How to Not Take Things So Personally: How to Reroute the Messages that Aren’t Really About Us

How to Not Take Things So Personally

Don’t you wish there was a “Return to Sender” button inside your mind when someone is gruff (rude, frustrated, hurtful, thoughtless, accusatory… fill in the blank…) with you when you just asked them how their day was, or ordered your Frappuccino from them, or even just walked past them in the street? With that proverbial “RTS” button fully operational, we could just send back the undesired comment, with an “Oh, here you go, wrong address; I think this belongs to you.” And even add a, “Have a beautiful day!” just as a flourish (snarky or sincere depending on our mood). Instead, after these brushes with someone else’s “stuff,” it can take a little bit (or A LOT) to shake off the feeling. We find ourselves walking away carrying what feels like a much heavier emotional load than what we walked in with— taking on the burden of someone else’s needs and issues, without our permission, rent-free, when caring for our own is quite daunting enough!  

So complicated. So anguishing. So every day of our lives!

Even though intellectually we eventually, or even immediately, know that someone’s intentional or inadvertent boat rocking doesn’t belong to us, that doesn’t seem to do a darn bit of good for how our body reacts to the unpleasantness.  We may find ourselves feeling unsettled, agitated, and having trouble focusing. We’re restless. Pacing. Pumped. 

What just happened?

We want to re-set and steady ourselves, but something deep within us just won’t let us let go. 

There is good news though, we can free ourselves from these moments. 

“Free ourselves,” you may be thinking, “But what about that person taking ownership of their behavior?” Yes, absolutely, yes. Wherever and whenever possible. But in the meantime—since we are the ones who are suffering, project number one is helping ourselves feel better. And most fortunately this can be (if necessary) a DIY project: i.e., this is not contingent on the other person owning up to anything—though that would surely help. This is typically not a DIY project that we are naturally good (extricating ourselves from a sense of someone else’s negative behavior towards us) because of our primitive threat-oriented wiring, so please be patient and have grace with yourself—but read on, because despite our wiring, there are some definite workarounds we can do. Here are some ideas:

How Are You Labeling the Moment? Change the Label to Neutral if You Can

Our survival as a species relies on the brain as a “good-enough” situation labeler. Not a perfect one. The amygdala, the threat detector/mobilizer part of the nervous system, and in any potentially threatening moment, grabs the label maker and goes for speed over accuracy and grabs the label maker eager to instantly warn us and instruct us to: “Fight, flee, freeze!” Our nervous system was built in a time of threats like tigers, not insults. Because of this, our first “labels” in situations of interpersonal unpleasantness may sound like this: “They don’t respect me! They are trying to hurt me! They hate me! They are trying to upset me!” Global statements about us personally leave us reeling. The degree to which we think those actions and words are personal about us is directly proportional to our suffering from them. Going back to decide on a second label is an essential step we often overlook. Second labels may sound like: “they are tired, they are frustrated, they are a child, they are feeling threatened themselves,” etc etc., and leave us with likely a more accurate interpretation of the event, and gives our nervous system the bandwidth to re-set. 

Do a Yes, And: Going from I’m Right to This Isn’t Helpful to Me

It’s understandable why certain actions upset us. That’s not under debate. However, we have choices about what we do with what people do to us or around us. At the same time, the more that we can realize that whether they meant it or not, it’s not good for us to keep revisiting that threat interpretation, the more choices we have about what to do next. Doing the “Yes, And” maneuver is advisable here: “Yes, it was rude or hurtful, AND, it’s not going to be helpful to keep reviewing that. I’m going to keep working on compassionately pivoting elsewhere when this comes to mind. Check out ideas to help with rumination here.

Consider the Source/Remember Who’s Talking

We all know the phrase, “Consider the source” and it is often said to dismiss or disparage, but a quote I learned in graduate school is meant to open up perspectives rather than bring down the blame:

“Everything said is said by someone,” was said by Humberto Maturana, a Chilean biologist whose work influenced the founding parents of family therapy.

This may sound obvious, but what is meant is that we need to consider the motives, history, experiences, biases, mood, etc of the speaker, rather than on ourselves as the recipient/ target of that statement: feel hurt (understandably) rather than where it came from.

This is not a reason to disrespect or disregard out of hand what others say, but a homey translation in my mind: we could think of communications from others as packages at our door. We can look at those packages, sort through them if we like, but all the while knowing that we might invoke the “return to sender” move rather than take them in, if the contents of the message or package are nothing we need.

The “someone” matters, of course. It will help us tremendously to consider, “I wonder why they said that?” That begins the process of finding out (if we want) what that person is about, or maybe more emotionally efficiently just setting a boundary and a line about how much we will invest in the weighing those words and intentions.

Because communication is a two-way street, it will help if we were all more aware of the potential impact of our words on each other and do what I call “cleaning up as we go” when those words cause harm. Apologies are the first stop and here are some helpful ideas about how to do that.

