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Is it me? Taking things too personally may be hazardous to your self-esteem!

I hope you are all enjoying these last few weeks of summer! I have been going through many changes these last few months, and will be announcing a change in my practice coming up in September on my web site this week!

Meanwhile, I was looking at my Twitter feed this morning, and Lauren Hale (of had posted a quote from Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” I’ve seen this quote before, but it struck me today because I’ve been thinking about recent events in my own life where I interpreted someone else’s behavior towards me as evidence of my own self-worth (or in this particular case, my lack of self-worth). The thought process can pretty much be summed up like this, “why would they talk to me like that? What is wrong with me?” and no where in that thought process(in the heat of the moment) did it occur to me that there might be another way to look at the situation which made me feel pretty crappy about myself.

Sound familiar?

If so, you are not alone! Taking things personally (i.e. viewing other people’s behavior as being about us) is a common phenomenon. First, because human beings are self-centered by nature (a side effect of our survival instincts) and thus we are prone to believing that we are the cause of things, and second, because we all have areas of sensitivity – ways we have either been hurt or traumatized in the past that remain triggers that are easily (and usually unwittingly) set off by our experiences with friends, partners, family, co-workers, and complete strangers.

A chronic habit of taking things personally can really do a number on a person’s self-esteem. In fact, it can feel like a roller coaster of ups and downs based on how other people are treating you on any given day, and unfortunately, it’s not a fun ride. So, how can we stop riding this coaster and start looking at situations as opportunities to learn more about ourselves and create more stability in our relationship with ourselves?

Here are a few things I am working on when things seem personal to shift my experience that I hope will be helpful to you too:

1) Cultivate an awareness of the feeling of “injured innocence”.

In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhist meditation, they talk about beginning to notice our habit of identifying with an “I” – this “I” refers to our idea of ourselves, our habit of relating to ourselves as a solid entity that is often revealed in statements like, “I never thought I would do something like that” or “I’m the type of person who does this or that”. They say the best time to observe the relationship we have with ourselves is when we are in a state of “injured innocence” and feeling indignant, hurt, and wronged. With practice, the feeling of being wronged by someone and how we experience that, what we tend to think, what we tend to say, how we tend to go into a defensive mode starts to feel uncomfortably familiar……..which leads me to #2….

2) Assume that you do not know the full story.

So often we may never know why someone was talking to us in an impolite way or being unkind, and may assume it has something to do with us almost as a default in the face of uncertainty. Instead of assuming that it has something to do with us, practice assuming it has something to do with something going on with the other person even if we don’t know what it could be. One truth that I try to keep in mind is that people usually do not treat others unkindly unless they are in a lot of pain themselves……which leads me to #3…..

3) Assume similarity.

This is something I use often in couples therapy when couples are having a conflict. It’s easy to forget that human beings are more similar to each other than we are different especially during times of conflict or when someone has hurt us. If we practice assuming that all people want the same things, and that we all have areas of sensitivity and vulnerability it can be helpful in moving on from hurtful moments, especially if we can think about a time when we acted similarly to the way the hurtful person is acting……..

4) Remember that even when it’s personal, it’s still not personal.

I forget where I heard this, but I remember feeling confused the first time I heard it! After giving it a lot of thought, my take on this is that it is healthy to look at our roles in interpersonal situations, but it isn’t healthy (or helpful) to take things personally. For example, a quality of my personality or interpersonal style may be liked by one person and despised by another. There is no right or wrong way for people to react to me, and in fact, the way a person reacts to me likely tells me something important about them and can be an opportunity for me to learn more about myself. If I am in some type of relationship with the person who despises my qualities, it will be important for me to be open to their feedback and their experience of me, which is distinctly different than me feeling as though I am despicable simply because they happen to dislike something I do or some way I interact with them.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

5) Do a personal inventory.

Ask yourself, what was going on with me that I took something so personally? What do I tend to be sensitive to in interpersonal situations? What parts of me need compassion and healing?

Practiced together, these concepts have the potential to shift our experience of ourselves and others.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcomed! Thanks for reading!

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