By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW
Is it common for you to be disappointed or upset by what people do?
If you feel unfairly targeted, criticized, or downright disliked by others a lot of the time, there’s a good chance that you’re suffering a lot more than you should, because you’re taking things personally.
As it was so eloquently written about by Seija Grant in her “People are not against you, they are for themselves” article, we often forget that people are much more focused on themselves than on us, just like we are more focused on our own lives and feelings than we are on others. And that’s pretty normal. In fact, the more intense one’s personal suffering, the more difficult it is to consider the world beyond their own headspace.
To personalize something is to make it about, or for, you, like things engraved with your name on them, or the way a room can be decorated to make you happy by reflecting your own likes and dislikes.
But personalizing is also a way of taking a situation, running it through the grinder of our perceptions, assumptions, and beliefs, and then making it about US.
Someone seems quiet and standoffish. They deny anything being wrong, but you know something is up. Your instinct is rarely wrong in these cases, but how you interpret what you see influences how you react to it. A single negative assumption could be the deciding factor between giving someone space to work out their mood, or flipping out on them completely.
You could assume it’s because they don’t like you, that they are annoyed with you, or you have done something to make them unhappy. You keep running through the possibilities in your mind, feeling worse and worse, finally becoming angry because this has gotten out of hand. And still, the person won’t tell you what’s going on.
It makes sense that you’d get upset or angry. It might even make sense to lash out at them because clearly they are being passive aggressive. Maybe they’re even withholding on purpose, knowing that it’s bothering you.
And it escalates. Eventually, you avoid them or address them with anger to show them that they have ruined your day and you’re not going to take it anymore.
Alright, so it’s not always this intense, but the point is that we all do this to an extent. Women are often more susceptible to this kind of thinking because as a rule, they tend to be more empathic and aware of the subtle signs that tell you when a person is unhappy. That’s the whole nurturing aspect of our biology at play; we want people to get along because group cohesion positively influences survival.
Back to the point. Are you making this about you?
When your reaction is far more intense than the situation demands, it’s time to examine your thinking.
You’ve already reached your destination (anger), but you might have made a wrong turn somewhere, so go back and follow the trail.
DEFINE THE SITUATION
Think about what you noticed. What were the signs or hints that told you something was up? You noticed them for a reason, so don’t doubt yourself.
E.g., She’s normally bubbly and friendly, but today she didn’t make eye contact and left the room when I came in.
BE AWARE OF YOUR LIMITS
Our perspective is based on our limited powers of observation. We can only interpret what we actually see and experience, and our mind fills in the blanks. You can’t see what a person is doing behind your back, so assumptions make up a big part of the final product. While assumptions are helpful and save time (e.g., I assume my car will start in the morning…I assume the sun will rise), it’s helpful to be aware of how truly limited our perception is and how big a role our assumptions play.
WATCH YOUR MEANING
Your underlying beliefs about the world will give shape to your assumptions. If you believe that you are not good enough, the behaviours of others along with your assumptions will always prove this to you. That’s called cognitive bias.
EXPLORE ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS
Think of all the reasons that you would avoid eye contact with someone. Perhaps you did that when you had a headache or upset stomach, or maybe it was stress-related with the mountains of work you had to do. Imagine how many times you have inadvertently upset someone with your silence when it had absolutely nothing to do with them.
ASSUME THE BEST UNTIL YOU KNOW BEYOND A DOUBT
You don’t know that you’re right until you know you’re right. And hey, if the person really is angry about something you did, you can eventually take steps to make it better when they are ready to talk to you about it. So don’t jump on subtle signs of distress and use them like ammo to attack yourself.
If you take it personally, start acting upset or guilty, and then force a confrontation with the other person, it’s like admitting that you’ve done something wrong when you really haven’t yet. And you will make the problem worse. Alternatively, if you act like you are on the same team, give them space, and offer support to them if the behaviour continues, you could singlehandedly resolve or at least lessen the intensity of the situation.
Just keep breathing, loosen up, and remember that every person is as complicated, multi-faceted, and amazing as you are. We all have our battles to face, so let’s do each other a favour and stay on the same team.
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