If you struggle with taking things personally, you’re not alone. In my work as a psychologist, this was one of the most common struggles people of all backgrounds and personalities had.
Luckily, this is definitely something anyone can overcome with the right approach.
Anyone can learn to stop taking things personally by building better habits.
Taking things too personally is a habit that can develop for all sorts of reasons. But if you want to stop taking things personally, you need to build new habits to replace it.
In the rest of this guide, I’ll teach you 10 of the most powerful ways I know to stop taking things personally and eliminate all the stress, anxiety, and resentments that come along with it.
Let’s dive in!
1. Look for root causes of taking things personally
Often there are one or two root causes behind why people are in the habit of taking things personally.
For example, at an early age, you might have developed a core belief that it’s not okay to be proud of myself. Maybe you were punished or reprimanded for expressing healthy pride as a child. Or maybe you had someone in your life who was excessively prideful and self-centered, so you reacted in the opposite direction. But whatever the origin, this belief that it’s not okay to have a healthy sense of pride leads to overvaluing other people’s opinions of you relative to your own; and as a result, it’s much easier to end up taking things too personally.
Now, it’s important to be clear that there isn’t always one single root cause of the tendency to take things personally. And it’s not necessarily the result of something that happened in childhood. But often it is. So if you’ve struggled with taking things personally for a long time, it’s worth doing some reflection to see if there are any common themes.
???? Learn More: 7 Reasons Why You Take Things Personally
2. Validate the emotions behind taking things personally
Whatever caused your tendency to take things personally initially, there may be other reactors maintaining that habit in the present. And one of the most common is this: invalidating the emotions associated with personalizing.
- Suppose a coworker makes a negative comment about your team’s recent performance being down. And then you personalize that comment and assume they’re criticizing you specifically for the performance issues.
- If you slow down and analyze what happened, what you might find is something like this: The coworker’s comment lead to an initial thought that you were going to get in trouble (maybe get fired!) because of the performance issue. And this thought lead to a strong feeling of fear.
- But as soon as you felt afraid, you told yourself it was stupid to feel afraid and that you shouldn’t feel that way at work.
- Now, because you’ve invalidated that initial emotion, you also feel shame on top of your fear, which means your overall level of emotionality is even higher.
- Finally, this heightened level of emotionallity and the stress that goes with it makes it more likely that old bad habits like personalizing kick in. And your ability to inhibit those bad habits and stay resilient is diminished.
It’s a bit counterintuitive but when you acknowledge painful emotions you actually make them easier to deal with and increase your odds of responding to tough situations well.
So, if you want to stop taking things personally, try learning to spot the difficult emotions behind your personalization habit and practice validating them instead of avoiding them or criticizing yourself for them.
???? Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions
3. Break your chronic worry habit
When I worked as a therapist with people who struggled with this issue of taking things personally, one of the patterns I noticed was that these people also tended to be chronic worriers.
Once I started seeing this pattern and paying more attention, I realized it wasn’t just a coincidence: Chronic worry was actually fueling people’s habit of taking things personally.
For example: I had a client once named Jamie. Jamie struggled a lot with taking things his wife said way too personally. But interestingly, it tended to only happen in the evenings and on weekdays. What we realized was that Jamie’s high-stress job triggered a pattern of chronic worry. When he got home spun up with worries and fears, he was much more likely to interpret something his wife said as threatening and aimed at him specifically because the chronic worry was priming his attention to look for threats.
Interestingly, we decided to basically ignore the issue of taking things personally with his wife and instead focus on his chronic worry habit. Over the course of a couple months, as his chronic worry improved, he naturally found it much easier to stop taking things personally with his wife.
So, if you struggle with chronic worry in addition to a tendency to take things too personally, it’s worth looking more closely at the chronic worry and working to address that first—and who knows… like Jamie, you might find yourself not taking things personally as a side effect of working through your chronic worry.
