6 Ways to Not Take Things Personally

November 20, 2020

Walk the line between overreacting and underreacting.

Every one of us has a tender underbelly of our psyche. Everyone has something they’re sensitive about, where even a gentle poke can feel more like a thwack. Comments don’t slide off like water from a duck’s back; rather, we feel more like a sitting duck.

But criticism is an inevitable part of life, and hearing reasonable negative feedback without overreacting is a life skill. If we can hear fair criticism of our actions without taking it personally, not only do we escape feeling hurt or shamed, we also keep criticism from escalating. By contrast, if we think, “You hurt my feelings so I’ll hurt you back,” we create more conflict and pain all around.

So how can we take things less personally, both to benefit ourselves and others? How can we toughen up without becoming hard-hearted?

Let’s start with two tips about how to re-interpret the critic, whether it’s your boss, your mother-in-law, your nosy neighbor, or someone you love and trust. In fact, that’s the crux of the matter.

1. Consider the source.

Would you be as likely to drink water from a mountain spring as from a puddle under a dumpster? Of course not. But why? Aside from the fact that you are smart, it’s because the source matters.

The same thing goes for criticism. Does the critique come from someone you like and respect? Does this person know you well? Or is this someone known to shoot off their mouth, have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, or has never had an authentic interaction with you?

In short, you’d take criticism very differently if it was presented with care from someone you trust versus shouted from a moving car. Consider the source, which will help you decide whether to take their feedback to heart or with a big grain of salt.

2. Give critics another chance, but not unlimited chances.

People say mean things. People can be dumb. People have no filter. It’s only human to make a mistake and say something critical or insulting, but if it happens again and again, it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a pattern.

To paraphrase, critique me once, that’s on you. Critique me twice, that’s on me. But if you’re repeatedly insulted without apology or acknowledgment, it’s time to speak up and/or limit contact. Three strikes and you’re not necessarily out, especially if you still have to work with or be related to them, but it’s definitely time to draw some boundaries.

Next up, four tips about how to work on ourselves to take the sting out of criticism. As they say, the only person you can change is you.

3. Heed the double-edged sword of “They shouldn’t say that!”

Individuals hypersensitive to criticism often have high moral standards. They have a strict moral code and their values run deep. And that’s a good thing. But this is one of the few places where strong values can have a downside. “How dare they say that!” “That’s wrong!” “She can’t say that!” “That’s not how things should be.” All those things may be true, but whatever statement hurt you was still uttered.

The fact that the critic “shouldn’t” or “can’t” is moot. Pretend a dog just deposited a steaming bundle right next to your “please pick up after your pet” sign. It shouldn’t have happened, but you have to deal with it nonetheless.

Getting unfair or undue criticism is similar. Even if it “shouldn’t” be there, you still have to deal with it. Feeling annoyed and offended may be warranted, but it’s not helpful. Remember that even if you walk the line and follow the rules, you can’t control whether others break them. In short, focus your attention on the content of the criticism, not whether or not it should have happened.

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