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