Taking Things Less Personally

Unintentionally, most anxiety sufferers believe that most things that happen in their lives are all about them. Many people will be tempted to take this as a criticism, however, it is intended more so to be an observation. For some of us, we grew up in households where our parents criticized what seemed to be our every move (see Causes of Anxiety: Overprotective and Controlling Parents for further elaboration). It was not unreasonable, therefore, to believe that because our parents criticized us so harshly for things that were outside of our control, that now as adults much of what happens or does not happen in our lives has to do with how well we perform.

Additionally, many of us struggled with criticism not just at home, but everywhere else that we went. Children at school harassed us for various reasons and made us feel ashamed of ourselves. Employers saw that we were vulnerable and took every opportunity to keep us at the bottom of the totem pole. When this is our only experience, it is no wonder that many of us take things that others say very personally!

How do we know if we are taking things personally? Most of the time, we react in an extremely angry or anxious manner if we are taking things in a personal manner. We become noticeably upset when something is said that has offended us. Additionally, if there is something that seems to be personal, we can ask someone else who witnessed the situation how they would have reacted.

But, there is good news for social anxiety disorder sufferers, who often take very benign comments in a personal manner. The good news is that, except for a very small number of people, the vast majority of people do not know who we really are. If someone has no idea who we really are, how can they be justified in their attacks on us?

Many social anxiety disorder sufferers would respond to this statement by explaining that they know that other people do not really know them and have no right to say what they say, but the socially anxious person is simply unable to resist feeling awful about him or her self when the slightest negative comment is made.

This is in fact the case, and I am someone who struggles with this as well. It is very difficult when someone says, or appears to have said, something that hurts me emotionally. But, over the years, by conversing with other people who make rude comments and by talking to friends who do not tend to take things personally, it has become clear to me that 99% of what other people say is not intended to be personal.

Additionally, it is to our benefit to believe that we are wonderful people with great talents even though someone is saying things that are intended to be personal and hurtful. The person who is saying hurtful things is attempting to claim emotional power over us by getting us to react in a certain way. This gives them a false sense of power and security, which really covers a very fragile core.

In any event, the important thing for us to do is to first become open to alternative explanations for other people’s behavior in the event they inadvertently say something hurtful to us, and the next important thing to do is to become confident enough in ourselves so that we can let the things said which are intended to harm us to “bounce off” instead of becoming stuck and swirling around inside our heads.

If someone chooses to say something that hurts us, take the time to analyze why that person would make such a statement. Perhaps, in this person’s social circle, the phrase is not one that is considered rude and in fact they were not intending to be rude. Perhaps, in fact you are the one who is misinterpreting the statement and are taking it personal when something said would not be considered personal by most people. When someone says, “I really am not so sure about that,” for example, that is perfectly okay. One might choose to be insulted because what he or she is saying is being questioned, but in reality, this is nothing that is meant personally, but more likely is simply a differing viewpoint, which is okay. If this person is one who generally contends everything somebody else says, then that in fact might be something that is meant to be personal; perhaps the person is insecure and feels that he or she needs to look powerful by demonstrating that whatever he or she says is right. Therefore, in order to feel secure, this person needs to minimize the intelligence and credibility of others. It definitely can be a fine line in many cases.

Alternatively, consider someone who says to you at a job you do not like, “Hey Dan, looks like you’re living the dream!” It is actually quite difficult to discern the nature of the statement. On the hand, this employee may not like the company and may in fact be intending to insult the company because the work is so boring and does not pay well, or the management really does not make wise decisions. On the other hand, he could be going out of his way to insult you because that is what he wants to do. In this case, context is needed. If this were the first time this employee said something like this, I might be tempted to take it personally, but since I do not know him well and since I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, I would take it as a friendly joke. On the other hand, if this type of joking in my direction became routine and annoying, it might very well be meant to be personal. I might talk to other coworkers (not in a gossiping manner) and ask them what they think of this person, and that will usually create quite a clear picture of what this employee is doing. If I was working in a workplace where this was not possible and his comments were unclear in nature but yet were bugging me, I would instead say, “Bill, I really do not appreciate your comments. Would you please stop?”

Finally, what if that coworker or person says something like, “You’re just a damn idiot!” Here is your chance to be assertive and say, “Look, Bill. I am feeling very put-down by your comments. I am not going to listen to this. I am going to walk away and I will be happy to talk with you when you are calm” (see Assertiveness and Anxiety for more on this). Here you are drawing a line and letting Bill know that he cannot talk to you in that way. Try to talk with Bill later and ask him what both of you could do to create a functional relationship. This is a very difficult situation for anyone to deal with, let alone someone who suffers from social anxiety disorder, so go easy on yourself if you make mistakes. Interestingly, people who engage in this type of behavior do not do so because you are a bad person; rather, they are venting their frustrations and insecurities within their own lives onto you. While it seems personal, it is certainly in reality not meant to be personal, although that is difficult for us social anxiety disorder sufferers to remember at all times.

In reality, there are millions of reasons that people choose to say certain things, and that for those of us who tend to take things personally, most things that we believe are personal are in fact not personal. And, for those things that are meant personally, there is very little, if any, factual information present.

The bottom line is that if you run into a phrase, situation, or person that is appearing to personally attack you, talk about it with a trusted friend or family member who is not socially anxious, and they will often offer you a more objective view and perhaps may be able to help you understand what is going on in the heads of other people. With this new understanding, you will be armed with yet another reason to be self-confident! Good luck and keep hanging in there for those who are struggling!