If you struggle with taking things personally, you’ve probably heard the standard advice:
- Just don’t let him get to you so much!
- Stop being so hard on yourself.
- I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it.
Or my personal favorite…
- You just need to learn to let things go.
And while I have no doubt that the people giving advice like this are well-intentioned, it misses the bigger point:
There are often powerful psychological reasons why we take things personally.
In my work as a psychologist, I help my clients to understand the core mechanisms behind their tendency to take things personally.
Because it’s only when you understand the tendency to take things personally that you can move past it for good.
1. You’re a social perfectionist
Most of us associate the term perfectionism with performance:
- He’s such a perfectionist… If he doesn’t get the top grade in the class he thinks he’s a failure.
- I don’t know why she has to be such a perfectionist about proofreading these monthly reports? No one actually reads them anyway…
But there’s an incredibly common—though rarely-talked-about—form of perfectionism I call social perfectionism. And it’s often a key cause of the tendency to take things personally.
Social perfectionism is when you can’t stand the thought of other people seeing your flaws or mistakes.
When you believe you have to be perfect in other people’s eyes, it drives you to constantly worry about what other people think of you. And when you’re in the habit of always worrying about what others think about you, taking things personally is almost inevitable.
But here’s the deal:
It’s okay to make mistakes. And more importantly, it’s okay to worry about what other people think of you.
We’re social creatures, after all. Our biggest advantage as a species is the fact that we can coordinate and work together with each other. And that ability depends on our capacity to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, including about us. So it’s not surprising that we tend to care a lot about what others think of us!
The self-help industry has convinced everyone that they shouldn’t care at all about what other people think. But this is nonsense.
We’re fundamentally social creatures. Caring about what others think is part of the package.
The real problem social perfectionists get into is that they are too hard on themselves for worrying about what other people think.
So if you want to care a little less about what others think—and as a result, stop taking things so personally—the trick is to be validating of your worry instead of judgmental.
When you find yourself wondering what other people think of you, simply remind yourself that it’s normal and okay to worry about this a little.
You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to stay focused when you’re simply worried (and not worried about being worried)!
2. You use negative self-talk as motivation
Most of us grow up learning that the only way to be successful in life is to be tough on ourselves. And inevitably, this leads to a subtle but powerful habit of negative self-talk.
Like the drill sergeant hurling insults at his new recruits in order to “make men out of them,” many of us adopt a similar attitude toward ourselves:
We think that if we’re tough enough on ourselves it will motivate us to succeed.
Unfortunately, being harsh and judgmental with yourself actually decreases performance.
But worse than that, it can lead to a life-long habit of negative self-talk and all the side-effects that go with it—from anxiety and low self-esteem to… yup, you guessed it: taking things personally.
See, when someone criticizes us or gives us difficult feedback, a strong habit of negative self-talk can easily hijack your thinking.
Instead of considering the mistake as an isolated incident, you end up making very extreme or black and white interpretations to yourself:
- Instead of I need to work harder at this aspect of my work we tell ourselves I’m a loser.
- Instead of He’s disappointed in my work we slip into He’s disappointed in me.
- Instead of This will be a bigger problem in the future unless I address it now we go to I’ll probably screw this up next month too and make an ass out of myself again.
If you want to stop taking things personally don’t generalize a mistake in behavior to a flaw in character.
But this is very difficult to do if you have a long-standing habit of negative self-talk, which by definition makes your interpretation of things overly negative, overly personal, and extreme.
True freedom from taking things personally comes from removing the habit of negative self-talk altogether—from learning that you don’t actually need to be hard on yourself in order to stay motivated and succeed.
3. You’re afraid to be proud of yourself
Ah, pride… Everyone’s favorite sin!
In part, because of Western culture’s Christian heritage, many people grow up believing that pride is bad, or sinful even. After all, that’s why Lucifer got thrown out of heaven and why Adam and Eve got expelled from Paradise, right? Thinking too much of themselves?
Actually I’m not so sure… Now, I’m no theologian (just a humble psychologist) but I think technically the sin of pride comes when you put yourself above other people—thinking that you’re better than someone else.
