Taking Things Personally

“I wish they hadn’t changed the body style on these trucks”, she said. He immediately puffed up and started to pout. She glanced over, confused. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “You’re criticizing my truck!” he exclaimed.

Now, it’s true, a woman should never cast aspersions on a man’s truck.
But really, in this case, she was making a general comment. She was not criticizing his truck. Tom heard it as a criticism of his precious truck, though, and became indignant and emotional. Now, if Laurie got irritated, and argued back with him, we have the beginning of one of those all-too-common senseless arguments that couples find themselves in. Sometimes we can’t even remember how they started, we just know that the other person is being “completely unreasonable”!

All too often, we take things personally when they are not. We interpret others’ words or actions in a negative way that was not intended. In this way, feelings get hurt; anger flares, and arguments begin – all unnecessarily.

There are two parts to this problem. First, consider how we communicate with one another. We hear the others’ words, but we don’t simply respond to the words. First, we interpret what we think the other person meant by those words. That is what we respond to. There are two big problems with this, however. One is that, usually without even realizing it, we are making an assumption about what they meant. Very often our assumption will be wrong, but we will react to it anyway. And two is that we humans tend to more easily make negative assumptions than positive ones. (I wrote about how and why this happens in a previous article).

So what are we to do? The good and the bad news is that everything is not about us. For example; you call a friend and leave a message, but they don’t call you back. You can get your feelings hurt, thinking they don’t care, or they are mad at you. Or you can recognize it may not have anything to do with you at all. How many times have things dropped through the cracks in all of our lives? I certainly have been guilty of not returning a phone call in a timely manner, not because I didn’t care, but because I was on overload and forgot. Yet even though I know this, I, too, have to remind myself of that when one of my friends doesn’t call me back, so I don’t take it personally.

So what can we do about this business of making assumptions, taking things personally, and over-reacting? First, we need to recognize that the way we interpreted the words or actions of the other person might not accurately reflect what they meant. Understanding their intention is the critical part. So, if you’re not sure, ask! If Tom had asked, “You don’t like my truck?” he would have discovered right away that was not what Laurie meant at all. No need for hurt or angry feelings, no need for an argument. In my experience working with couples, and human beings in general, most of the time when we get our feelings hurt or get angry, it was completely unnecessary. Most of the time, we have interpreted something in a more negative way than it was intended. We have literally upset ourselves.

That being the case, imagine how much less tension and arguing we would have in our lives if we could learn not to take things personally or misinterpret in a negative direction. Here’s another simple strategy to help you do a reality check about whether we are making a negative assumption. Ask yourself the question, “Are there any other possibilities?” For example, my friend has not returned my call. My first reaction is to get my feelings hurt. I ask myself, “Are there any other possibilities?” Obviously, there are. Of course, it is possible that my friend is mad at me or doesn’t care about me anymore. But it’s not the most likely possibility. There are a lot of other possibilities that are more likely. When I do that reality check, I can take a deep breath, give the benefit of the doubt, and call again.

Dr. Catherine Aisner is a Psychologist in South Lake Tahoe, helping individuals and couples improve the quality of their lives. She can be reached at 530-541-6696 or online at www.CatherineAisner.com.

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