We often hear that we shouldn’t take things so personally. But what does this actually mean?

If someone we’ve allowed into our heart says something shaming or hurtful, such as “You only think about yourself” or “How can you be so stupid?” we’re likely to feel the pain of being judged and criticized. It hurts to be viewed as an object with horrible traits rather than be seen in our wholeness.

It’s not realistic to think we should not be personally affected when someone close to us sears us with a critical or dismissive comment. As human beings, we affect each other. It would be more helpful if your partner or friend revealed how they’re affected by your behavior, which is the intention behind communication skills training, such as the non-violent communication (NVC) approach of Marshall Rosenberg.

We have little control over how others view us and relate to us. We have more control over how we view ourselves and the situation, and how we respond to it. If we take time to look clearly at things, we can gain some distance from the situation rather than be so personally merged with it that we react quickly and mindlessly.

If a loved one is angry or critical toward us, we’re likely to have an immediate fight, flight, freeze response. But instead of attacking back or getting defensive, which adds fuel to the fire, we can gain some perspective if we pause rather than react. We can take a breath and stay connected to our body — and consider the following:

My partner just got triggered. I want to be sensitive to their feelings, whether or not I did or said something hurtful. If I did, I’ll take responsibility for that and explore and share what was happening inside me that led me to being hurtful. This can take some time, but it might lead to an apology: “I’m sorry I was critical of you, but deep down I was feeling hurt and it came out as anger. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable, so I got defensive.”

Perhaps my partner was getting triggered by something I said that has little or nothing to do with me. Maybe old hurts were getting activated from a prior relationship or from childhood traumas.

Not being so quick to accept blame gives us some space from a situation. We remain engaged with our partner, listening openly, but not taking it so personally. We maintain our personal boundaries rather than immediately sink into a shame pit and get frozen or defensive. We hold the situation, our own feelings, and the other’s feelings with more spaciousness. We can explore together what just happened without instinctually denying or accepting responsibility.

Seeing Things in Perspective

Oftentimes we take things personally in the sense of feeling responsible for everything that goes awry. We immediately think we did something wrong. We lose our sense of self.

It’s a bit easier to not take things personally with people we don’t know well — or at all. Perhaps we’re temporarily distracted and tailgating the car ahead of us. Upon passing them, they flip us the finger and shout an obscenity.

Rather than take their road rage personally — reacting with rage or defensiveness — we can consider the following:

  • They may be having a hard day.
  • They may be having a hard life.
  • They may have been traumatized by a past traffic accident.
  • We may have triggered their survival fear, which led to their fight/flight response.

These considerations can give us pause and perspective. We’re not bad; they’re not bad. We had no ill-intentions, yet nevertheless were a bit careless in our driving. We don’t need to be paralyzed by toxic shame, yet a touch of healthy shame can remind us to be more mindful when driving.

Whether we are triggered by a loved one or by people we don’t know, we’re inclined to respond personally because we’re a person — a vulnerable human being who thrives on kindness and recoils when someone pokes our sensitive spots.

The good news is that we can regain our footing by pausing before reacting. We can bring gentleness to our sensitive spots and a spacious awareness to the situation so that we see it in perspective.

Not taking things personally may sometimes be an overly ambitious goal. But as we work toward seeing things with greater clarity, we’re more able to respond rather than react. We have greater inner resources to bring to situations. We realize that not everything is about us, but when it is, we can own up to it and repair broken trust and be more mindful. Gradually, we can live with more compassion for ourselves and others.

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