Taking Things Personally

by Jeff Saari

We all experience adverse emotions from time to time, some more than others. Sometimes when others present us information that we don’t want to hear, such as feedback for our attitude or performance, we take it personally.

What does it mean to take something  personally?  To me, whenever we feel offended, embarrassed, insulted, defensive or upset there is a reason behind the scenes that is motivating these emotions. Say, for instance your co-worker gives you some feedback about a process that you are following that isn’t quite right. When this person comes to you and delivers the feedback, you may feel ‘less than’ or even ‘the worst employee ever’. Now the co-worker didn’t say these words at all, they merely gave you some constructive push-back. You in essence have taken the feedback personally, instead of what it was intended to do.

We all sit with negative feelings about ourselves at times, most likely based on unresolved experiences from our past conditioning personally and culturally. There are many ideals and expectations that are placed on us growing up, many we couldn’t live up to. Also, some parents and teachers were not so nice at times and created within us our own ideal of how we should be. We take these ideals into adulthood and they become unconsciously part of our identity. One client I support had a father who reinforced over time that her voice didn’t matter, to be quiet because that is what good girls do. You can imagine that this energy is still alive as an adult, creating part of her identity. In short, her unresolved identity from childhood is still alive and well. So when some situations occur to have her speak her mind and truth, say to her male supervisor, she clams up. Or when she perceives that someone isn’t valuing her perspective, she takes it personally because that is what dad did.

I want to posit that even when people do have a negative intention to insult us, for instance, we don’t have to take anything personally. If you get upset by someone’s insult, that has nothing to do with the other person. In my opinion you are making a choice to get upset because of what the insult reminds you of, your unresolved identity. Most of us don’t look at this subterranean level of our experience, instead we fight against the surface, the other person, and blame them for our distressed emotions. This simply is the biggest hoax of all time. I personally grew up with a stepfather that was hard to deal with; he was ornery and condescending at times. I moved into my 20’s with a ‘chip on my shoulder’, an identity that I was less than what I should have been. I felt depressed about it many times, but didn’t realize what was motivating it. I am fortunate to have gotten into coaching so I could understand this part of me more fully so it doesn’t drive my behavior as much. Not too long ago, a man I was doing some team building with got very upset and raised his voice to me in front of the whole group. I could have taken this personally and fought back. But I understood in that moment that he was reminding me of my stepfather and that I wanted to fight back. But he isn’t my stepfather. In that moment I was able to calm my impulse to fight against my (past) stepfather and just be curious as to this other person’s unease. I didn’t have to take it personally and I didn’t. It was a defining moment of my coaching career.

So, any time that you feel less then, worthless, bad, unlovable, etc., take stock in these moments. They are stemming from something you haven’t dealt with yet. What you can do is just calm yourself down and realize that these thoughts and feelings are fleeting and stem from old stuff. If someone is being abusive or rude, you can ask or demand them to stop, but it doesn’t have to stem from taking it personally, rather it can stem from your values of connection and love. With the employee who was raising his voice at me, at some point I asked him if he could calm down a little bit so we could talk it through because yelling wasn’t going to get us very far. I was able to calm him down gently and glean some really good feedback from him, as well as engender self-awareness on his part. Why did he get triggered by me and yell?  He took something I did personally. Even though my intention was to have a good team building experience he had a reaction that had little to do with me and a lot to do with his own unresolved issues that I was triggering up in that moment.

There is great power in choosing your reactions and attitude. You can rise above your past and create a different present, and thus future. The next time you ‘take something personally’ stop and inspect it. What is going on here?  Why are you reacting to a situation in that way?  Does this remind you of anything of old?  What thoughts and emotions are present?  Enlist someone you trust to talk these instances through and you may be surprised what you find.

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