How to Not Take Things So Personally

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt, This Is My Story

I had an eye-opening experience at church last week. A bunch of ladies at our coffee hour were all talking about their adult kids and how well they were adjusting to the challenges of college life. Being that my kids have chosen to stay at home and work for a year before going to college I felt very small. So, I didn’t say anything and wondered if they noticed. They didn’t. Finally I blurted out, “Well colleges today are way overpriced anyway!” Suddenly these women got very quiet and just stared at me. Not only had I burst their bubble but I had incurred their wrath. Their stares told me I was a bad mother, some kind of loser and someone they would rather avoid. I felt like crawling under a rock. I have always dreaded those coffee hours. Later one of the women came up to me and asked how my kids are doing. That felt divine. Apparently these women really didn’t all hate me after all. Through tears I admitted to her that I was being abrasive out of my own jealousy and insecurity. She said I ought to be proud that my kids are working their way through college. If only I could believe that myself. Clearly I was taking what these women were saying as an attack on me rather than seeing them as simply being proud of their kids. I had allowed others to make me feel inferior. I’ve done this my whole life. I just don’t know how to stop it.

If you can identify with the woman in the story above, give yourself credit. At least you are recognizing a negative pattern in your life and you’ve made yourself responsible for changing it. Too many of us these days are swept away by old patterns of insecurity that only get made worse by blaming others. It’s a very good idea to want to stop taking things so personally. It is possible to learn to do that. How to do it is yet another story. Extended personal work, self reflection and help from others are required to learn how to be more resilient. May this article serve as another step in your process.

Social media and self-esteem

Moderating your use of social media is the first step. It’s normal to want to know what other people are doing and what they think, especially what they think of us. That’s how we get guidance and tools in how to cope with life and be who we are. However it’s not helpful to our self-worth to become a slave to what other people think and not develop wisdom in how to deal with our insecurities. No where is this more true than when people over use social media for determining their identities. Many of us these days find it impossible to have a view of ourselves that is not supported by what everybody else thinks on the internet or in our social circle. We crave fitting in and being told we are normal.  It’s like we’re all held together however fragilely by our Facebook friends. The more we do this, the more insecure we become.

Overall this pattern makes us less able to separate ourselves from what other people think of us and we are more prone to taking things personally. Alas, forming a strong identity is not a democratic process. Even if you conform to what others think you will still lack a confident identity as your self-esteem is only good until the next election!

If you want to toughen up, spend at least as much time and energy on real life interactions as on-line activities and let yourself get knocked around by real life situations. However, you will need to learn how to prevent and repair self-esteem injuries.


Preventing and repairing self-esteem injuries

There is no magic pill to make us have a thicker skin. However we can become tougher over time by practicing self-awareness and self-care. It’s best to realize if you are prone to social injuries that you need to have your eyes wide open before you socialize.

If you want to toughen up, spend at least as much time and energy on real life interactions as on-line activities and let yourself get knocked around by real life situations.For example, in the story above, it would have been wise for the woman with stay-at-home kids to realize ahead of time that going to the coffee hour at her church is invariably perilous to her. Perhaps prior to the coffee hour she could have developed a standard line, such as “My kids march to the beat of their own drummer” that affirms her adult children and their choices. That way she could participate, be different and fit in at the same time. Alternatively, she could have realized that many people at her church have values that are different, but not superior, to her values. When we allow ourselves ahead of time to be different from others we are less prone to take things so personally. Some of the differences may even spice up our own lives and we can welcome these differences.

Clearly the best made plans don’t always keep us safe. All of us get injured by life. Typically we get injured, not so much by what others say to us, but by the reservoir of shame inside ourselves that predated our social encounter and gets released by the social encounter itself. Repairing such injuries is best done by acknowledging this shame and sharing it with a trusted confidante. In the story above, the dear woman who approached the injured woman afterwards helped her repair her shame. Self-esteem injuries can always be opportunities for growth if you are part of a loving relationship. Otherwise it’s tough to do on our own.

Signals of taking things too personally

We can’t change what we don’t see. We are likely taking things too personally when:

  • we routinely withdraw from social situations because of how they might or already have injured us
  • we get very jittery when people try to get to know us in a personal way
  • we typically and automatically have a knee-jerk reaction to fault ourselves for almost all relational conflicts
  • we try to read between the lines in social encounters to find ways we are at fault for things
  • we have uncharacteristic meltdowns from situations that most people see as mundane
  • we automatically get fixated on how things are our fault in relationship conflicts, often reaching for ways to blame ourselves

Why are we so thin-skinned?

Most of us who are thin-skinned blame ourselves and are blamed by others for being too sensitive. Being thin-skinned is not the same as being sensitive. It’s possible to be both sensitive and tough simultaneously. We become thin-skinned by having been emotionally abused, often in growing up years by a critical parent. Today in current relationships and social circles we relive these self-critical memories and become locked up in the helpless tension. Essentially we’ve been trained to be helpless and fault-filled around people even when no real danger is present. Our submission to this training is how we survived massive and often invisible emotional abuse. The legacy of such harm means that we think, feel and have in our bodies all the blame for what happened to us. It is the way we “fell on the grenade” to protect and serve our misguided family. Often how we have been harmed by our past remains unclear to us. Instead we just blame ourselves for being too touchy and remain pessimistic about things every changing.

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The best news is that what has been learned can also be unlearned and repaired. With self-patience and care from others we can learn to empower ourselves to both be tough and kind at the same time. However we cannot think or feel our way out of taking things personally. We need to learn how our abuse lies in our bodies and how it continues doing so today. We can use this knowledge to guide us in developing stronger emotional boundaries so that what is ours belongs to us and what is others belongs to them. Such sorting out in  our bodies enables us to have strong boundaries and overcome our abuse. Developing a tougher hide is about repairing emotional abuse. In the long run we are still sensitive but we are way better at protecting ourselves.

Toughening up and being kind

Certainly we cannot will ourselves into not taking things so personally. Nor can reading this article alone completely make us strong. Toughening up is a  learning process over time where we interrupt old patterns and replace them with new ones that increase our resiliency. It’s best to start with noticing when we allow others to have power over us and recognize our body sensations. Perhaps in a social group where everyone is making fun of each other our chest gets tense and our breathing becomes shallow. We are essentially living in our past. It’s vital to forgive our bodies for picking up on danger and just let our body sensations be what they are. Possibly with some deep relaxation we could think more clearly, ground ourselves in the present and decide to cordially exit the social group and find other people to have safer companionship with. Perhaps in a friendly group of people all of whom are ignoring us we may notice the constriction in our throat and rapid heart beat. Once again we are in our past.

It’s best to resist the urge to leave and the impulse to say something provocative and instead relax our body. Eventually we may be clear enough to recall some interesting story in our current personal life and decide to share it with the group even when we’re not sure how it will fit in. We climb out of our past to move into the present. Using our bodies to change old patterns over time will eventually heal our abuse and make us one tough hombre. It’s a very fine day when bullets bounce off us or we dance away from them while our heart beats warmly towards others, even towards those who have wronged us.

For more information on this subject please read, Don’t Take It Personally by Elayne Savage (New Harbinger Books, 1997) and Shyness by Bernado J. Carducci (Harper Collins, 1999). There is a whole new you waiting to emerge once your energy is no longer needed to survive abuse.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). Call 651-699-4573. 

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commission when you click on some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thanks for helping to support the website.

Last Updated on April 2, 2021

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