???? Learn More: How to End Chronic Worry
4. Practice cognitive flexibility
People who tend to take things personally often have an overly rigid cognitive style—which is psychologist-speak for they tend to tell the same stories in their head over and over again.
- Suppose you struggle with taking things personally with your father in particular. He’s not the most sensitive dude in the world and often says things unintentionally that are easy to interpret as hurtful.
- But anytime he says something insensitive, your mind goes right to God, why does he have to be so insensitive all the time? He should realize how much it affects me!
- This little story or bit of self-talk is one interpretation of what’s going on. And if you pay attention, it has two features of interest: it’s very negative and likely unrealistic (he’s really insensitive all the time? You’re expecting him to realize something even though you’re unwilling to actually talk about it in a straightforward way with him because it makes you too uncomfortable).
- But even more important, it’s repetitive—rigid even. Like, that’s literally the same thing you say to yourself every time your dad says something insensitive. And the problem with this rigid cognitive style is that it gets harder and harder to consider alternative stories and explanations—some of which might be much more realistic, and therefore, less likely to lead to you personalizing.
The more general point here is that if you want to stop taking things personally, it’s important to pay attention to your self-talk. In particular, it’s crucial that you start training yourself to be more flexible in stories you tell yourself: Consider alternative theories, take different perspectives, suggest new explanations, etc.
5. Take a rain check on your personalizing
Maybe this sounds obvious, but most people who take things personally take things personally right away. Like, something happens and they’re immediately off to the races about why someone is specifically criticizing or judging them.
But you don’t have to personalize immediately. And in fact, a great way to break the habit and stop taking things personally is to practice delaying your personalizing.
For example: Let’s say your son says something that you interpret as really mean. And you catch yourself going down the path of taking it personally. But then you tell yourself: You know what, I’ll spend five minutes later this evening after dinner thinking more about this. But right now I’m going to get back to playing Lego with my daughter.
The benefit of postponing your personalizing—or taking a “rain check” on it as I like to think about it—is that you break the habit of criticism leading immediately to personalizing self-talk. Also, with more time, you increase the chances that you will consider alternative explanations or just forget about it entirely.
Finally, by seriously leaving open the option of revisiting the issue later, you make it easier for your mind to let go of it and move on because it’s potentially only temporary. On the other hand, if you just try to distract yourself from a personalization, your mind will interpret this as a sign that it’s dangerous or scary and be even more likely to remind you of it.
6. Practice perspective-taking
Perspective-taking is a specific version of cognitive flexibility that involves training yourself to create alternative explanations by looking at a situation through the eyes of a different person.
- If your boss gives you some tough criticism after a presentation at work and you start to feel yourself personalizing it, you might ask yourself how one of your coworkers would think about the criticism.
- If your spouse makes a remark about the way you’re washing the dishes in a funny way and you find yourself beginning to take it too personally, you might get curious about how you would interpret it if you overheard the same thing between another couple.
One of the reasons people fall into the trap of taking things too personally is that they get stuck playing a certain role. To break out of this habit and stop taking things personally, it helps to actively construct alternative roles by trying to see the same event from a different perspective.
When you do this enough, it will start to become second nature. And when you’re in the habit of cycling through multiple perspectives or vantage points on a given event, you’ll be much less likely to get “stuck” in one perspective that leads to over-personalizing.
7. Ask for what you want assertively
Often, taking things too personally comes from being frustrated that you’re not getting something but being too afraid to ask for it.
For example, I worked with a man once who was constantly taking off-handed comments from his wife too personally. He would make a small mistake or forget something and she would respond sarcastically to it. He, then, would interpret her sarcasm as a sign that she didn’t respect him.
But it turns out that the root issue was that my client was really frustrated that his wife was so sarcastic. But he felt uncomfortable actually bringing it up in a straightforward way because he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. And from his wife’s perspective, she just thought she was being humorous and playful and had no idea that her comments were leading to so much pain in her husband.
