The thing about taking things personally

The thing about taking things personally

Have you heard the old joke about the guy who walks into the doctors office and says, “Doc, it hurts everytime I do this,” as he demonstrates bending his arm at the elbow; to which the doctor replies “Well stop doing that.”

Taking things personally is just like that. It hurts when we do it and we can’t seem to stop doing it. Everyone tells us not to take things personally, but how exactly should we NOT take things personally?

Like bending our arms at the elbow it seems to be a completely natural thing to do.  Some words occur for us as unflattering, disrespectful or embarrassing and we feel hurt.

To learn why we shouldn’t take things personally, first consider something very fundamental about taking things personally:

It’s self inflicted Pain

It’s your choice to take things personally.  You create your own suffering when you take things personally.  Your ego suffers, you feel small, you wonder what others are saying about you etc. That your suffering is self-inflicted is hard to fathom because it seems obvious that the other person’s words or deed was the cause.

But your suffering is self-inflicted. Everyone has a choice as to how they react to any given circumstance.

A boss yelling to get that report she’s been asking about on her desk “NOW!” can send you

(1) into a tailspin of insult and humiliation,

(2) into genuine concern about what’s driving your boss’ outburst, and/or

(3) into taking responsibility for not doing something you may have said you would do.

Three valid options and it is your choice – even if it is an instinctive one – to choose the first option. You don’t have to, and if you do, you can still choose options two and three.

Why you should NOT take things personally

What are the consequences of taking things personally? Here are two:

(1) It separates you from people and destroys relationships

Think about what happens when you take things personally:

  • You close up, shut down, go within yourself and withdraw from people.
  • You become ‘certain’ about the disrespect and hurt that was intended and move to suit.
  • You create and stew in feelings of resentment against your ‘attacker.’
  • You consciously or unconsciously plot retaliation.

You’ve been trained to look for the cause of your pain and suffering outside of yourself.  It follows that you will find it natural to want to lash out and destroy, or inflict pain and suffering to the external cause of your pain and suffering.

Depending on the relationship you have to your ‘attacker’ your next interactions can range from all out aggression to acts of passive aggression. You may begin to spread gossip about the person for example.

In short, you won’t be inviting that person over to dinner anytime soon.

(2) It distracts you from your life

The more time you spend agonizing over intended or unintended insults and humiliations, the less time available for moving on with your life.

Many years ago, I remember asking a senior executive how he was able to tolerate the accusations and insults of the company president, and he said, “It’s not pleasant and I certainly don’t look forward to speaking with him, but I know I do my job better than anyone, and I can defend any and every position I take. I know I’m good and I also know he won’t be there forever.” Sure enough his words came to pass soon after, and this executive became the president.

Taking things personally is a bad habit that we acquire in the same way that people pick up smoking. Like smoking, there is a reward in taking things personally, you get to feel right, you get to declare to yourself and others that you are a victim and absolve yourself from doing the hard stuff in life, like taking responsibility for the rest of your life.

Taking things personally definitely stops you from taking any responsibility for the situation that precipitated the insult or harsh words from your attacker.  Your taking things personally is your declaration to the world, that you’re a helpless victim.

“How can I move on?  Can’t you see I’m wounded by what’s been said and done to me? I have to heal first. Just let me lie here …

and suffer

and plot


Taking things personally is like focusing your attention on a particular speed bump or fallen bridge instead of on your destination. It takes your eye off the targets you have set in life.

Consider that a major reason some people develop the bad habit of taking things personally is that they have set no targets in life. This means that wherever they  are in life is as far as they will ever go; and it’s completely self-imposed.

A lesson from John Travolta

When John Travolta was interviewed by John Lipton on Inside The Actor’s Studio, he said he always knew he was going to be an actor.  He said that this feeling was so strong that when he was very young, about 10 or 11 years old, he was told that he didn’t get a part he auditioned for and that one adult on the selection panel even suggested that he should consider other pursuits besides acting.  John said he remembered thinking “What a silly person” to even suggest that he was not an actor.

What a brilliant example of choosing his vision instead of the speed bump that was his failed audition.  John Travolta did not take that feedback personally and went on to become John Travolta the Oscar nominated actor.

Not taking things personally is a sign of adulthood

The thing about taking things personally is that it becomes a habitual bad choice that stops you from growing and getting more out of life.   You can choose to not take things personally.  It’s a sign of maturity.

Photo by Runar Pedersen Holkestad

3 Responses to The thing about taking things personally

  1. […] Don’t take any feedback personally, but look for the nuggets of truth that you can learn from.  Develop the confidence in yourself to own your mistakes and short-comings and seek the truth from bosses, colleagues, customers, etc.  That’s how you’ll learn and eventually achieve amazing things. […]

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