7 Golden Rules for Not Taking Things Too Personally

Or how to own your life.

Do you take things personally?

Of course you do — we all do. It’s almost impossible to float through life immune to the judgments of others, unless you interact with no-one, ever.

But the difficulty comes when we take things too personally, when we let the opinions of others pierce our emotional skins, superficially or right to the core of who we are.

But here’s the thing. No matter who we are, or what we do, we’ll be judged. The more we try, the more risks we take, the louder we sing, the more crap we’ll get.

And, even if we do nothing but lie on the sofa every night with a king-size block of chocolate, we’ll be judged on that too.

The point is, we can’t stop the onslaught of others’ opinions about us. It’s futile to try. But we can master the way we deal with them.

Here’s how.

7 Golden Rules for Not Taking Things Too Personally

“If you are impeccable with your word, if you don’t take anything personally, if you don’t make assumptions, if you always do your best, then you are going to have a beautiful life. — Miguel Ruiz

Taking things personally just means you’re a person with a healthy emotional radar. You Feel Stuff, which is a good thing. So you don’t need to develop a “thick skin”. But you do have to understand that taking everything personally will put you at the mercy of life’s slings and arrows. It will make you play small. Is that what you really want?

Before you take things (deeply) to heart, run this checklist.

1. Do you know who they are?

Who has judged/hurt you? Do you even know who they are? The harshest critics are often anonymous voices on social media. Immediately dismiss the criticism of anyone who hides behind a mask, an unfathomable user name or weird avatar.

Freedom of speech is important. People should be allowed to have and express opinions. Anonymous constructive comments are okay. Anonymous mean comments are cowardly. Why would you let a coward hiding behind a keyboard hurt you? Why would you allow anyone who doesn’t know you to hurt you?

2. Do they (really) matter to you?

So many people are affected by the words, actions, opinions of people who don’t really matter. That mother in the school playground. That friend who left you out who won’t be a friend in the end. That obnoxious guy in the next cubicle at work. That micro-managing boss you will eventually move on from. The toxic ex you never have to see again. Some slick politician you’ll never have to meet. Yes, they’ve hurt or annoyed you but, when you step back and see the big picture, they’re not truly important to you. So keep them in their place; don’t make them bigger than they are.

And, if they do matter to you, don’t be too quick to react. Listen — and try to understand their perspective.

3. Are they Going Low?

“When they go low, we go high.” — Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama popularised this slogan, offering restraint as an antidote to criticism. She later explained it was not about banishing hurt feelings, but about not allowing yourself to stoop to an angry or low level response, to maintain your dignity in the face of challenge.

Ignore anyone who judges you based on your looks, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, any points of difference, personality and relationships. That’s none of their business. Smile and think this: if they’re making it personal, they can’t have anything substantial to say.

4. Know this is about them.

There is great power in realising the way a person speaks about or acts towards about others is utterly revealing of who they are. In their comments, posts, tweets, behaviour — or acts of meanness — they are telling you about their history, their belief systems, their character, their emotional game, the often narrow way they view the world. They’re standing before you — Naked.

Any poisonous judgments they make are a product of who they are. It’s helpful to understand that. It’s helpful to know that’s NOT who you want to be. It’s probably even more helpful to stay away from them.

5. Don’t make assumptions.

The number one rule of psychology is “make no assumptions”. When you are upset or angry it’s easy to assume you know what the other person meant. It’s also possible you have it completely wrong. Stay neutral: allow another person’s opinions to be theirs — and theirs alone. You don’t have to do anything with them.

6. Figure out how they can help you.

Often the reason we’re hurt by criticism is because it “hits a nerve”, we believe it contains a kernel of truth. Feedback is not always negative. And, even if it is, it can contain things that can help us, particularly around our work. If you’ve had some feedback that’s hard to take, sit with it a while and — when you’re ready — unpack it and see what you can learn. There are always better, or alternative, ways to do things. Stay open to them.

7. Don’t let them limit your life.

The great danger in taking things too personally is that you get defensive and it begins to dictate your life. Your critics can keep you in a box, closing your heart and mind to new experiences, to possibility. Don’t let them trap you. Don’t let turn you into a victim. Don’t let them own your life. If you are going to do anything worthwhile at all, the critics will come for you. But they’ll only win if you hand them the power to do so.

Thanks for reading! Join my email list here if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life. karen@onthecouch.co.nz

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