So we worked on him learning to communicate more assertively—which means expressing yourself clearly and honestly but also in a way that’s respectful of others. And once my client became more confident in his assertive communication skills, he was able to bring up the issue with his wife and take care of it.
If you find yourself consistently taking things too personally, it’s worth asking yourself:
Is there something I want more or less of in this relationship but am afraid to ask for?
If so, it may be that your real issue is assertiveness, not taking things personally.
???? Learn More: How to Be Assertive
8. Set better boundaries on hypercritical people
No matter how hard you try to stop taking things personally, if you’re surrounded by hypercritical people on a regular basis, you are going to fall into it.
In other words, it’s not all in your head. Sure, a lot of people’s tendency to take things personally has to do with their own mental habits and beliefs, but that doesn’t mean the external world has no influence on this.
They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time around. So how are you going to feel on a regular basis if two or three of those people are incredibly hypercritical and judgmental?
Now, obviously you can’t make someone else like a spouse or a coworker less hypercritical. But you can set better boundaries on your interactions with them.
- If your spouse says something overly-critical to you, your boundary might be that you leave the conversation.
- If your parent becomes hypercritical during holidays or family gatherings, your boundary might have to be that you leave.
Setting boundaries is hard. Enforcing them is even harder. But at the end of the day, living without good boundaries is even worse.
If you have to spend time around hypercritical people, your ability to stop taking things personally may come down to your ability and willingness to set better boundaries.
???? Learn More: How to Set Healthy Boundaries
9. Spend more time with genuinely supportive people
This one’s the flip side of the previous point…
Sometimes taking things too personally is the result of being around hypercritical people and not having healthy boundaries with them.
But other times, taking things personally comes from craving more genuinely supportive and understanding people in your life but not knowing how to get them or being afraid to.
Human beings are fundamentally social creatures. And a part of our social wiring is that we tend to learn better together:
- If you’re trying to learn how to speak French, you’re going to learn a lot better and faster if you’re surrounded by people who speak French!
- Similarly, if you’re trying to learn how to stop taking things personally, you’re going to learn a lot better and faster if you’re surrounded by people who help you not take things personally. And to a large extent, that means people who are supportive and understanding rather than critical and judgmental.
This could be as simple as making time every week to have a phone call with a good friend who’s especially supportive and compassionate. It could also be something more involved like requesting that you be transferred to a different team or department at work.
The mistake is to assume that taking things personally is exclusively about making changes to your inner world. Sometimes improving our inner world depends on finding the courage to make changes in our outer world.
10. Nurture your passions
Fundamentally, taking things personally is a mental habit—a way of talking and explaining things to yourself:
- Ugh… I totally screwed that up.
- It’s all my fault…
- She clearly doesn’t respect me anymore.
This means that to break out of this habit you have to shift your thinking and attention from your automatic response (some form of negative self-talk, most likely) and onto something else that’s more productive (your work, the conversation you’re in, your kid’s baseball game, whatever).
But of course, it’s often hard to shift our attention off of something scary and onto something else. Part of the solution here is that it just takes practice disengaging from negative self-talk that leads to personalization.
But here’s the thing…
It’s a lot easier to disengage from the mental habit of taking things personally when you have something else to shift your attention to that’s meaningful and enjoyable.
One of the most consistent platters I’ve observed among people who struggle with taking things personally is that they don’t have ideas, topics, projects, or passions in their lives that can serve as compelling alternatives to unhelpful thinking patterns.
This means that long-term, one of the best ways to get out of the habit of taking things personally is to make time to regularly explore and clarify your personal values and passions.
???? Learn More: How to Clarify Your Values
All You Need to Know
If you want to stop taking things personally, here are 10 powerful principles to get you started:
- Look for root causes of taking things personally
- Validate the emotions behind taking things personally
- Break your chronic worry habit
- Practice perspective-taking
- Take a rain check on your personalizing
- Cultivate flexible self-talk
- Ask for what you want assertively
- Set better boundaries on hypercritical people
- Spend more time with genuinely supportive people
- Nurture your passions