What You Need to Know About Taking Things Personally

Updated: Apr 8

Some people are very attuned to their emotions, they connect easily with others and when they are communicating they pay attention to body language and facial expressions. I imagine this like having a special sensor that is constantly checking how their message is being taken by other people.

These types of sensitive people are usually the ones who come to me struggling with their emotions or their response to their surroundings because they tend to take things personally.

So what is that exactly to take things personally?

Taking something personally means that you are offended or upset by what someone said. When you take things personally, you might be sensitive to the words or actions of others or you interpret them in a negative way. So basically you are getting upset by the things other people say or do, because you think that their remarks or behavior are directed at you in particular.

In every way of communication, the sender has some ideas they want to express. These ideas need to be encoded into some kind of symbols like words, actions, pictures, etc. On the other side, we have the receiver whose job is to decode this message.

Here comes the dichotomy of intention vs. impact. The sender probably has a particular intention with the message, but once that message has been released, the impact it creates on the receiver depends on how they decode the message. That’s why any kind of innocent message could have a fatal impact on the receiver if the people who are communicating are using a different set of encoding/decoding rules. This is what happens when miscommunication happens in an international, intercultural setting.

And the same could be said for people who take things personally. Is the issue in the encoding or decoding of the message?

How to know if you are taking things personally

What I have seen once and again in my coaching practice is that people have the tendency to put themselves at the center of everything - every event, conversation, circumstance, etc. But that is rarely the reality. We tend to take things personally in the sense of feeling responsible for everything that goes awry. We immediately think we did something wrong.

Interpreting things in this way can have all kinds of negative effects, from feeling hurt when other people are rude, to feeling sorry for ourselves when things don’t go as planned, to doubting ourselves when we aren't perfect.

Karen Nimmo put together a list of signs that tell you when you are taking things personally:

  • You struggle to let things go. You pick conversations over and over, looking for flaws or wondering what was REALLY meant.

  • You are often quick to negatively judge others (it’s a flow on from being too quick to judge yourself).

  • You frequently worry that you have offended someone — even when there is no real evidence for this.

  • You worry excessively about what others think of you or how you were perceived in a particular setting.

  • You are very tough on yourself, often wondering why other people would want to talk to, or spend time with, you.

  • You react quickly to any form of criticism, getting emotional or defensive before you have gauged if it has any merit.

  • When you reflect you can see you overreact to small slights.

  • It’s hugely important to you to be approved of by other people but, even when you are, you struggle to believe it.

  • You go to lengths to avoid contexts in which you may be criticised.

  • When you are praised or given good feedback you feel awkward and you secretly question it.

Are you guilty of doing one or many of these things? Then keep reading on...


Why we take things personally

It’s important to understand the core mechanism of what is happening and our behavior, so we can steer our reactions. Only in understanding, can you take action. So let’s take this one apart!

Perfectionism. You want people to see the invulnerable perfect you. If you believe that people should only see the best side of you, you will be constantly worrying about what they say or think of you. Start changing the relationship you have with making mistakes. If you can fill up this work with positive connotation, then you will be able to relax and accept your flaws and that mistakes happen. Associate making mistakes with learning, with having new opportunities, with knowing what is not the right way to go.

Negative self-talk. The discourse in our heads, drives our state of mind and how we react to the world and what happens around us. Being harsh and judgmental with yourself actually decreases performance. If you suffer a lot from this, I suggest you grab a copy of Playing Big by Tara Mohr. There’s one whole chapter there about the inner critic and techniques for dealing with it.

Fear of success. Achieving great things and being proud of yourself or telling others about your achievements is in many areas of the world seen as a sin or at least, impolite. But I’m not talking here about being arrogant. What I’m talking about is knowing your worth, being very clear on what you are really good at, and what your strengths are. Having a healthy sense of pride is psychologically speaking, quite beneficial.

People-pleaser. We are taught that we need to be nice, kind, agreeable and that we need to put other people's needs before ours. If we do that all the time and you constantly ignore your boundaries and needs, then you will not be able to be assertive when the situation requires it. That creates resentment in the long-term and makes you take things personally.

Interpretation of events. This is when it comes to the decoding part of deciphering a message. Things in the world don’t cause emotions. It’s our thoughts about things that create a particular emotion. Say you receive negative feedback: it’s your choice to focus on the delivery, the words that were chosen and feel bad about it, or you could focus on the content of the message and see it as an opportunity to improve your performance at work, for example.

External influences. We are social beings and for survival need relatedness, we need to feel we are part of a group, we want to feel belonging. The people we spend most of the time with, influence us the most. If you have toxic family members, think of creating boundaries. Everybody else, are people you can pick, so do it wisely.


How to stop taking things personally

It would be so great to be able to follow the advice of people who tell us: just ignore that comment, don’t be so hard on yourself, you need to get a thicker skin, etc. All well intentioned people, but putting it to practice is quite difficult.

When external things happen that trigger you in some way, you must realize the triggering moment is happening inside you. It is how you interpret the message originated by the thoughts you have and your ability to work with your emotions what determines the reaction. This learning process can happen a lot quicker when you work with a coach. If you’re interested in finding out how I can help you, I invite you to book a call with me.

There are some things that can get you started moving in the right direction:

1. Set clear standards for yourself. A good exercise for this is the one I call ‘The List’. On one side you have the ‘flatter yourself list’ (basically, what you excel at); on the other, the ‘be real with yourself list’ (everything you suck at). Take a good look at it, accept and be proud about the things you’re good at. Accept without remorse the things you’re not good at. Consider if there is something in that list that you’d like to improve (make a plan and start changing that), the rest you just leave there and be ok with it. That’s what makes you special, what makes you ‘you’.

2. Treat yourself with compassion. Change the tone of your inner voice to one of comprehension and love. When you mess up, instead of starting to criticize yourself, think first of how you’d talk to your best friend. Use that tone and give yourself appreciation.

3. Become friends with your fears. The kind of situations we are afraid of are precisely the ones we need to step into. Yes, they will make you quite uncomfortable, but once you take the first step and do whatever it is you need to do, you will be able to feel calm, connected and in peace, because your behavior or decisions are honoring your core values. You will be connected to your authentic self.

4. Focus on the issue, not on yourself. When receiving negative feedback or in challenging situations, stop thinking about yourself and focus on the issue. Think about what you are learning in that moment, what opportunities are arising through this experience.

5. Ask for clarification. Before you attach negative meaning to something someone said or did, ask. Ask them what they mean, ask them to explain. It’s possible to learn how to do this in an assertive, calm manner.

These and a lot more techniques are what we learn in my program