Michaela had had enough.

From the moment she got to work at a high-growth healthcare startup to the moment she climbed into bed with her fiancé, it felt like she was getting hit from all sides. “Assailed,” is how she put it when she told me all this.

Chelsea, her boss, a brilliant but intense engineer, had stopped using the gentle tone and friendly smile she found endearing when she interviewed for her job. Instead, she sent terse emails, barked requests, and validated Michaela’s work only sporadically, even though Michaela thought she was extremely good at her job. Suddenly, she wasn’t sure.

“It felt like something had shifted between us,” Michaela explained. She had gone from being one of the golden children of the company’s early days to just another employee. When she asked for face time, she felt like a nuisance, “like I was a kid asking her mom to play when she didn’t feel like it.”

At home, a similar dynamic was playing out, but with different consequences.

James, Michaela’s fiancé, an economics Ph.D. candidate, had to unexpectedly extend his doctoral program by an extra year to finish up research. He was stressed out and feeling disenchanted with the field he had chosen. When Michaela tried to talk to him about it, he said little and often shut down, making her feel like she had done something wrong, even though their relationship had always been the one consistent bright spot in both of their lives.

As her job and her relationship grew more stressful, Michaela couldn’t help but feel responsible. If only she were smarter, more communicative, more sensitive, she could fix the problems pummeling her at very turn.

“It sounds like all of this feels very personal,” I said, after hearing Michaela describe these different challenges.

“It is personal,” she shot back.

“What I mean is, a lot of times people are going through their own stuff, and then we end up thinking it’s about us,” I explained.

“Yeah, but it’s my life. Even if that’s true, how can it not be personal? Everything is personal, right?”

And that, right there, is just one of the reasons that life is so damn hard.

That was also the moment I realized how many of us are wrestling with our own version of Michaela’s problem — feeling like everything that happens is about us, even when it probably isn’t.

How helpful would it be to not take things so personally? Or, at the very least, how helpful would it be to not take them as personally?

That’s what we’ll be exploring in this article — strategies for reducing the painful personalization of life.

But first, we have to ask the obvious question.

Why do we take things personally?

What Michaela was experiencing is known as personalization, one of the most common patterns of the human mind.

In the simplest terms, personalization is the tendency to assume personal responsibility for events over which we have little or no control.

When we personalize, we see the world happening not just around us but to us, and not just to us, but because of us.

We internalize the events we encounter — words, actions, developments, problems — and magnify our role in them. We take on not just the event itself, but the causality of that event, often believing that we are responsible for how it went down — especially when that event is negative.

In many ways, personalization is the opposite of blaming.

It’s really a form of self-blame. It takes our emotional response to an event and turns it inward, so that we become the primary mover.

The emotional effect of personalization can vary, but it usually involves some common sensations: burden, stress, anxiety, depression, burn-out, and a sense of extreme responsibility coupled — ironically enough — with powerlessness.

Personalization is just one of several so-called cognitive distortions — exaggerated or irrational beliefs that cause us to perceive reality inaccurately.

These cognitive distortions often lead to common psychopathologies — a fancy term for mental-emotional challenges — such as anxiety and depression.

As we talk about on the show, the thoughts we carry around play a major role in determining our reality. They have an intimate connection to our sense of self, our happiness, our feelings of stability and control, and our self-opinions.

In other words, personalized thinking often leads to a negative outlook, which contributes to a depressive or anxious mental state.

But why does the human mind personalize? Why would our brains be susceptible to cognitive distortions?

In short, because we have brains that are highly evolved and deeply limited.

The human mind is extremely good at finding causality in the world — if A, then B. “If I throw this spear this way, then I will hit the deer.” “If I avoid that plant, then I won’t get sick.” “If I don’t say the wrong thing, then the head of the tribe won’t expel me.”

This unique capability allows us to plan for the future and understand the world around us. It also gives us control over a chaotic universe. Causality reduces randomness and helps us shape events rather than merely react to them. So evolutionarily, it’s very adaptive.

But because we view ourselves as the center of our world, we begin finding ways of assuming we have a greater role in that causality.

This is partly a function of survival, but it’s also a function of narcissism — if we have a role to play in events, then we are more powerful, we matter, and we get to believe that whatever happens happens because of us.

In other words, personalization is a function of ego.

This isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s just a feature of our species.

Our egos — our selves, our identities — can’t not take things personally, because they experience everything personally. We can only experience life as ourselves, so everything that happens, by necessity, happens to us.

That’s why we feel negative events so intensely — why they “assail” us, to use Michaela’s word.

If we could drop that egoic lens — if we could somehow experience the world not as ourselves but as nobody in particular — then negative events wouldn’t feel as painful. As the Eastern wisdom goes, “No self, no problem.”

Except we do have a self, and so it is a problem.

And it’s a tough problem, too, because it seems to be a Catch-22.

We know we need to take things less personally, but we’re locked in a highly personalized experience.

Finding our way out of that paradox is one of the most important shifts we can make in life. That’s what we’ll be discussing next.

How to Stop Taking Things Personally

Investigate your thoughts.

When we take things personally, we perceive events as happening to us. That usually feels like a vague, generalized experience, but it’s actually comprised of very specific thoughts. So the best place to start is to look at those thoughts.

When I did this exercise with Michaela, we examined the thoughts — most of them unconscious — that she carried around about Chelsea and James.

In the first step, we actually wrote them down, so we could look at them more concretely.

Michaela’s Thoughts
If Chelsea is unhappy, then it must be because of something I did.
If the company is struggling, then it’s up to me to fix it.
If things are going badly at work, I must be bad at my job.
If James is unhappy/uninspired/unmotivated, then I’m not a good partner.
If James is unhappy/uninspired/unmotivated, then it’s on me to lift him up.
When Chelsea snapped at me yesterday, it was because I’m incompetent.
When James shut down last week, he made me feel unhelpful and irrelevant.

Next, we objectively investigated each of those thoughts one by one.

Were they true? If they were true, how did she know they were true?

If she knew they were true, how true were they?

And if they were mostly true, how did she know they said something about her?

In the second step, we added a column next to Michaela’s thoughts so we could look at the evidence.

Michaela’s Thoughts Facts
If Chelsea is unhappy, then it must be because of something I did.
  • Chelsea manages 18 people and 10 different workstreams
  • I’ve been doing good work despite Chelsea’s mood
  • Chelsea has an entire life outside of the company and our relationship
If the company is struggling, then it’s up to me to fix it.
  • Over 40 people work at our company
  • I can only realistically control my piece of the team and product
If things are going badly at work, I must be bad at my job.
  • There are many reasons a company can struggle
  • Maybe I could get better, but maybe the company would struggle no matter what
  • How good I am at my job is separate from how well the company does
If James is unhappy/uninspired/unmotivated, then I’m not a good partner/I failed him.
  • James had been unhappy with his program before we met
  • James told me that my conversations and support have actually helped
If James is unhappy/uninspired/unmotivated, then it’s on me to lift him up.
  • James’ feelings about work are not ultimately my responsibility
  • Maybe James SHOULD be unhappy with work, if it’ll lead him to something he loves
When Chelsea snapped at me yesterday, it was because I’m incompetent.
  • Sometimes I feel incompetent even when Chelsea doesn’t snap at me
  • Most of the time at work, I’m capable and valuable (and Chelsea has told me that)
  • Chelsea might have snapped for any number of reasons
When James shut down last week, he made me feel unhelpful and irrelevant.
  • James tells me all the time how much I add to his life
  • James struggling with work doesn’t mean our conversations are unhelpful

In this stage, Chelsea could see — literally on the page — how the facts didn’t fully support her thoughts. When she had the thoughts, they felt deeply urgent and very personal. When she investigated them, they seemed less urgent and much less personal.

But there was one more step to do.

In the third step, we reframed the thoughts in light of the evidence.

