One way to stop taking things personally as an HSP is to ask yourself if what someone did or said is rooted in facts — or is it just your interpretation?
Do you find that you tend to personalize things? Or overpersonalize things? If someone is upset, does it feel like it’s your fault? If a coworker doesn’t say hello to you, do you think they don’t like you or are mad at you? If someone criticizes you, you may feel like you just can’t do anything right. Do any of these feel familiar?
As a psychotherapist, I have found taking things personally to be a common struggle that many experience. And highly sensitive people (HSPs) have an active inner world and a heightened nervous system, which makes them more prone to these experiences than others may be. It’s hard for HSPs not to take things personally. As empathetic people, they are deeply impacted by the feelings of others, so if someone is upset, the narrative of “If only I didn’t do this or say that, then everything would be OK,” may quickly get underway. Therefore, awakening that inner critic is essential.
There is also a tendency for HSPs to process, analyze, overanalyze, and replay events in their mind. When this happens, it can literally feel as though you are reliving what happened, and this certainly has the potential of not being the most pleasant place to live in. As a result, you begin to confirm your mind’s story for yourself as the truth. Instead, you need to reprogram you and your highly sensitive brain so that you stop personalizing things — and practice does make perfect.
Understanding the Role of Your Inner Critic
Before you can fully understand why you personalize things, it’s important to understand the role your inner critic plays in the process. Many HSPs grew up believing something was wrong with them or they were different from everyone else. This thinking then developed into a core belief, and situations that trigger this belief greatly impact HSPs. This tends to be why HSPs overpersonalize more often and more deeply than others.
Let’s look at what happens internally:
- An emotion is triggered. An event happens that triggers a feeling. Maybe you’re running late to work or your partner seems annoyed at you. And, here comes an emotion: you may notice feeling sad, anxious, or angry, for example.
- The sympathetic nervous system (the part in charge of the fight or flight response) is activated as the emotions signal emotional distress. HSPs have a nervous system that is more sensitive to stimuli, so fight or flight responses happen more frequently and are felt more deeply. This is that familiar feeling of stress or urgency.
- Now, the part of the brain called the amygdala, which is primal in nature and has to do with emotional processing, is activated. It is always scanning your environment for danger to help keep you alive. The emotional distress you are feeling has the amygdala convinced you are in danger and tries to alert you so that you can avoid the situation at hand and stay safe. This is where the inner critic typically steps in. It’s an automatic process, and the intended purpose is to communicate something is wrong. But, instead, it tends to come across as though you did something wrong. Talk about trying to not overpersonalize!
When you feel hurt and take things personally — which is not hard for highly sensitive souls to do — you’re truly not in danger in the same way you might be if you were getting ready to cross a street and a car came speeding around the corner and you needed to act quickly to avoid getting hit.
When experiencing emotional distress, the brain and nervous system “perceived” you were in danger. For instance, let’s say your boss says, “This report is good, but I need you to redo this entire section.” HSPs tend to want to please others, so this feedback may feel upsetting. You may notice a stress response, like getting a feeling of dread in your gut, and start the narrative of: “I can’t do anything right; I’m always disappointing my boss and he thinks I’m not doing a good job. I’m going to get fired if I don’t get it together. What am I going to do?” You may feel disappointment or anxiety. Your body may feel unsafe, maybe vulnerable, and a fear of security: Will you lose your job? Ask yourself: “Am I in a life-threatening situation here?” No. But, your body believes so and is loudly trying to protect you from those feelings — and in a way that feels pretty awful.
However, by jumping the gun here, there’s a miscalculation. So, in that sense — the thoughts you are being told by the inner critic in response to this perceived threat — may also not have much truth or accuracy to them. You may have fear like “I’m going to lose my job,” but really you were just given some constructive feedback mixed in with positive feedback. (But, yes, I know that HSPs don’t love criticism, which is how you may perceive your boss’s feedback.) Ah, what a relief, though, that this is a perceived threat, not more. There’s a saying about fear: False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR).
