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.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #178
man and woman angry at each other

Tip #4: Challenge your perfectionism.

There is a straight line between hypersensitivity and perfectionism. Many of us who take things personally also work really hard to be blameless, flawless, or good enough precisely so no one will criticize us. When we get negative feedback, it blows away all we’ve worked so hard for.

You can reframe this in a few ways. One is to fold it into your perfectionism. Get better at receiving criticism. Aim higher when it comes to dealing with feedback. Be a high achiever at facing the haters.

Another, even more challenging way is to accept the cracks and the warts. It’s really hard for perfectionists to loosen their grip—it feels dangerous, as if they’re at risk of falling into a deep, dark well of failure.

Slowly realizing that you are enough just as you are takes time and work, but simply acknowledging your buttons can be a powerful first step. If you were bullied in the past, you may be hypersensitive to comments that remind you of being thrown against your middle school locker. If you were pigeonholed by your parents as being the dumb one, the crazy one, or the problem child, you may have worked your butt off to prove that you’re anything but.

Any critique that brings forth old hurts cuts extra deep, but just being aware that something is a hot button issue for you is the first step to owning it, and eventually healing it.

Tip #5: Be honest with yourself when playing out scenes in your head.

We’ve all experienced getting bullied or criticized and then coming up with a good zinger hours later. We replay the scene in our head, spinning out what we wish had happened instead of what actually went down.

Now, replaying scenes in your head is a two-sided coin. In some cases, it can be extremely helpful. If you replay the scene and imagine getting what you needed in the moment—feeling empowered, soothed, or safe, it can be a really helpful tool. In fact, when done with a qualified therapist, this is called imagery rescripting, and is a cutting-edge tool in treating trauma survivors.

But if you just play the lowlights and wallow in the hurt again and again, you’re not doing yourself any favors. And the worst is playing out ruminative revenge fantasies. At that point, reimagining crosses the line from empowering to egotistical.

If you just play the lowlights and wallow in the hurt again and again, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

In fact, a study out of Louisiana State University found a link between how frequently people re-imagined interactions and covert narcissism, the version of narcissism associated with low self-esteem rather than I-am-the-greatest grandiosity. Covert narcissism is the unenviable mix of being vulnerable and self-absorbed at the same time.  

The researchers found that frequently imagining scenes that were discrepant with reality—fantasizing about humiliating the ex you never see anymore, or imagining dressing down your boss and staging a power grab—was tied to covert narcissism. Turns out covert narcissists envision conflict more often than non-narcissists and, in addition, imagine themselves dominating the interaction and controlling the relationship.

So be aware when you replay those scenes in your head. If you’re doing it to soothe and empower yourself, carry on. But if you’re doing it to dominate your imagined enemy, consider trying out a healthier coping strategy instead.

Tip #6: Toe the line between taking things personally and being personally invested.

To wrap things up, we’ll do something surprising: we’ll defend taking things personally. Now, “taking things personally” usually brings to mind images of silent fuming or long sessions with a well-worn stress ball, but there’s something to be said for taking things to heart.

The opposite of taking things personally is to depersonalize them. And when you depersonalize an action or a role, it quickly loses its value. Taking your job personally means being invested, while depersonalizing it means only showing up for the paycheck. Taking a passion personally means being engaged, while detaching guarantees lackluster results at best.

To take things even further, with your fellow humans, taking things personally means engaging with others at your best. Not taking things personally, at worst, leads to dehumanization and moral disengagement—convincing yourself that ethical standards and other people don’t matter.

So take things personally, in the best sense. Find a balance between being hypersensitive versus caring deeply. All in all, take your work and relationships extremely personally. After all, this messy, imperfect, glorious life of yours belongs to you and only you.

Pre-order Ellen's forthcoming book HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Get even more savvy tips to be happier and healthier by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher, or get each episode delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for the newsletter. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

For free, helpful downloads to fight social anxiety and be your authentic self, visit EllenHendriksen.com.

Image of offended boy and girl © Shutterstock


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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