Michaela’s Thoughts Facts Reframed Thoughts
If Chelsea is unhappy, then it must be because of something I did.
  • Chelsea manages 18 people and 10 different workstreams
  • I’ve been doing good work despite Chelsea’s mood
  • If Chelsea is unhappy, it might be because of something I did.
  • But it could also be because of any number of things.
  • It’s up to me to ask / figure it out.
If the company is struggling, then it’s up to me to fix it.
  • Over 40 people work here
  • I can only realistically control my piece of the team and product
  • If the company is struggling, then it’s up to us as a team to fix it.
  • I’m not the only one responsible for / capable of fixing things.
If things are going badly at work, I must be bad at my job and/or a flawed person.
  • There are many reasons a company can struggle
  • Maybe I could get better, but maybe the company would struggle no matter what
  • If things are going badly at work, it could be because what we’re doing is hard.
  • The success of the company doesn’t depend entirely on the quality of my work.
  • The quality of my work doesn’t depend entirely on the success of the company.
If James is unhappy / uninspired / unmotivated, then I’m not a good partner/I failed him.
  • James had been unhappy with his program before we met
  • James told me that my conversations and support have actually helped
  • If James is struggling, then he’s identified an issue he needs to work on.
  • James’ feelings don’t automatically mean I failed him.
If James is unhappy / uninspired / unmotivated, then it’s on me to lift him up.
  • James’ feelings about work are not ultimately my responsibility
  • Maybe James SHOULD be unhappy with work, if it’ll lead him to something he loves
  • James is responsible for his own life.
  • If James is struggling, then I can be part of the solution. I don’t have to be ALL of it.
When Chelsea snapped at me yesterday, it was because I’m incompetent.
  • Sometimes I feel that way even when Chelsea doesn’t snap at me
  • Most of the time at work, I’m capable and valuable, and Chelsea has said that
  • When Chelsea snapped at me, I felt like I was incompetent.
  • I tend to feel incompetent when people snap at me, even when I’m not.
  • When Chelsea snaps at me, it’s because she’s expressing a feeling that could come from multiple sources.
When James shut down last week, he made me feel unhelpful and irrelevant.
  • James tells me all the time how much I add to his life
  • James struggling with work doesn’t mean our conversations are unhelpful
  • When he shuts down, I shut down, and then we both shut down — I do it too
  • When James shuts down, it might be because he’s struggling, not because of something I did.
  • I can be helpful and relevant even when I don’t solve James’ problems.

When we finished this exercise, Michaela looked up in surprise.

“Wow,” she said, a little thrown. “I feel like I invented 80% of this.”

Of course, she hadn’t “invented” anything. It all felt very real. And in the moment she bought into her personalized thoughts, it was real.

But it was personal because her thoughts made it personal.

And most of those thoughts were backed up by assumptions and beliefs that she hadn’t taken the time to really investigate.

Michaela’s reframed thoughts were very different. They were less certain, more flexible. They were friendlier. They didn’t have as many assumptions built into them. And because they were so much more open to possibility, they were much less about her — far less personal. Which made them way less painful. If they weren’t exclusively about her, then they couldn’t “assail” her anymore.

I emailed Michaela about a month later to ask how things were going. She wrote me back immediately. “So so so much better,” she responded.

Armed with her reframed beliefs, she said, she new had a roadmap for her interactions.

The next time Chelsea snapped, she noticed her mind assuming that it was about her. She would work back through this exercise in her head, and remember the ways in which she made Chelsea’s behavior personal. Eventually, she was able to jump straight to that non-personal place, just by remembering that she had already done the work. She still felt pangs of anxiety, but they weren’t nearly as constant or acute.

A few weeks later, after a particularly terse conversation, she finally got up the courage to ask Chelsea if she was mad at her.

Chelsea was stunned. “Of course not,” she said. “I’m just barely treading water and I’m way too tired to be nice all the time.” Michaela smiled in relief, almost amused to realize it wasn’t nearly as personal as she thought.

But when they talked it out, Chelsea did admit that she was, in fact, a little frustrated that Michaela looked so unhappy at work lately. Michaela explained that it might be because she assumed Chelsea’s feelings about her had changed.

Of course, neither knew that they were causing this  reaction in the other, and they actually laughed about it later that day.

Michaela also says she has a healthier relationship to the company. She knows what she can control. She doesn’t project responsibility for more than she can handle. Her work became more focused, and the time she spent worrying about hypothetical concerns dwindled, making her happier, sharper and far more efficient.

At home, things with James improved, too.

Thought he didn’t solve his career woes immediately, she found that she was a more present, supportive partner when she wasn’t fixated on the idea that she had to be the one to figure out his path. He also found himself more willing to open up when he didn’t sense that his professional frustration created an additional burden for her.

That is how investigated thoughts and reframed beliefs can have ripple effects across all our relationships.

