Taking Things Personally

Taking Things Personally

I can’t even remember how many times my mom talked to me about not taking things personally. Consider the source, she would say. I suspect that we all were given that kind of advice when we were kids.

That being said, I also have found that most of us have no earthly idea how to not take things personally. How do we all get better at implementing it in our daily lives? Why is it so difficult?

Everyone Takes Things Personally

 The answer is so simple. It is because almost everything in life reinforces the feeling that whatever is being said is about us; you get the message from inside and from the outside world.

So it goes like this (this is a real example). I was once the production manager at the largest nursery on the east coast, Princeton Nurseries. At the time, we grew trees and shrubs on about 2,000 acres across three counties in central New Jersey. I had a meeting with the controller regarding budgets and he was expressing his overwhelming frustration about how he was dealt with by one of the department managers; of course, he was over budget. The controller’s frustration was that the managers—particularly the one in question—would often/always get defensive and offer excuses about why things happened the way they had. This particular department head would instantly start arguing with him and things would get quickly even more frustrating.

At one point, I remember a meeting when I had to get involved because neither of them could “hear” the other. Although I knew the issue, I asked questions as though the issue was new to me. I wanted him to feel heard in front of the others and I wanted the team to come together with some sense of accountability for the whole group rather than just declarations of innocence for their departments. I asked him as much, and the sense of relief was palpable. He said that was just exactly what he was looking for, what he was trying to convey.

That wasn’t, however, how he had expressed it. Instead, his comments were filled with expressions (mostly negative) about not living within the accepted budget. It came then as no surprise when the manager in question clearly stated that he didn’t want to be slammed every time he ran into the controller. I told him that I was hearing something completely different, and repeated what the controller had asked. I added that I could see how he could take it as an accusation, whereupon he interrupted me and said, “Well, it was an accusation!”


Ok, I wasn’t a coach then and I probably didn’t respond as well as I might have, but what was happening at that conference table was that the external and the internal were magnifying each other. The controller’s language was clearly about the department head, and words that he used were heard as an accusation. Why would the department head not take it personally? Especially when that was what he was used to hearing all the time, as were many of us. Depending on how you were raised, these kinds of things can affect you more than other people.

At very young and impressionable ages, it gets drilled into our little heads that this or that was our fault and that we are this or that as a result. In my case it was pig-headed and selfish, both of which I knew deep down inside were not true of me. Not only were most of us told that things were our fault, it was also common that when someone was upset with us we would suffer personally, e.g., dad’s belt and mom’s silent treatment. That kind of fear sticks. It stays with us and we develop patterns. We develop mental pathways that frame how we react under stress. Then, because that is how we were raised to speak or act, given how we were trained, we pass it on to the people around us, our coworkers, our kids, anyone in our circle of influence.

At very young and impressionable ages,

it gets drilled into our little heads

that this or that was our

fault and that we are this or that as a result.

The result of all this training is that as adults, we easily fall into our old ways of being in the world, particularly when we are under stress. We either defend or retreat. The ability, the capacity to hear through the words of someone who is speaking of us and imagine that their words are place markers for desires or needs not well expressed, really is beyond the reach of most of us. It takes lots of training and even more practice to overcome such a habit.

In the final analysis, each of our goals is to become strong enough internally that even when someone is directly announcing that we are responsible for some event, making their life miserable, labeling us for the reason the project failed, or the relationship, that we can still remember with clarity that they are speaking about themselves. They are letting us know the extent of their pain, not a statement about us. It is just that it’s their only language or form available to most of us to express pain.

They are letting us know the

extent of their pain, not a statement about us.

As a coach today, I look back on that meeting from 20 years ago and I can see what a huge stretch it must have been for the manager, my friend, to fully take in that he was the one doing the interpreting, not the controller. This was a meeting, not a situation for two people to enter into mortal combat over a budget issue, and not a setting where people are ordinarily open to doing healing work, not a term I even knew then. So we agreed to meet back later, the three of us, and continue with the discussion. I know that the two of them got that much out of the discussion, and over time they learned that what we say and what others hear have a lot to do with how much suffering is going on.

It’s a Two-Part Exercise

 Shifting your focus, being open to multiple understandings, creating some distance between the words you hear and your own personal experiences, can be a really big thing. Actually, it can be a major spiritual accomplishment, and can take years to master. So, all the more reason to get going on it, one step at a time—you get better with practice.


The habit of taking things personally keeps you enmeshed with the other party. What helps is to create some distance between yourself and your reaction, enough to have a connection with yourself and what you think. Then you can find some separation between the words of the other person and yourself. I have heard it called “stepping back for a second.” When you wrap your mind around the idea that your reaction is about you and not them, you will be better able to navigate the situation. I can give you two examples of what I mean; both took place in situations that required being open to improvement.

When you wrap your mind around

the idea that your reaction is

about you and not them, you will

be better able to navigate the situation.

Sisters Can Be Tough

 I worked with two sisters. One was deeply distressed that her sister, after a long time during which she offered both financial and emotional support, said, “I don’t want to even think about your helping me.” As you can imagine, the helping sister was shattered. She couldn’t imagine how she would ever let go of the pain and hurt.


I imagine that some of us identify with one, some with the other, but which ever one you pick, it is full and complete identification. One of the core principles of my coaching is to ask questions about the obvious and/or self-evident. So I asked the offended sister what was so upsetting. This is what any of us can ask ourselves when confronted with an event or comment that we take deeply personally. “Why is this upsetting me? What am I saying to myself about what happened? What meaning am I giving to it?”

