How to Stop Taking Things Too Personally
A guide for highly sensitive people
Ever find yourself taking things too personally?
You know you’re doing it when someone says or does something and you can’t stop thinking about it. You internalize the situation and blow it out of proportion.
Someone suggested healthy snacks in the breakroom, and suddenly you’re wondering if they’re hinting that you need to lose weight.
Okay, that may be an extreme example. But I’m sure you can relate to the concept of taking way too many things too personally.
How do I know?
Because I’ve been there.
Often we don’t realize we’re doing it when we’re in the moment.
As time goes by, we reflect and realize we’ve wasted hours and days twisting something in our mind that was not intended to be so personal.
This is even heightened for those of us who identify as highly sensitive and empathic. We take almost everything too personally.
Why do we do this?
As a highly sensitive person (whether empathic or not), you have a rich inner world. You think and internalize…a lot. About everything.
This makes you more prone to overthinking about situations and events and taking them too personally.
Let’s get an obvious caveat out of the way. Almost everything is personal.
At work, with friends, and certainly at home. The purpose of this article is not to try to pretend there’s a magical robotic way of being, where you don’t take anything personally. That’s impossible for thinking, feeling humans.
The intention of this article is to help you stop taking things too personally. (Notice the word ‘too’.)
You see, there are levels to taking things personally and there’s definitely a level where you take stuff too far, where you sit and stew in a state of overthinking. Where you’re actually damaging your self-esteem and sense of self-worth just by holding repeated negative thoughts and self-talk.
This can also be damaging to relationships (professional and personal).
When this happens, you find it hard to receive constructive criticism, feedback, and even everyday interactions become strained.
Often this leads to people feeling like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’ around you out of fear that you’ll, well, take everything too personally.
If you can identify with anything this, take a deep breath.
I’m going to share a bunch of tools that’ll help you stop this habit and turn around these thoughts and feelings when they arise.
A lot of what has helped me over the years is centered around asking myself a few powerful questions.
So you’ll notice a lot of question-focused tools in this article. It’s because they work.
Let’s get on with it!
We’ll start with the workplace.
How to not take things so personally at work
1. Establish boundaries
You need to set emotional and energetic boundaries.
Work is what you do. It’s not who you are.
Place boundaries between what happens at work and your personal life. Most things work-related need to stay at work. Otherwise, they’ll take up mental and energetic space even when you’re off the clock.
It’s a role that serves a purpose. If they stopped paying you tomorrow, would you show up?
There are a few people in the world where the line blurs between what they do and who they are. But that’s not the case for most of us.
I share all this to remind you not to internalize everything that happens at work.
For example, maybe you were in a disagreement over how something should be done or there was a meeting that got heated and ‘not-so-nice’ words were exchanged. This leaves you fuming inside.
Ask yourself: how much will this matter in a year?
Will it matter at all?
Will it even matter in 5 months?
Probably not. This simple but powerful question pulls me right back to my senses and stops the thought spiral that leads to personalizing something that should just be left alone. At work. And not in my personal energy space.
2. Use simple questions to stop the negative spiral that leads to taken things too personally.
These questions stop you before you start overthinking, which leads to you exaggerating the situation and taking it too personally.
Here are a few examples:
* If something major happened to a family member today, what would your mind be focused on? That sly comment from a coworker or your family member in need?
Always put work (and especially the people you work with) into perspective.
* Does what happened/what was said stop me from doing my work?
Whatever it is you’re mulling over, does it impede your work? Can you still get on with it?
* Is this worth my energy?
Throughout the day, we’re constantly making energy choices, even though we don’t realize it.
Here’s a powerful way of thinking about this:
Imagine you start the day with a full bowl of marbles.
The marbles represent how much energy you have.
As the day progresses, you use up marbles until finally, you are completely empty.
Sometimes this goes well and you run out of marbles right as your head hits the pillow, but more often than not you start running out of marbles by, say, mid-afternoon.
That’s when you turn to things like an extra cup of coffee or when you find it even harder to focus. It’s also why you find yourself depleted of all energy by the time you finish work so that when you get home, you put off working on your hobby or side hustle a-g-a-i-n. You just don’t have any energy beyond scrolling through Facebook or watch TV.
Or you get home and your little one wants to do something cool with you but you can barely make dinner, yet alone have the patience, and put on a smile and play along. You’ve run out of energy.
Monitor yourself to avoid this.
To prevent this, become more conscious of how you’re using your energy throughout the day.
Are you paying attention to your thoughts and feelings so that you can recognize when you’re wasting energy? BE alert to how much time and energy you spend dwelling on something.
Even if it seems big and significant at the time, ask yourself: is this really worth exhausting myself over? Do I have enough marbles (energy) to spare?
How to not take things so personally in relationships (romantic, friendship, family)
3. Are you making stuff up?
I’ve mentioned the work of Byron Katie in several articles. Her work is so good it’s worth mentioning again.
Katie’s body of work centers around a self-questioning process.
When you take something personally (such as: ‘they said xyz because they don’t like me’), you then ask yourself a series of questions.
The questions, as explained in her life-changing book Loving What Is, help you see that you’re making stuff up in your head and making assumptions that are likely not true.
Here’s a video clip of Katie explaining these powerful (life-changing) concepts:
Another powerful tool is to realize that a lot of what other people do has nothing to do with you. If you’re not already familiar with this concept and want to explore it, check out The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz.
4. Stop fueling the fire
When something happens that you start taking too personally, you typically add to fuel to a tiny spark until it’s a raging, white-hot fire.
Can you stop talking about it?
Here are a few examples of what adds fuel to the fire:
Venting for 15 minutes can feel great. Venting for an hour+ doesn’t feel so great. You know why? Because after a certain amount of time (usually around 15 minutes or so), the whole thing becomes unproductive.
It’s no longer a healthy release. Instead, you’re picking at a wound, making yourself feel worse and making the entire situation seem even bigger than it is.
Use distraction to think about something else
It’s one thing to vent for 15 minutes. It’s another to spend an hour going in circles about the same thing.
Strengthen your mind-focusing skills
Find something else to busy the mind and re-focus. Bonus points if that ‘something else’ is a self-care activity.
Meditation is one of the most powerful tools for reigning in the scattered mind. Here’s a short meditation to help you get (re)focused:
5. Want one more powerful tip to stop taking things too personally?
Here’s a mind refocusing trick I use:
I tell myself I’m going to focus on something else and come back to this. My brain is hungry to think about this one thing and only this one thing. When I tell it, I can come back to it, it allows me to temporarily re-focus.
Then I pick something specific. Learning something. Doing exercise. Reading a great book. Doubling down on a project I’ve been putting off.
What happens when you do that?
The space and time minimize the ‘thing’ down to its right size. It no longer seems so big and personal and important.
The number one tip is to self-monitor. Build your self-awareness so you recognize these thoughts and feelings early.
Pay careful attention to when you’re going down the spiral of over-thinking about something. There are always moments when you can ‘witness’ yourself. Try to detach and observe your thoughts. You can feel them building and your emotions around the situation getting more intense.
That’s the time to use one of the tools mentioned above to stop the spiral and get out of the habit of taking everything too personally.
Try it. It works.
Originally published at https://journalette.net on August 23, 2019.