Why Should I Have Compassion for Them? Curiosity is a Buffer and Antidote to Anxiety and Helps Us Too (First!)

“OK so now it’s all on me? Why should I do this?” you may ask—as if it’s just for them that we do this thinking through. Perhaps nowhere is it clearer the words of His Holiness The Dalai Lama when he said, the first beneficiary of compassion is the self. We do this work to help our own hearts, first. If our world is populated with “enemies”—what does that do for us? Please be compassionate with yourself! This takes time. If someone “bumps” into you—even if it wasn’t on purpose—it hurts! So please take care of yourself. 

Can we really be curious?

Why do people act gruffly when we are doing ordinary things? How is cheerfully ordering your coffee a trigger for someone? If we actually consider these questions in a not judgey way but rather in a curious, I actually want to understand way—that is the beginning of helping ourselves not be so impacted by other’s behavior, stopping the threat reaction in its tracks and maybe helping us to be more compassionate about what other people are going through. And being compassionate instead of mad or hurt, helps us to feel better too.  

When we ask ourselves to think of the many reasons why a person is acting the way they are, we can buffer ourselves by remembering that just like us, they’re dealing with whatever they are dealing with—they might just have had an argument, lost a job, be feeling bad about their appearance, felt embarrassed by someone, grew up in a household where they didn’t feel safe, were bullied, we could go on and on. 

Rather than personalizing—or more realistically, after personalizing and thinking: he was so rude to me—he must not respect me. Walk it back. Yes, he might not respect you—and on some level that’s not your problem, too. But the reasons for that moment have to do with the colliding of two people’s experiences.

The fact is that we don’t know why people do what they do, but when we stretch to imagine the reasons why our heart softens, we don’t feel attacked, we don’t have to fear them and we can move on. 

Getting to the Aha Middle: Analyzing Hurt is the Doorway to Increased Intimacy and Understanding

Sometimes though, another way that we can take these “collision” experiences is to get closer to the people we love. When we are hurt or hurt the people we love—it can be an opportunity to let someone in on what is going on within us.  I wrote a piece 

a while back where a clash of expectations between myself and my husband over none other than a simple errand to the hardware store led first to hurt—then to opening up and revealing what hurt and why—something I call “meeting in the aha middle” where we say, “Aha! You aren’t doing x to upset me, there’s a reason and now I know.” 

Boundaries Still Matter 

Just because someone’s behavior is about them, not about you doesn’t mean you should ignore boundary crossings and stick around when someone is repeatedly thoughtless or hurtful with their actions. If someone says, “you are too sensitive”—well, can you guess the answer? That’s about them too! We don’t have to pick up that package and sort through it, we can simply nod, say, “hmmm, interesting thought. Too sensitive,” and go about our business, we can think  of reasons why someone being more attuned and feeling empowered to talk about it may bother them, we may even say something like: “I understand that’s how you experience me, do you want to share what that’s about for you?” or just, “sometimes it does feel like that, but mostly not, mostly I appreciate being attuned to people including myself—how about you?”

Pay it forward: Clean up as we go

People are not trying to drive us crazy. (Mostly). It’s just who they are. It’s who “we” are—we can all do this to each other. And even if they ARE trying to do that—that’s about them, not us. When we imagine their communications as a package at your door, or in your mailbox, we can decide: do we open it and sort through? It may feel like people’s behavior is kind of foisted upon us, but from another angle—it’s not. It’s an offering, not an obligation.  And, let us not forget, your reaction to their package—is in turn a package for them—well, all in all, the more we understand each other, the better we do. Deciding to sort through and share your hurt feelings is meeting in the “aha middle” – it’s where you decide it’s safe to share why something hurt you—being willing to say that it wasn’t intentional. 

It can be very freeing once we realize and remember that other’s people’s behavior is about them. The packages may pile up at the door of your mind but over time that won’t bother you either. And there will be less clutter of other people’s histories inside….

There is a continuum of this experience, and certainly at the other end of this lighter side of hurt, there is a much heavier side, hurt that can impact our health and well-being for years—and even generations if we want to think about inter-generational trauma. This is why it’s not just a “vanity” project to protect your ego from other people’s behavior. It’s well worth pursuing this project to not take on other people’s stuff. and people’s behavior toward us can set off deep wounds that require a lot of tending to.

Keep only what belongs to you—what expands you and helps you grow.

We are wired to respond protectively to potential threats—but (thank you neuroplasticity) we can learn a new habit to pause, step back, and decide what to do with the packages left at our door. Just as thoughtfully we can decide what we leave at the doorstep of others. Maybe a “return to sender” button in difficult moments is something we can remember to push discretely within our own mind, so that we can settle ourselves, and a thoughtful, growthful, conversation might ensue. Then we can respond to each other’s uncomfortable communications with curiosity allowing for a deeper, more connected experience and understanding of life (on a good day, to be sure)! Here’s to all of us having more of those!

Dr. C

©2022 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. A version was previously published on Psychology Today

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