6 Psychological Reasons Why You Take Things Too Personally
#1: You’re a social perfectionist
If you struggle with taking things personally, you’ve probably heard the standard advice:
- Just don’t let him get to you so much!
- Stop being so hard on yourself.
- I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it.
Or my personal favorite…
- You just need to learn to let things go.
And while I have no doubt that the people giving advice like this are well-intentioned, it misses the bigger point:
There are often powerful psychological reasons why we take things personally.
In my work as a psychologist, I help my clients to understand the core mechanisms behind their tendency to take things personally.
Because it’s only when you understand the tendency to take things personally that you can move past it for good.
1. You’re a social perfectionist
Social perfectionism is when you can’t stand the thought of other people seeing your flaws or mistakes.
When you believe you have to be perfect in other people’s eyes, it drives you to constantly worry about what other people think of you. And when you’re in the habit of always worrying about what others think about you, taking things personally is almost inevitable.
But here’s the deal:
It’s okay to make mistakes. And more importantly, it’s okay to worry about what other people think of you.
We’re social creatures, after all. Our biggest advantage as a species is the fact that we can coordinate and work together with each other. And that ability depends on our capacity to imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, including about us. So it’s not surprising that we tend to care a lot about what others think of us!
The self-help industry has convinced us that we shouldn’t care at all what other people think… This is nonsense!
We’re fundamentally social creatures. Caring about what others think is part of the package.
The real problem social perfectionists get into is that they are too hard on themselves for worrying about what other people think.
If you want to care a little less about what others think and stop taking things so personally the trick is to be validating of your worries instead of judgmental.
When you find yourself wondering what other people think of you, simply remind yourself that it’s normal and okay to worry about this a little.
2. You use negative self-talk as motivation
Most of us grow up learning that the only way to be successful in life is to be tough on ourselves. And inevitably, this leads to a subtle but powerful habit of negative self-talk.
Like the drill sergeant hurling insults at his new recruits in order to “make men out of them,” many of us adopt a similar attitude toward ourselves…
We think that if we’re tough enough on ourselves it will motivate us to succeed. But there’s a slight problem with this reasoning…
Being harsh and judgmental with yourself actually decreases performance.
But worse than that, it can lead to a life-long habit of negative self-talk and all the side-effects that go with it — from anxiety and low self-esteem to… yup, you guessed it: taking things too personally.
When someone criticizes you or gives you difficult feedback, a strong habit of negative self-talk can easily hijack your thinking. Instead of considering the mistake as an isolated incident, you end up making very extreme or black and white interpretations to yourself:
- Instead of I need to work harder at this aspect of my work we tell ourselves I’m a loser.
- Instead of He’s disappointed in my work we slip into He’s disappointed in me.
If you want to stop taking things personally don’t generalize a mistake in behavior to a flaw in character.
True freedom from taking things personally comes from removing the habit of negative self-talk altogether — from learning that you don’t actually need to be hard on yourself in order to stay motivated and succeed.
3. You’re afraid to be proud of yourself
Ah, pride… Everyone’s favorite sin!
In part, because of Western culture’s Christian heritage, many people grow up believing that pride is bad, or sinful even. After all, that’s why Lucifer got thrown out of heaven and why Adam and Eve got expelled from Paradise, right? Thinking too much of themselves?
Actually I’m not so sure… Now, I’m no theologian (just a humble psychologist) but I think technically the sin of pride comes when you put yourself above other people — thinking that you’re better than someone else.
But simply acknowledging your own strengths, goodness, and virtues… I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing!
And while I can’t speak to the spiritual side of things, psychologically it’s actually very beneficial to have a healthy sense of pride in yourself.
So how does this relate to taking things personally?
Taking things personally often means you value other people’s opinions too much and your own not enough.
Suppose your spouse makes a sarcastic or rude comment about you. If you’re in the habit of always telling yourself that other people are smart and capable but you’re dumb and weak, your chances of believing your spouse’s comment and internalizing it go way up.
On the other hand, if you have a healthy sense of pride — if you regularly remind yourself of your strengths and positive qualities — it’s going to be much easier to say to yourself Wait a second, that’s not true at all. I’m actually very conscientious and hard-working and almost never lazy. And as a result, not take what your spouse said too seriously or personally.