Looking at The ‘Whys’ Underneath the Emotional Triggers
Next, let’s look at some of the pieces underneath those emotional triggers, which I like to call the “whys”. These are also core beliefs — “I just want to feel understood” or “I want others to be happy with me” — you hold about yourself and are probably part of the story your inner critic is telling you. While core beliefs can be positive and helpful, they are often self-limiting.
Do any of these feel familiar when you find yourself overpersonalizing?
- I feel like I can never do anything right.
- Here I go, messing things up again.
- I need to make sure they’re happy so they’ll like/love me.
- If I don’t get things together, they’re going to leave me.
- I’m so scared right now.
- I just want to feel like I’m important to them.
- Why even bother? It’s not going to work out anyway.
Ask yourself: “What is the story I’m telling myself?“
For instance, let’s say you’ve asked your partner to turn off the lights when leaving a room, but she forgets. You may start to tell yourself: “She doesn’t care enough about me to do this.” But, is this really true?
At the heart of depersonalizing here, what happens, at the core, truly are just events — and it’s all about the meaning and interpretation of these events that leads the way to personalization. Once this is understood, it’s a gamechanger for many.
What You Can Do When You Find Yourself (Over)personalizing Things
Stop, pause, and breathe. To get clear on your “whys,” ask yourself: “Why am I upset?”
You can also ask yourself if there are any cognitive distortions that are showing up — in other words, when your brain is “lying” to you. Some examples include:
- Personalizing: blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault or assuming something that happens is directed at you
- Catastrophizing: assuming the worst in a situation
- Overgeneralizing: having a belief about one event and then generalizing it to several events
- Black-and-white thinking: thinking in extremes (all-or-nothing thinking) and not allowing for a possibility of a “grey area”
Once you get clear on the “whys” and if there are cognitive distortions, you can ask yourself: “What is the truth here?” to really get really clear. In going back to the example about your boss, telling yourself “I’m always disappointing him” contains several cognitive distortions. Is it “always”? Are you actually “disappointing” him? And are you overpersonalizing what happened?
You may want to ask yourself: “Where is this story/core belief coming from?” It may be a story from your childhood due to emotional neglect or unhealed trauma, such as “If I don’t get perfect grades, that means I’ve failed.”
You can challenge these thoughts — you don’t have to accept them as the truth. It can be really helpful to write everything out in a journal or on a piece of paper, or talk them through with a therapist. Not only will you be able to see your thought process, but you’ll probably also see that you don’t have as much “evidence” as you thought you did to support your thought(s).
Finally, as you get clear with logic and rationale, you can apply self-soothing strategies. This activates the calming effects of the parasympathetic nervous system — it’s in charge of your body’s rest and digestion response — and you can relax and breathe. It may be things like listening to calming music, taking deep breaths, listening to a guided meditation, going for a walk, or painting. You may also give yourself a hug, wrap a cozy blanket around yourself, or connect with one of your pets for self-care and soothing. Some people also find it helpful to engage in a distraction type of activity, like watching an enjoyable movie. (But nothing that will overstimulate their HSP senses!)
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Not Taking Things Personally Takes Practice, but It Is Possible
Not taking things personally takes practice and persistence, but this can be done! Understanding how your nervous system is operating, getting clear on the truth of the “whys,” core beliefs, and your inner narrative, and understanding why you feel triggered are all part of it. This actually helps in stopping the inner critic in its tracks — and then you can begin to have empathy and compassion for yourself.
You may also start to gain a different perspective of what is happening with others in the situation(s) you were taking personally. For instance, the person who doesn’t say hello to you may be caught up in their own mental worries. The person who is irritated may have just ended a stressful phone call. The person who gives you a defensive response may be having their own critical thoughts, such as “Here I go, disappointing her again.”
HSPs are such emotional and sensitive souls that the last thing they want to do is to feel like they let someone down. And because HSPs tend to go inward in the way they process and experience things, this automatically causes them to overpersonalize. But, with practice, this can be changed. The automatic process can be modified and you can still maintain your sweet, sensitive, kind, active-inner-world self — without overpersonalizing. And, with practice, you may even start to believe that it just might not be personal after all.
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