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Take Things Personally - Main

Over the years, I’ve found that some thoughtful leaders have a tendency to take things personally.

That is, they consider failures or issues as a personal problem, a deficiency in their personality or skills that they take ownership of.

Of course it’s good to take accountability for our own issues and limitations.

However, when we take things personally, we can go too far and start to own more of the situation than is justified.

What Happens When We Take Things Personally?

When we take things personally, we consider feedback or issues as shortcomings in who we are as a person.

Rather than seeing this as a critique on our skills or capabilities, we see it as an assault on our very being.

The impact? In my experience, our emotions tend to feel more intense.

We may feel shame, fear, insecurity, inadequacy, or even like we’re an imposter – someone who shouldn’t be in our situation, because we’re not capable.

This intense attachment to feedback or criticism can cause challenges in our leadership such as:

  • Avoiding feedback: We don’t want to hear what people think, because we think it will hurt! Therefore, we try not to ask.
  • Insecurity: When we feel like we’re under attack, we can become fearful of situations where we feel vulnerable. Once again, this can lead to avoidance, even when we could benefit from being exposed to such situations.
  • Limited learning: If we spend our time consumed with feeling bad, we’re less likely to learn from experiences. We may focus on “damage control” in an effort to feel better, rather than seeing the lessons that are coming from our experiences.

Ideally when faced with an issue or challenging feedback, we need to create some separation between the issue and our personal identity or self-concept.

Instead of taking these things as a personal attack, it would be good to acknowledge that we have room for improvement and that we’re not really such a bad person after all.

We do this by acknowledging that the skills we have and the actions we take are separate from our core identity.

This is where learning can happen.

Take things personally - where we learn Large

Learn More:  How to Accept Feedback in a Useful Way.

Why Do Thoughtful Leaders Take Things Personally?

Well, not all thoughtful leaders have this problem, but I think many are susceptible to it.

Why is this?

One reason is because I think in general, thoughtful leaders are quite introspective.

They spend time thinking about their own thoughts and feelings, and their interactions with the people around them.

The drawback to this is that it’s all going on inside their own heads.

When we’re inside our head, it’s hard to be objective. After all, we’re only hearing one side of the story, and that’s from our own inner voice.

Overthinking things

If the inner voice isn’t a positive one, it’ll wear us down over time and we’ll start to feel bad about ourselves.

Another reason is that our organisations are dominated by the “stronger”, louder, more extroverted personalities.

This can have thoughtful leaders struggling with confidence, because they feel inadequate. Like they should be the stereotypical “strong” leader.

When you’re feeling low in confidence, it’s easier to agree with negative commentary about yourself, because it confirms what you are already feeling.

Learn More:  Should You Be Yourself or Adapt to Your Audience?

Learn More:  Low in Confidence? That’s a Good Thing.

How to Stop Taking Things Personally

Ok, so now we come to the part of the post which is the “So what are you gonna do about it?” part.

We know that when someone tells us not to take things personally, it’s not especially helpful. So we’ll skip that bit.

Instead, here are some ideas to try to help you disconnect what you are experiencing from your sense of self.

First, Examine the Context

I find a useful starting point is to consider the context surrounding the issue.

This includes:

  • The people involved, including their attitude and behaviour
  • Any factors that helped during the situation; and
  • Any factors that made the situation worse.

List them all out.

These aren’t excuses, they are simply a catalogue of the complexities of the situation.

Once they’re all out on paper (writing them out physically can help this process) you can stand back and see them all.

Lots of stuff, hey?

Bonus question: how much of them are about you?

Next, Take the Lessons

It would be irresponsible to suggest that we had *no* influence in the issue or situation that occurred.

We need to take accountability for our part in the situation.

But that doesn’t mean heaping blame on ourselves, or taking it as a personal attack.

When something goes wrong, we need to learn from it where we can. To do this, I like to ask:

“What would I do differently if a similar situation happened again?”

Sometimes, you’ll think of actions you could have taken that might have helped.

Other times, you’ll feel as if you did a reasonable job in the situation.

If you do think of things you could have done better, it’s important to recognise that this is all using the benefit of hindsight.

It’s easy to see things once they’ve already happened, but in the moment it’s quite different.

Now, Consider the Motive

Often when we take things personally, another individual is involved.

They might give us feedback, criticise us or behave in a way that makes us feel bad.

I think it’s useful to consider the motive of the person involved.

Did they mean to make this a personal attack? Or were they motivated in some other way? Perhaps stress was involved… or maybe fear?

Once again, it’s worth considering our old friend, the Iceberg of Human Behaviour.

The Iceberg Sketch

When you stop to consider all the possible factors that could be going on beneath the waterline for the other person involved, it becomes clear that most of them are not about you.

If most of the influences that are driving other peoples behaviour are not about you, then it doesn’t make sense to take things personally, does it?

And even if the other person was being malicious … that’s no greater reason to feel bad about yourself. That’s on them.

Learn More:  Thoughtful Leader Podcast #209: How to Build Empathy Using the Iceberg Model.

Question the Expectations

Ok, we’ve looked at the context, taken some lessons and considered the motive of the other person.

Now it’s time to question the expectations.

When we take things personally, we often have certain expectations in our heads.

These expectations often take the form of thoughts like:

“I should have known that” or “I should have done better”.

Where do these “shoulds” come from? Yourself, or someone else?

Are they real? Or are they sitting inside your own head?

When you are the source of the expectations, you can always change them.

Let’s Be a Fly on the Wall

There are a couple of approaches I suggest for getting out of your own head for a little while, if you have a tendency to take things personally.

First, you can describe the situation as if you were a fly on the wall.

If you were a fly observing the situation, how would you describe it?

Write down what happened, and instead of writing “I”, use your first name instead. After all, a fly would never say “I”, because they’re watching you. They’d refer to you using your first name, of course.

This technique is called “psychological distancing” and can help you see the situation from a more objective standpoint. This can help to reduce the emotional response that you feel when recalling what happened.

Taking adviceNext, let’s pretend that this situation happened to someone else, who you know and respect.

What advice would you give them?

In most cases, I find that most of us would not say to this respected person:

“You’re an idiot and you should have done better.”

No, we’re usually much more forgiving and realistic when we’re thinking about someone else.

Giving advice to someone else can be a great way to generate good advice for yourself… for next time.

Learn More:  3 Ways to Reduce Unhelpful Thinking.

You Have a Choice Whether to Take Things Personally, or Not

It’s up to you whether you take things personally.

If you’ve been doing it for a long time, it can be a tough habit to break out of.

We don’t want to ignore opportunities for growth, but we also don’t want to heap scorn on ourselves.

Neither are a good path forward.

It’s your choice, and hopefully some of these ideas can help.

Do you tend to take things personally? How do you deal with it? Let me and all the thoughtful leaders know in the comments!

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