A healthy sense of pride is a powerful defense against unjust criticism and taking things personally.
Make a little time to remind yourself of your positive and admirable qualities and you’ll find it a lot easier to confidently resist unfair criticism and critiques.
4. You don’t know how to be assertive
Most of us are taught from a young age that it’s important to be nice, kind, and agreeable and to put other people’s wants and needs before our own.
And then we get so reinforced for this that we end up taking it to an extreme where we’re chronically taking care of other people but never addressing our own wants and needs.
This is not sustainable long-term. And one of the many symptoms of constantly denying your own wants and needs by being overly-accommodating of others is that you end up taking things personally more often than you should.
Think about it:
If you are constantly setting aside your own wants and needs and taking care of others, what are you teaching your own brain about the relative importance of yourself vs other people?
In short: that you don’t matter.
And so, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that when you get criticized for something, your automatic assumption is that they’re probably right and what you think/feel isn’t really very important. And it doesn’t take a psychologist to see how this is going to lead you to take things personally.
The solution is to learn to be assertive.
Assertiveness is the ability to ask for what you want and say no to what you don’t want in a way that’s honest to your own wants and needs and also respectful of other people.
Once you start learning to be more assertive, you will begin to value yourself more highly. And when you do that, you’ll find it far easier to resist taking things personally.
5. You get lost in your own stories
Taking things personally usually happens after we’ve been criticized. And while it’s tempting to see the other person’s words as the thing that hurt us, that’s not technically true…
About 50 years ago, cognitive scientists finally validated a theory of emotion that philosophers had been trying to convince us of for more than 2,000 years. It’s called cognitive mediation.
Cognitive mediation is the idea that things in the world don’t cause emotions. Instead, it’s our thoughts about things that affect how we feel.
Here’s a concrete example:
You’re driving down the road and some guy in a red sports car zooms past you and cuts you off, forcing you to slam on your breaks and almost causing an accident.
Understandably, you’re mad as hell. But the question is, did the guy cutting you off cause your anger?
Technically no. What caused your anger was your story about what being cut off meant. Here’s what I mean:
- If the first thought that crossed your mind after being cut off was What a jerk! I hope he gets pulled over anger will likely be your emotional response.
- But if the first thought to cross your mind was Oh my God, I could have been killed! fear might be the dominant emotion.
Taking things personally is about the stories you tell yourself, not the stories other people tell you.
A great way to stop taking things so personally is to pay attention to the stories you tell yourself when you’re criticized. And if possible, change those stories to be more realistic — or even better, refrain from telling stories at all.
Easier said than done, of course, but fundamentally our tendency to tell stories to ourselves is a habit. And habits can always be modified with practice and patience.
6. You spend too much time with the wrong people
As babies and small children, we learn about ourselves through the people around us:
- When a baby smiles and her mother smiles back at her, she learns that someone is there to be responsive to her.
- When a kid hears a parent tell them that they’re lazy and “no good” that kid starts to think of themselves as lazy and no good.
We are social beings to our core. But this isn’t just true for kids…
As adults, the people we spent the most time around influence us more than we’d like to admit:
- That talk show host you’ve listened to every morning for 8 years… You’re in denial if you think they haven’t influenced you.
- That overly-critical boyfriend you’ve been living with for the past two years… Do you really think your self-esteem hasn’t taken a hit as a result of being around him for so long?
As human beings we are incredibly sensitive to the influence of other people in our lives, especially the ones we spend the most time around.
Spend all your time around people who disrespect you and you’re going to end up treating yourself the same way.
One of the best (but sometimes hardest) things you can do to stop taking things personally is to make a big change in the type of people you regularly spend time with.
Making new friends, ending an unhealthy relationship, or putting boundaries on toxic family members is never going to be easy. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important .
All You Need to Know
In order to stop taking things personally, you need to understand the real reasons why you do it. Only then can you work to undo the habits keeping you stuck:
You’re a social perfectionist
You use negative self-talk as motivation
You’re afraid to be proud of yourself
You don’t know how to be assertive
You get lost in your own stories
You spend too much time with the wrong people
Thanks for reading,