Taking Things Personally
One of the common patterns in my life is to surround myself with people with whom I allow to abuse me. And one of the popular refrains of these people is to tell me this phrase:
You need to stop taking things so personally.
And I find that phrase interesting because it is really difficult not to take things personally when they are targeting me with their abusive words. But, as I said, this is a common refrain of abusers in my life. In fact, most of the people that have mistreated me in various ways have also found a way to abdicate any responsibility for their actions by using this phrase to place the blame squarely on me.
And I took it.
I mean, why not. In my life, I was taught to listen to people who are, or are pretending to be, authority figures. And when an authority figure is "teaching" you a lesson, of course I'm going to listen. And when that person ends up getting frustrated, then hurting my feelings and I want to talk about that, that's when the popular phrase gets trotted out like a prized horse.
A manager once told a group of us in a meeting, "What i don't like is bad mouthing, negativity, constant complaining". After days of self-reflection I explained to the manager how I felt about hearing that–I felt guilt, shame, sadness, fear–and asked for some examples of when I exhibited those traits. The answer was it was spoken generally and not indicative of anything that I, or anyone in that group, had done. I was then told that I should not take things so personally.
I'll explain the insidiousness of the phrase. On one hand, I am being told something that hurt me and then being told not to take it personally, and then I'm expected to internalize and take personally the advice not to take it personally. See the mind games? That's the manipulation. It puts me, and I suspect others, on uneven ground without even realizing it.
Being surrounded by these types of people is a common pattern because that's what I grew up with. So for me, this is what normal looks like. Abnormal is the sense of true empathy and caring from others toward me. For the latter, it just feels wrong or out of place. For the types of abuse that I grew up with, this abusive behaviour of others feels to me like this is the way things are supposed to feel. And there in lies the problem. I gravitate, like any person would, toward people that I feel comfortable with. But that comfort is not a true representation of comfort. Others, looking at my situation, often wonder why I put up with that kind of behaviour from others. And my answer to them is typically, "what did they do wrong?" Deep down, I do feel something is amiss, but I'm often unable to tell what it is because I have very few (when younger, none) reference points from which to draw. And that's why this is what normal looks like to me. Or, at least, it did.
I've spent the better part of a decade trying to be around people that I don't necessarily feel comfortable with. These people are caring people. Truly caring. It is not at all "normal" to me. I keep waiting for them to do something that will make me feel like a return to normalcy, but they keep denying me this by being… kind. Not necessarily nice, but they are always kind. And in being around these people, I'm give a new reference point for what normal is supposed to be. And when I speak about situations where I thought it was normal, they explain to me what normal really is, and help me validate that these situations are examples of abuse and/or mistreatment. But once they get me to see the situation through their eyes, they also help me understand that running away is not the correct course of action (at least, only in rare occasions). Instead, they get me to understand how I can follow-up on the situation, explain how it made me feel with the other person, try to assert myself and tear down the pedestal of authority upon which I placed them. The reason for doing those things is to see these people are fallible, but also give them a chance to hold them accountable for their actions. And if those people don't want to be accountable, well then it is time for me to sever the relationship and move on without the pain of regret–pain of grief perhaps, but not regret. I have also learned not to try and change the other person; you can't change people, you can only hold a mirror up to them and they can choose to change themselves.
When I was young and up until several years ago, I took that phrase and internalized it (i.e. I took it personally) but then felt weird and couldn't understand the emotions I felt. But now, my response has evolved where I get angry at hearing it, knowing right away that a violation has occurred. But I don't act on it, I process my emotions and then ask questions later. I no longer let it control me. I also think about how it says more about the people using the phrase than about me, and that's really difficult to do when I put them up on a pedestal of authority. Tearing down that pedestal helps me see them as equals and, yes, as people that have abusive behaviours.
Are there situations where that phrase could be seen as helpful advice? I'd like to present a balanced view, but I'm finding it difficult to do so given my history and usage of that phrase against me. But I would also be remiss in not being honest about my bias.
Even so, telling someone to stop doing something, especially when it is something that is happening inside their brain, is not helpful to yourself or the person you are telling it to. There is literally no way for a person to know if someone is taking it personally. Sometimes people just need to process information and then let it go, but that doesn't mean they having taken it personally. Being told to stop doing something is akin to being told that you are doing something wrong. It may come from the best of intentions, but it is also judgemental and controlling. At worst, and this is where it delves in my history, that phrase has been used as a tool for manipulation and control.
So where does that leave someone who wants to say the phrase but knows it won't help the situation? They can instead ask questions to the person. Ask them what's happening to them right now. Ask them how it made them feel when they heard it, or after they took time to process it. Ask them what it reminds them of. You can also not ask any questions at all. Just sit there and listen to the person, let them process information however they do it. Let them word vomit everything in their brain, just to get it out. Give them the space that they feel they've lost from whatever you, or someone else, has said.
Image Credit: Dall-E with modifications by me