In this case, the story went like this. “My sister doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.” I am not sure how you can have a more painful human story to grapple with than that. So much pain condensed into one event.

Do you see why creating some sort of distance is so important? The distance that you create gives you time to reflect, connect with yourself, and have some modicum of choice. In the case of the offended sister, this happened in the next question. It was an invitation to imagine what, deep beneath the pain of the rejection, did she really want from her sister. What she wanted was a close and trusting relationship with her only living relative—her sister. She wanted her efforts to help to count, and for her love to matter to her sister.

When you can articulate and make good emotional contact with what you want, you can sink down into it and find yourself in a deep place that has nothing to do with anyone else, or what they say. Her longing for connection has nothing to do with her sister; it was completely about her own needs and desires. As strange as it might sound, most of the time our own needs and desires are an incredible source of energy and power, not weakness. It is your core, the center of your being, and the clearest expression of your humanity, your open heart. If you get nothing else out of it, you gain a chance to know yourself better.

Her longing for connection has

nothing to do with her sister; it was

completely about her own needs and desires

After the offended sister relaxed and focused on her needs, it grew evident that she was ready to take on the more difficult job, the one that sets her free; finding a different interpretation of what her sister might have meant. After going back and forth, questions about questions, she came to the realization that her sister was desperate to feel independent, to have faith in her own ability to take care of her own life, and that she felt ashamed to have to take help from her sister.

I would like to say that this was the end of the story, but like so many people coaches work with, they gain the insight they seek and then move on to experience their own lives again. It is rare that I actually see how it all turns out, yet I was touched to see how willing the offended sister was to renew her relationship with her sibling when she had been previously so afraid to interact with her at all.

When Asked to Change

I met Carl and Ellen at their favorite coffee shop. When I met with them, neither one of them was able to hear the other very well, and my heart went out to them. Ellen hoped we might focus on Carl; she knew he had been wanting to be heard for a while and she couldn’t hear him for days at a time. It struck me, though, that unless we found a way for Ellen’s heart to open up a bit, just the tiniest amount, there was no point in Carl bothering to speak at all. I gently asked questions about the impediment. It really wasn’t easy to find, as Ellen was seriously guarded given her own suffering in the situation. Pretty soon it became clear to us all that the major obstacle was Ellen’s untiring belief that Carl wanted her to be different from who she was.

For most of us, when we take things personally, it’s easy to see why the message delivered can be so painful. Being sure that the only way someone will care for/about you, be happy with you, is by being different than we are and that is terribly depressing. You think things like, “I can’t change myself, and I don’t want my partner to suffer, it will break their heart.” Being stuck between these two feelings it’s easy to see why Ellen ended up closing herself off from Carl. Indeed, she wanted to be accepted, to have faith that being herself would support rather than challenge her partner, not to mention being part of a relationship where the two people co-create the conditions for their shared happiness.

For most of us, when we take things

personally, it’s easy to see why the

message delivered can be so painful.

No coach is perfect, and hindsight is indeed 20/20, but I wish that I had avoided the entire first part and gone right to the second part. Why do I say that? Well, in part because I wasn’t sure that Ellen could open herself up enough to make a difference, and in part because it was very clear that Ellen didn’t want open conflict. I hope that both of them read this some time and appreciate that I now have a better awareness of her pain. Maybe Carl will get something out of it too.

I have also learned that going straight to re-evaluating the words of the other person, finding an alternate interpretation, and releasing some of the pain, because it is the interpretation itself that is the problem, not what the other person said.

I took the classic coach approach: “Ellen, if Carl wants you to change and be different, why do you think he wants that? What would he get out of it?”  It took a while to get there, but in the final analysis she ascertained that Carl wanted peace of mind in the relationship. I then asked her to consider both her original and the new interpretation of his request on her inner self being.

As you can imagine, the second was much less stressful for her. In the end, the freedom she sought came from seeing that once you get to that deep level of imagining what the other person really wants, it is rarely the case that we would be opposed to it. It is usually just beneath what was superficially expressed in words or deeds. Why would Ellen not want Carl to have peace of mind? The main reason she might not want to is if she thought it was going to be at her expense, which regrettably she did believe. Over time, she came to see that, at least in theory, she wanted peace of mind for him. They started to work together to sort through it all and in time, found a healthy meeting place in the middle.

Modestly Speaking

Modesty, knowing it isn’t all about you or in your control, is something cultivated in agriculture and horticulture in particular.  With this piece, I am starting the second year of regular blogging around and about my work. I am still not always comfortable presenting a practice on this blog and/or parts of my life as I see it. That being said, I sit here writing with the hope that some small part of this might actually serve someone in attending to their own life, the way they choose to “be in the world.” After years or working alone growing trees, having little to do with people in general, it makes me sad to think about all the pain we individually suffer and how much we bring to others by deeply entrenched habits, by taking things personally. In turn, I try and encourage people that it matters how we speak to each other.

How you say what you say affects us all.

On the other hand, who am I to speak in the first place? I am far from perfect. With practice I fall into the trap of taking things personally much less often than I used to, yet when I do, when I am in it, it’s just as all-consuming as it’s ever been. There are times that I find myself wanting to pray:

“May we all find relief, may we all learn to see our own humanity as well as that of others, regardless of outward appearance”

What say you?.  Do you find yourself taking things personally too much of the time?

Give me a call so we can talk about it… schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.


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