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How To STOP “Taking Things Personally”!

February 26, 2016 » Situational Communication® Concepts and Skills

What happens when you take things personally; when you allow a person’s beliefs, attitudes or behaviors to produce negative feelings that cause you to do or say things that aren’t in your best interests? To act differently, you must think differently.

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get far. Daniel Goleman

When you feel angry, frustrated, embarrassed, defensive or just plain upset because of the effects you are allowing another person to have on you, it’s extremely difficult to respond intelligently and calmly. Yes, you are allowing this to happen, and when you do, the natural tendency is to respond from your gut and dismiss the potential consequences. Unfortunately, the consequences tend not to be in your best interests and usually make a bad situation worse – not better.

Why You Do It.

One of the main culprits is the tyranny of the shoulds.

A should is an expectation that is unfulfilled by yourself or others. When someone doesn’t live up to your expectations and you cannot control or change that person, resentment, frustration, embarrassment or anger frequently develop. You must accept responsibility for your own beliefs, attitudes and behaviors but not those of others. When you do, you allow your expectations to get in the way of your self-control.

How To Stop

Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships. Travis Bradberry

How you think determines how you feel; so change your thinking. In part, emotional intelligence is about being able to control your emotions and to keep disruptive impulses in check – particularly in difficult, intense and demanding situations. In order to change the way you react to the beliefs, attitudes or behaviors of others in challenging situations, you must learn to become more tolerant.

Tolerance is the ability or capacity to recognize the rights, opinions and practices of others. Whether you agree with those rights, opinions or practices is irrelevant. The key to developing that ability or capacity is acceptance.

Does acceptance mean that you agree with another’s beliefs, attitudes or behaviors? Not necessarily. It means you accept that the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors (those that you allow to create anger, resentment, embarrassment or frustration) belong to the other person, not to you. You can’t change others so why take responsibility for their beliefs, attitudes and behavior? There is one very important caveat. Tolerance does not and should never apply to anything criminal, harmful or morally reprehensible.

How To Change Your Thinking

In psychological terms, the word sublimate means “to change the natural expression of an impulse or desire into one considered more socially or personally acceptable”. So, upon returning home after a hard day at the office carrying a bucket full of frustrated, angry, aggressive feelings, instead of taking them out on others, many of us physically sublimate those feelings by going for a long jog, hitting a tennis ball or working out.

After physically expending your negative feelings, you can transition to a calmer, more rational state. But when you’re in the moment and you have no choice but to deal with a particularly difficult person whose beliefs, attitudes and behaviors you find almost impossible to tolerate, unfortunately you can’t say, “We can continue this discussion shortly. First, I have to physically sublimate my angry feelings by going for a quick jog. I’ll be right back.”

If you can’t physically sublimate your feelings, you have to employ what I called Mental Sublimation. Here is how it works:

  1. Be aware of the negative emotions and impulses that arise when you’re dealing with the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of others that don’t meet your expectations. Timing is important. The sooner you become aware of those emotions and impulses, the easier they are to control.
  2. Take a deep breath (or maybe several). This makes you mindful and aware. Deep breathing lowers your blood pressure, increases oxygen to your brain, relaxes the tension in your body and prepares you to respond rationally rather than emotionally.
  3. Stop the tyranny of the shoulds. Do not apply your values to others. Let go of the expectation that others should live according to your standards. If negative feelings begin to develop, passively trying to suppress them won’t help. An emotional reaction is sure to follow if you don’t stop feeling and move toward thinking.
  4. Detach yourself emotionally by accepting that the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of others belong to them. They are not your responsibility. If they’re problematic, this is their problem. Don’t make it yours. There’s an old Polish proverb that might remind you, “Not my circus, not my monkey”. Again, there is one very important caveat. Tolerance does not and should never apply to anything criminal, harmful or morally reprehensible.
  5. You may not have to take responsibility for the beliefs, attitudes or behaviors that belong to another, but if you are in a leadership or management role, your challenge frequently involves taking responsibility for the problematic effects they have on the workplace. It is much easier to maintain self-control and be calm, cool and collected when you are focusing on your problem, i.e., the problematic effects of those beliefs, attitudes or behavior on the workplace. Problems in the workplace are your responsibility. You can speak more objectively and dispassionately. Your chances of making a challenging situation better, rather than worse, have increased dramatically.
  6. Smile. You are joining the ranks of other successful people in all professions who know how to be both successful and effective in difficult, intense, demanding and often emotionally charged situations. Now you’re in control: of yourself, your emotions and impulses, successful results, effective relationships and a bright future. Congratulations!

Your Biggest Challenge: Thinking Differently So You Can Act Differently

When someone’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors closely mirror your own, it’s easy to avoid the tyranny of the shoulds phenomenon and to disallow expectations to create negative feelings in you. But it’s a whole other matter when others’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors don’t mirror your own. That’s when you take things personally, when your emotions control your behavior, when you do or say things that are not in your best interests, and when you tend to make things worse instead of better.

If you’re the type of person who suffers from taking things personally, you’re not alone! Use the steps outlined in Mental Sublimation to help you train yourself to think differently…so you can act differently.

Half our mistakes in life arise from feeling when we ought to think and thinking when we ought to feel. Deepak Chopra

Think Different


Dr. Don MacRae is the author and passionate leader of Situational Communication® and the CEO of Lachlan Enterprises Incorporated (The Lachlan Group).

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