But simply acknowledging your own strengths, goodness, and virtues… I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. And while I can’t speak to the spiritual side of things, psychologically it’s actually very beneficial to have a healthy sense of pride in yourself!
Of course, like anything you can take it too far. But that’s no reason to avoid it altogether.
So how does this relate to taking things personally?
When you take things personally, it’s often the result of valuing other people’s opinions too much and not valuing your own enough.
Suppose your spouse makes a sarcastic or rude comment about you. If you’re in the habit of always telling yourself that other people are smart and capable but you’re dumb and weak, your chances of believing your spouse’s comment and internalizing it go way up.
On the other hand, if you have a healthy sense of pride—if you regularly remind yourself of your strengths and positive qualities—it’s going to be much easier to say to yourself Wait a second, that’s not true at all. I’m actually very conscientious and hard-working and almost never lazy. And as a result, not take what your spouse said too seriously or personally.
A healthy sense of pride is a powerful defense against unjust criticism and taking things personally.
Make a little time to remind yourself of your positive and admirable qualities and you’ll find it a lot easier to confidently resist unfair criticism and critiques.
4. You don’t know how to be assertive
Most people fall into one of two dominant communication styles:
- Passive: When you’re overly accommodating of other people, afraid to express your own opinions, and generally hold yourself back in order to keep the peace and not rock the boat.
- Aggressive: You ignore or devalue other people’s preferences and opinions and tend to be domineering and manipulative in order to get what you want.
For most of your reading this article, the first one is probably the bigger issue.
Most of us (especially women) are taught from a young age that it’s important to be nice, kind, and agreeable and to put other people’s wants and needs before our own. And then we get so reinforced for this, that we end up taking it to an extreme where we’re chronically taking care of other people but never addressing our own wants and needs.
This is not sustainable long-term. And one of the many symptoms of constantly denying your own wants and needs by being overly-accommodating of others is that you end up taking things personally more often than you should.
This makes sense if you think about it:
If in your words and actions you’re constantly putting aside your wants and needs and taking care of others, what are you teaching your own brain about the relative importance of yourself vs other people? In short: that you don’t matter.
And so, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that when you get criticized for something, your automatic assumption is that they’re probably right and what you think/feel isn’t really very important. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to see how this is going to lead you to take things personally.
The solution is to learn to be assertive.
Assertiveness is the ability to ask for what you want and say no to what you don’t want in a way that’s honest to your own wants and needs and also respectful of other people. In short, it’s the healthy middle ground between passive and aggressive.
Once you start learning to be more assertive, you will begin to value yourself more highly. And when you do that, you’ll find it far easier to resist taking things personally.
5. You get lost in your own stories
Taking things personally usually happens after we’ve been criticized, put down, or somehow insulted by someone else. And while it’s tempting to see the other person’s comment as the thing that hurt us, that’s not technically true…
About 50 years ago, cognitive scientists finally validated a theory of emotion that philosophers had been trying to convince us of for more than 2,000 years. It’s called cognitive mediation.
Cognitive mediation is the idea that things in the world don’t cause emotions; rather, it’s our thoughts about things that affect how we feel.
Here’s a concrete example:
You’re driving down the road and some guy in a red sports car zooms past you and cuts you off, forcing you to slam on your breaks and almost causing an accident.
Understandably, you’re mad as hell. But the question is, did the guy cutting you off cause your anger?
Technically no. What caused your anger was your story about what being cut off meant. Here’s what I mean:
- If the first thought that crossed your mind after being cut off was What a jerk! I hope he gets pulled over anger will likely be your emotional response.
- But if the first thought to cross your mind was Oh my God, I could have been killed! fear might be the dominant emotion.
- Or an even more extreme example: If your first thought was You know what, maybe his wife is in the back seat going into labor and he’s trying to get to the hospital as quickly as possible your dominant emotion might be pity!
The point is this:
Taking things personally has much more to do with the stories you tell yourself than the stories other people tell you.
People who often take things personally almost always have a strong habit of telling lots of stories about what the criticism means. And when this storytelling habit is strong, all those stories lead to a flood of painful emotions and moods.
