Wednesday, June 14, 2023

What Is It, and How Do We Stop?


Since I started writing Baggage Reclaim, I’ve become increasingly mindful of where I tend to take things personally. These instances always point back at old hurts and narratives that I need to confront in some way. Of course, I’m not alone in taking things personally—we all do it in certain contexts or as a general habit. Part of evolving our relationship with ourselves and improving emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being is becoming conscious of where we take things too personally and why and breaking these patterns by having very conscious responses. 

Taking things personally involves:

  • Making other people’s feelings and behaviour about you. 
  • Being over-responsible, so taking responsibility for other people’s feelings and behaviour, including feeling responsible for the upkeep of their mood and believing it’s your ‘duty’ to be and do certain things. You then blame yourself or feel shortchanged and overlooked when they, for instance, are still unhappy or don’t stop doing something unwanted. 
  • Feeling aggrieved, rejected or resentful when people see or do things differently from you. If it were me…
  • Judging yourself for an unwanted outcome or how someone is and then altering your self-image and subsequent actions.
  • Feeling blamed, even when you’re not being accused, or blaming yourself. 
  • Imagining you’ve done something wrong when you haven’t and even when whatever you’re basing this on has nothing to do with you.
  • Feeling wounded and as if you’ve been plunged back into being a kid again or the same ole situation you hate. 
  • Experiencing ‘no’ and rejection as a total rejection of you or a personal failure.
  • Assuming shady intent when there isn’t.
  • Taking things in a way that’s proven, over time, to be off-base, yet plowing ahead with the patterned response. 
  • Being very ‘You’re with me or against me’, believing people are taking sides.
  • Thinking that someone expressing their feelings or needs is an expression of ingratitude towards you. After everything I’ve done!
  • Seeing an event or someone’s actions as confirmation of a long-standing opinion about yourself. 
  • Holding on to grievances and distorted narratives even when it’s taking a toll on your well-being or blocking you from creating healthier boundaries and moving forward.

Taking things personally is based on believing you can control the uncontrollable with people pleasing, perfectionism, overgiving, overthinking and over-responsibility. 

Hence, when things don’t go as you expect or want, you make it about something to do with you. You make it about what you’ve failed to be or do or how worthy/enough you are. 

It’s not that people don’t do things to piss you off, get on your last nerve, and that overstep. Welcome to life. It’s not even that some folks don’t engage in shady and abusive carry-on—they do. It’s, quite frankly, unrealistic for humans not to take something that directly affects us personally to some degree. 

The problems come when we go beyond acknowledging our upset about something and then personalise it. 

We take unwanted and painful events or what someone has done and internalise it as something about us that effectively Jedi mind tricked them into doing something different from what they would or should have done otherwise.

Taking things personally seeps into our self-image, our perception of our character, personality, appearance (physical and social), and our future opportunities. 

So, let’s say we’re dating someone, and after getting off to what seems like a good start where they said all the right things and talked about the future and blah blah blah, they claim they’re not ready for a relationship or engage in shady behaviour. What a lot of us do in this instance is blame ourselves. We believe that something about us made them back away from what they said, did and promised in the beginning. That would be the same beginning, where they didn’t know us, and we hadn’t begun a relationship. And where the damage kicks in here is that if we take a veritable stranger’s behaviour from stage 0-1 of relationships, aka dating, as a reflection of us, we bring that into subsequent dating and relationship situations. The blame from a dating or relationship experience seeps into our future until we wake up. 

Or, let’s say we try something at work and it doesn’t generate the desired result. If we see this as us being a ‘failure’, we won’t try again. Or, if we do try, it will be loaded with blame and anxiety about failing. 

Taking things personally blocks us from honestly and healthily dealing with the situation at hand. Instead, our response becomes about the story we build around the person or events.

I know why I take things personally. Do you? 

For instance, many of us have habits of thinking and behaviour that we put down to being our character. You know, it’s just the way we are. Like when we talk about ‘attention to detail’ or our ‘high work ethic’ that sometimes causes burnout.

But habits like people pleasing, perfectionism, overgiving, overthinking and over-responsibility are anxiety habits adopted in response to old hurts and losses. Yes—they reflect where we took something in our past too personally and adapted ourselves for our protection. In essence, we’ve learned to fill in the blanks and explain situations and our feelings by assuming they’re about our wrongness/worthiness. We’ve also been socialised and conditioned to believe that if we fail to be compliant and what others expect, then we are not ‘good’.

Habits I’ve adopted to stop taking things personally include:

  • Pulling myself into the present the moment I notice familiar narratives from childhood. What year is it? Where am I? What’s happening? What are they saying/doing?
  • Acknowledging the emotional baggage behind my responses
  • Remembering that everyone has emotional baggage. Recognising others offers more of an explanation for any unwanted/shady carry-on than my so-called personal defects.
  • Practising empathy and compassion by seeing more to the situation than my deeds or how I view myself.
  • Doing things because I want to, not because it’s what I think is expected or will generate a particular outcome. 
  • Being authentic and honest in situations where I am uncomfortable or where I would have taken it personally in the past so that I don’t later feel like I screwed myself over to ‘play nice’.
  • Seeing the humour in situations. 
  • Regular journaling.
  • Noticing where I’m stewing on or avoiding something.

Ultimately, what we can learn from taking things personally is that we’re living in the past.

Not taking things personally requires emotional generosity, something I explained in episode 269 of the podcast—’Shifting From Shady to Loving Relationships’. Rather than defaulting to patterns of perceiving and relating that leave us feeling bad about ourselves, creating narratives around people, and being stuck in patterns, we expand our emotional range and responses beyond blame and shame. We practice empathy and compassion. This doesn’t mean we have to bullshit ourselves about other people’s behaviour—we can still call a spade a spade. Emotional generosity, though, means not responding in ways that make things so personal that it’s near-impossible for us to proceed from a place of love, care, trust and respect. Instead, it’s about being present and emotionally available. 

The Joy of Saying No: A Simple Plan to Stop People Pleasing, Reclaim Boundaries, and Say Yes to the Life You Want (Harper Horizon/HarperCollins) is out now and available in bookshops on and offline. Listen to the first chapter.

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