When you take someone’s anger-provoking behavior personally, you feel offended and disrespected.
Your reaction to your uncomfortable feelings is either to defend yourself or to submit passively to what the other person seems to think of you. Either way, you view the other person’s behavior as a literal, serious, personal threat to your well-being:
• In traffic, your blood pressure shoots up as you fume about the sloppiness of other drivers and about how their recklessness is putting you personally at risk.
• At the office, you take a colleague’s disagreement with you as personal disrespect or hostility.
• Closer to home, your girlfriend goes off the deep end over some silly joke you told at a party, and you feel personally attacked and hurt.
In reality, reckless drivers drive recklessly whether you’re on the road or not. Your colleagues at the office can disagree with you for reasons of their own that have nothing to do with you. And maybe your girlfriend is upset because the way you told that joke brought back some painful memory that you know nothing about.
In each case, what you’re taking personally isn’t personal at all.
Let me give you another kind of example.
A client of mine was deeply in love with a woman who wasn’t emotionally available. She would draw him in and then do something to push him away. (This is what’s commonly called sabotaging the relationship.) At first he took her behavior personally because he had behaved badly toward her a few times and felt guilty. But as he and I talked, and as he looked at his past behavior, he expressed deep sorrow.
He worked on forgiving himself, and he apologized to the woman he loved. She accepted his apology, but soon enough she was pushing him away again. He was finally able to see that she had major issues around emotional intimacy, and that her pushing him away wasn’t any type of personal statement about him. She’d had a pretty tough life, and the way she protected herself whenever she felt unsafe with someone was to go on the attack or withdraw. And her protective technique was highly effective!
You may never know the real reasons why people in your life have attacked you or withdrawn from you. They may have been suffering from the effects of past abuse, or other problems of their own may have played a role. What you can know is that their provocative behavior was almost certainly not personal, and so it would be a mistake for you to take it personally.
• Don’t defend yourself against insults or other hurtful behavior. Your attackers aren’t interested in your point of view. They’re focused on relieving their own emotional pain, at your expense. Others’ antagonism is no reflection of your worth as a person, and you require no defense.
• Don’t worry about looking or sounding stupid. If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, you can say, “I need to think about that and get back to you.” Remind yourself that you’re an imperfect human being, you’re allowed to make mistakes, and you do many things quite well. You will never be superior or inferior, but equal.
• Put less focus on yourself. Instead, think about your goals and the steps needed to meet them. In a social interaction, think about how to make the experience itself enjoyable, and ask yourself what you can do to feel more comfortable.
• When someone attacks you, muster up the courage to risk doing something new. For example, you can simply say, “I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish.” That’s not a counterattack. It’s just the truth. And if you feel good afterward, savor that feeling—you will have earned it.