Many of us spend a good part of our lives learning how to stand up for ourselves. The willingness and ability to say how we feel and what we need is not only essential to our survival, it can lead to greater understanding, intimacy, and effectiveness in our relationships. Speaking up, being assertive, and summoning the courage to voice our emotions and opinions can also bolster our sense of confidence, self-esteem, and integrity.
Taking things too personally, however, and going too far in asserting and/or defending ourselves can result in painful, wasteful, and unnecessary conflict and misunderstanding. But being aware of how and when to step back, take a deep breath, and bite our tongues is of paramount importance. For example, not letting our defenses or egos get in the way, when they’re not necessary or productive, and actively listening to others can defuse potentially relationship-ending arguments, deescalate a potentially violent situation, and forge the kind of understanding that results in lasting peace.
It’s true, though, that knowing when it’s best to speak up or step back isn’t always clear. Deciding whether to take a hard line, follow our gut, and express feelings like hurt and anger—or to just lighten up—can be challenging. We can all probably look in our rearview mirrors at short-temperedness that escalated into ugliness and that could have been handled better with tact and humility. Or we can remember a time or two when “tough love” would have been more fitting than “nice and soft” coddling.
In a perfect world, we would all have learned from experience, be even-tempered and speak up only when that was the right thing to do. But in the real world, and with certain people, things aren’t always perfect.
A while back I allowed myself to get upset with my 92-year-old mother at lunch one day. After telling her I had already scheduled an appointment later that day and could not take her to the CVS, she commented, “Don’t worry, I can always take a cab” just as I was leaving. It felt like a parting shot laced with guilt, and I became defensive. Unable to hear the loneliness in my mother’s words, all I could hear was her criticism. Blinded by my own guilt about not being a good and loving enough son, I got angry and left in a huff.
I wish I could have taken back my cold response, given her a big smooch and a smile, and thanked her for loving me so dearly all these years. I wish I could have been the son who said, “I can see how alone and dependent you must feel sometimes, Mom.” And I wish I could have temepered and softened my guilt and anger into loving kindness and understanding.
My mother died several months later, and perhaps all I can do now is say a belated “I’m so sorry Mom. I now understand what you were saying and I love you. Please forgive me.“ What I can also do, though, is make a point of not taking things too personally with others in my life whom I love dearly.
Here are ten things I have found effective in tempering my (overly active) defenses when they’re triggered, and NOT take things so personally. All of them have helped me smooth the rough edges in my relationships.
1. Quiet my mind, listen, and breathe when others say something critical to or about me; and graciously thank them for caring enough to tell me.
2. Forgive myself for all the times I may have taken things too personally and created unnecessary conflict.
3. Make peace with the fact that I’m human, and sometimes it’s necessary to defend myself when I feel under attack.
4. Become intimately familiar with the “young parts of me” (that is, the inner and outer “triggers” that set me off).
5. Continually ask others for feedback to get ahead of my “defensiveness curve,” and practice listening nondefensively.
6. Bite my tongue and fight back the impulse to defend, explain, justify, or counter what people say.
7. Tone down my internal criticisms, admonitions, judgments, and put-downs so I’m less inclined to regard what others say as criticism.
8. Give myself direct feedback laced with kindness, patience, understanding, self-compassion, encouragement, humility, and support.
9. Separate myself from “toxic” people who use shame, guilt, blame, judgment, and humiliation as defense mechanisms—and in whose presence I feel vulnerable and uneasy.
10. Continue to work on reducing any underlying shame, guilt, failure, inadequacy, and embarrassment that fuel my defensiveness and detract from my ability to be present with myself and others.
These are some of the things I’m doing to become the better, kinder, calmer, more effective version of myself. It’s not always easy to know what’s right, or best, when it comes to taking things too personally, or not personally enough. I’m trying to cultivate patience and when I get triggered, to step back, take a deep breath, and look more deeply into why I am feeling so defended.
I am a work in progress when it comes to taking things too personally. But I am getting better. Sometimes I speak up and things work out for the best. And sometimes I overreact and end up apologizing. I’m learning as I go.
Are there things you do to not take things so personally? Can you think about a time when you might have handled a situation with greater calm and less defensiveness? Please do share.