A great way to stop taking things so personally is to pay attention to the stories you tell yourself when you’re criticized. And if possible, change those stories to be more realistic—or even better, refrain from telling stories at all and try to get on with your day.
Easier said than done, of course, but fundamentally our tendency to tell stories to ourselves is a habit. And habits can always be modified with practice and patience.
6. You spend too much time with the wrong people
It’s fairly common knowledge that as babies and small children, we learn about ourselves through the people around us:
- When a baby smiles and her mother smiles back at her, she learns that someone is there to be responsive to her.
- When a child scrapes her knee and a compassionate parent is there to clean it off and put a Band-Aid on, she learns that she can rely on other people for help and support.
- When a kid hears a parent tell them that they’re lazy and “no good” that kid starts to think of themselves as lazy and no good.
We are social beings to our core. Like it or not, other people exert a profound impact on us—who we are, how we view ourselves, and what we believe.
But here’s the thing:
This isn’t just true for kids. As adults, the people we spent the most time around influence us more than we’d like to admit:
- That talk show host you’ve listened to every morning for 8 years… You’re in denial if you think they haven’t influenced you.
- That overly-critical boyfriend you’ve been living with for the past two years… Do you really think your self-esteem hasn’t taken a hit as a result of being around him for so long?
- That gorgeous and charismatic Instagram influencer you check up on 3-4 times per day… Yup, they’re having a bigger influence on you than just whether you buy the make-up they recommend.
My point with all this is to show that as human beings we are incredibly sensitive to the influence of other people in our lives, especially the ones we spend the most time around.
And if you spend time around people who are overly-critical, demeaning, manipulative, or just plain don’t respect you, it’s going to rub off and you’re going to end up treating yourself the same way.
One of the best (but sometimes hardest) things you can do to stop taking things personally is to make a big change in the type of people you regularly spend time with.
Making new friends, ending an unhealthy relationship, or putting boundaries on toxic family members is never going to be easy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important—essential even.
7. You don’t know your values
Like we talked about in #5 above, things don’t make us unhappy, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happens that makes us unhappy.
This means that the key to not taking things personally and letting someone’s criticism consume us is to create an alternative story about what that criticism means:
- Instead of I’m a loser your story could be I lost that one, but I’ll crush it next time.
- Instead of Why am I always so awkward your story could be That was a little awkward, but it was honest, and a lot of people actually find a little awkwardness endearing.
Of course, in the moment this is tough. It’s like our attention gets drawn to negative stories about us like gravity. The real trick to escaping the gravity of taking things personally is to have an alternative object for our attention that has even more gravity, and so, “outcompetes” the pull of the negative story.
So, what can outcompete a negative self-story?
Values are core principles or ideals that we live by and that inspire us. Like a good map, our values help us navigate difficult situations and dilemmas.
For example, one of my core personal values is using evidence. As much as possible, I try not to make decisions or judgments (about myself or anything else) unless I’ve looked for evidence to guide that decision. In other words, I have a strong value for facts over opinion.
This means that in any difficult decision, I try to ask myself this question: Okay I feel like XXX, but what do the facts say?
This means that if I was faced with some pretty intense negative criticism, and my mind started to go down the taking things personally path, my value of using evidence might help me pause and think differently: You know, the way John said that seemed really compelling, but actually he didn’t have a lot of evidence for the claim that it was my fault…
That’s just one example, but the bigger point is this:
With any emotional struggle—including taking things personally—it’s not enough to simply resist the negative. We need a positive vision for a better path.
When you take time to discover and cultivate your personal values, they help you stay the course and not get thrown around by overly negative thinking patterns like taking things personally.
If you find yourself getting lost in the face of criticism, values will be your guide out. Of course, you need to know your values first.
All You Need to Know
In order to stop taking things personally, you need to understand the real reasons why you do it. Only then can you work to undo the habits keeping you stuck:
You’re a social perfectionist
You use negative self-talk as motivation
You’re afraid to be proud of yourself
You don’t know how to be assertive
You get lost in your own stories
You spend too much time with the wrong people
You don’t know your values