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How to (Try to) Not Take Things Personally

Are you hypersensitive? Do you take things personally? By request from listener Kris from Utah, Savvy Psychologist helps us all be less sensitive to inevitable criticism.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
November 17, 2017
Episode #178

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boy and girl offended sitting back to back

We all have our soft spots—the tender underbellies of our psyche. But to the hypersensitive among us, a gentle poke can feel more like a thwack from a meat tenderizer. Comments don’t slide off of us like water from a duck’s back. Instead, we feel more like a sitting duck.

Why we’d want to toughen up seems obvious: criticism hurts more when we’re sensitive or take things personally. But aside from protecting ourselves from pain, not taking things personally pays off in other ways as well.

For example, the overly sensitive among us often react to hurtful comments with defensiveness and anger, which leads to relationship conflict and makes it harder to work or live together. Plus, if you’re in charge, being hypersensitive can lead to an autocratic, overcontrolling leadership style, which stymies your team’s morale and, eventually, performance.

So how can we take things less personally, both to benefit ourselves and others? How can we toughen up without become hard-hearted?

One way is to deflate the power of the other person in your own head; we’ll talk about how to do that. But another is to work on ourselves. In part, this is purely pragmatic: we’re the only ones we can work on.

How to Not Take Things Personally

  1. Tip #1: Consider the source.
  2. Tip #2: Give critics another chance, but not unlimited chances.
  3. Tip #3: Note the double-edged sword of “They shouldn’t say that!”
  4. Tip #4: Challenge your perfectionism.
  5. Tip #5: Be honest with yourself when playing out scenes in your head.
  6. Tip #6: Toe the line between taking things personally and being personally invested.

Let's explore these tips further. 

How to challenge the critic

Let’s start with how to challenge the critic, whether it’s your boss, your mother-in-law, your nosy neighbor, or someone you love and trust. In fact, that’s the crux of the matter and starts us with Tip #1, which is...

Tip #1: Consider the source.

Would you be as likely to drink water from a mountain spring as from a puddle under a dumpster? Of course not. But why? Aside from the fact that you are a smart cookie, it’s because the source matters.

Same thing goes for criticism. Does the critique in question come from someone you like and respect? Does this person know you well? Or is this someone who is known to shoot their mouth off, has all the subtlety of a brick, and has never had a real conversation with you?

In short, consider the source, which will help you decide whether to take their feedback to heart or with a grain of salt.

Tip #2: Give critics another chance, but not unlimited chances.

People say dumb things. People are awkward. People have no filter. It’s only human to make a mistake and say something critical or insulting, but if it happens again and again, it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a pattern.

To paraphrase the common quote, critique me once, that’s on you. Critique me twice, that’s on me. But if you’re repeatedly insulted without apology or acknowledgment, it’s time to speak up and/or limit contact. Three strikes and you’re not necessarily out, especially if you still have to work with or be related to them, but it’s definitely time to draw some boundaries.

How to challenge yourself

Next, let’s work on you and why you may take things personally. This can be hard. It can be hard even to imagine a comment that’s not personal if you’re used to seeing the world through a hypersensitive filter. And that brings us to...

Tip #3: Note the double-edged sword of “They shouldn’t say that!”

Individuals hypersensitive to criticism often have a strict moral code. Their values run deep, and that’s a good thing. But this is one of the few places where strong values can have a downside. “How dare they say that!” “That’s wrong!” “She can’t say that!” “That’s not how things should be.” All those things may be true, but whatever statement hurt you, it was said.

The fact that the critic “shouldn’t” or “can’t” is moot. It’s as if a dog just deposited a steaming bundle right next to your “Please curb your dog” sign. It shouldn’t have happened, but you have to deal with it nonetheless.

Getting unfair or unwarranted criticism is similar. Even if it “shouldn’t” be there, you still have to deal with it. Feeling indignant and offended may be warranted, but it’s not helpful. Remember that even if you walk the line and follow the rules, you can’t control whether others break them. So rage against the unfairness of it all for a bit, but then, crucially, move on to the next thing.

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