firm and even harsh action. You are not responsible for everything others do. Accountability is great, but keep it in perspective. Personal accountability is essential to good coping, but best done when the actions are under your control.
Our coping lesson is simple: Taking what others’ say too personally will throw you into a coping minefield. It will threaten your self-validity, foster self-sabotaging actions and thinking, and bring you all sorts of troublesome encounters.