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Don’t take It Personally—Even When It’s Personal

It can be hard not to take things personally.

There are many situations in which we feel insulted, belittled, or attacked. People act in ways that don’t align with our most deeply held values or strongest beliefs and we feel it’s an affront to us personally. It doesn’t even have to be part of an interaction with us. We might see someone on TV or read about them spouting ideas that insult or offend us. Social media is another culprit. We see things all the time that make us incredulous. We can’t help but to leave a scathing comment in reply. Finally, we will invariably run across people who just don’t like us. So what can we do? How can we respond or react to these people appropriately? How can we not take it personally?

Why we take things personally

There are many reasons why we might take things personally. The most obvious is a direct personal affront. This is a direct challenge to our stances, our actions, or what we stand for. Someone is coming up to us and telling us that we’re wrong. This is when we’re most likely to take it personally, because someone is explicitly saying there is something incorrect about our worldview. The next step down the ladder is someone who is not challenging us personally, but is advocating for an idea or action that goes against our core values. This can seem very personal, even if it’s not directed at us. Finally, we can experience perceived slights in professional or social situations—people not hearing us or not paying attention to what we’re saying, making a joke at our expense, or not acknowledging our contributions or accomplishments.

One of the underlying reasons we take these things personally is because they can be tied to our self-esteem. They may highlight our lack of self-worth or confidence and cause those to drop even lower. We may feel offended or insulted by the words or actions of others when we’re actually doubting ourselves. People who are genuinely confident and comfortable in their own skin are way less likely to take things personally. They believe in themselves, and so aren’t as affected by people who don’t.

Politics and taking it personally

Politics are a great example of how taking things personally is ingrained in aspects of our society. In modern political discourse, there doesn’t seem to be room anymore for nuances or debating a particular point. We’re either all in or all out. We get it, or we’re idiots. There’s no gray area. There are institutions that are set up to keep the situation in a permanent state of divisiveness, such as partisan news outlets, special interest groups, and political action committees. Politicians must enter the fray in strong alignment with a set of these groups, or they will not get anywhere. The average citizen may not see all the machinations of these institutions and their influence, but they will still be lured into perpetuating divisions, and it won’t seem as if there are any alternatives. When a political position goes against our core values, it can be easy to take it personally, but if we are to move beyond the divisiveness—in society and individually—we have to acknowledge that such positions are still legitimate, meaning that they’re based on another’s worldview or opinions. This can be very hard, especially if the position is based on ignorance or misinterpretation of the facts, or goes against the best interests of a group of people.

We also have to be honest about our reactions to others. When we hear a politician, or anyone else talking about politics, and it causes a strong emotional reaction, we should take time to reflect. Why are we reacting so strongly? Is our reaction based on the content of what is being said, or are we really defending our own self-esteem?

Make room in your worldview for other perspectives

Other opinions, values, or worldviews are OK. In fact, they’re necessary in a diverse, inclusive society. What’s not OK is intolerance toward any thoughts or ideas that are different from one’s own. Intolerance is a stepping stone toward an authoritarian perspective—requiring that people think and act in a certain way if we’re to accept them. When we take other perspectives personally, it’s a red flag that there may be some intolerance in our psyche. It may come from a healthy place—from us wanting to have a positive influence and the desire to steer our discourse in a constructive direction. It may also come from a place of low self-esteem—that any challenge to our worldview is a challenge to our worthiness.

Society needs processes through which people with diverse perspectives can come together to debate and reflect on our respective outlooks and opinions, in order to forge a path that incorporates our differences to the greatest extent possible. We also need to use this approach individually. If we find ourselves getting angry or offended, we need to step back and examine whether we’re allowing room for other perspectives—whether we are able to consider different outlooks with an open mind, and whether we can accept a path forward that is different from what we had envisioned.

Of course, there are people in the world who should give us pause and raise our ire . The willfully ignorant, the misguided, and the sociopathic—and particularly those who we might be tempted to call evil. If you met Hitler at a dinner party, you probably wouldn’t reflect on his ideas with an open mind and consider his worldview potentially feasible. In our day-to-day world, we all have our own personal Hitlers. But we should always examine our reactions to ensure they aren’t based on intolerance or our own thin skin.

Sometimes it is personal

Not everyone is going to like your ideas, share your values, or have the same worldview. Not everyone’s going to like you. That’s OK; it’s expected. It’s not your job to make everyone like you or agree with you. If you try to make everyone happy, the one you will make unhappy is yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to be likable and be open to cordial relationships. We can even be flexible in our day-to-day activities in an effort to get along with people; we can be easygoing. But we should never change who we are fundamentally—never be flexible with our essential selves.

When you’re able to establish a foundation that’s based on your identity, you’ll be considerably less likely to take anything personally, because you’ll be completely comfortable with yourself as a person. You’ll be able to be open-minded in the face of other’s challenges to you—towards others not liking you—because you’ve thoroughly and completely accepted who you are. This doesn’t mean your opinions and worldview will become intractable—quite the contrary. Because you’ll have a firm foundation in your identity, you’ll open to the evolution of your worldview.

Everyone doesn’t have to agree with you. Everyone doesn’t have to like you, as long as you like you.

Don’t take it personally, even when it’s personal.

Common Ground

What’s that you’re saying?
It’s completely wrong
Your so out of touch
Don’t be so headstrong.

I’m taking offense
to all that you say.
It’s a dangerous thought
that will lead us astray.

We just can’t be friends
if that’s who you are.
I don’t even know you
your opinions, bizarre.

I’ll just spend my time
with my own little clique—
our like-minded kind
with views politic.

But I can’t see the world
through the walls that I’ve made.
Just our like-minded kind
so closed and afraid.

So tell me again
what it is that you think.
Let’s find common ground—
let our thoughts interlink.

I still don’t like all
of what you advance.
But I find little gems
when I give you a chance.

You still are my friend
and I look forward to
exploring ideas—
more than one point of view.

I can move beyond
my own territory
and sample the world
in all of its glory.

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