Our personalized thoughts ignite personalized thoughts in other people. Their personalized thoughts then reinforce our own. We unconsciously contribute to this highly personalized hall of mirrors all the time — until we stop to look at the beliefs that make it up.

Notice what you’re getting out of personalization.

When Michaela did the thought-investigation exercise above, she also learned something that surprised her: how badly she wanted to personalize those experiences.

When she interpreted Chelsea’s reactions as a reflection of her competence, for example, she unconsciously wanted Chelsea’s mood to depend largely on her.

When she felt responsible for the entire company, she realized, she was also able to feel important, crucial, needed — which became important to her as she doubted her competence.

Similarly, when she took on James’ professional woes, she realized she was displacing her own career frustrations, and trying to resolve them through him. When she felt like she had failed to help him, she also felt she had failed herself. She realized that she actually wanted to believe that James needed her to be fulfilled, which she could only take on by personalizing his problems.

Even though taking things personally creates unnecessary pain, it also offers a number of hidden benefits to the ego.

Personalization puts us at the center of events (even when we’re not), makes us feel essential and necessary (even if we shouldn’t be), and gives us the illusion of control over how life unfolds (even when that control doesn’t exist).

On some level, the ego believes that if it doesn’t personalize, then it doesn’t matter.

If it does personalize, then it gets to thrive and grow larger — which, of course, leads to more opportunities to personalize!

So notice these unconscious “benefits” of personalization. Notice how your thoughts make you feel more important, necessary, or in control than you really are. Notice that the price you pay for this importance, necessity or control is your mental state — that you can’t personalize and be free of stress, anxiety or depression.

Once you see that, it becomes harder to cling to your personalization.

Investigate your influence.

As we’ve seen, a great deal of personalization depends on causality — the belief that we have a larger role in influencing events than we actually do.

Just as we should investigate our thoughts, we also have to examine the ways in which we cause events to unfold. When we do, we usually find that we assume more control over situations and people than we actually have.

Danny, a listener of the show, recently sent me an email about this exact issue.

For years, Danny dreaded going home for the holidays, where he found an intense family that operated primarily through conflict and judgment. After leaving his job at an ad agency to do freelance design work — which he found more authentic and more liberating — he found these gatherings even more hostile. Every question about his career felt like an attack on his choices. Every comment about his style felt like a critique of his identity. And when he volunteered information about his life, he was met with disapproving stares.

Danny’s family didn’t exactly sound like a picnic, but it was clear that he was personalizing a lot of the interactions he had with them.

After doing the thought-investigation exercise I did with Michaela, Danny found a number of highly personalized thoughts, including:

  • “My family doesn’t like the way I dress, so they don’t approve of my taste and choices.”
  • “When my mom asks how my freelance design work is going, she’s suggesting I made a mistake leaving the ad firm.”
  • “When I told my Dad that I preferred working freelance, I made him even more stressed.”

In addition to reframing his beliefs, I also encouraged Danny to put the causality of his thoughts under the microscope.

  • Exactly why did his clothes shape their perception of his choices?
  • How did his decision to go freelance appear like a mistake to his mom?
  • Was his career choice really causing his dad’s stress?

As we explored these questions, Danny slowly discovered that he might have overstated the agency he had within his family.

For example, when he interpreted comments about his dress as attacks on his identity, it was actually Danny who linked his clothes to his identity, not his family. What was really just a matter of taste had been magnified into a critique of his entire lifestyle.

He had also assumed that his family felt more strongly about his choices than they did. In reality, they were just commenting on what they considered a superficial aspect of his overall presentation.

Danny also realized that he still has unresolved anxiety about his decision to leave the ad agency. When his mom asked how work was going, for example, he projected that anxiety onto her, and assumed that her questions were a subtle criticism of his decision. In reality, his freelance career didn’t seem like a mistake. She was only asking if he was all right the best way she knew how.

And when it came to Danny’s dad, a similar process was at work. For as long as he could remember, Danny’s father worried about his kids. (This personalization exercise would have been great for him, too!) So Danny’s decisions didn’t really cause his dad’s stress. His dad was already stressed, and he simply attached that stress to Danny in that moment. It was actually Danny who caused Danny’s anxiety, by assuming that he had caused his father’s.

So as you work on your personalization patterns, look for the causality.

When you believe that you’re responsible for the way an event unfolds, ask yourself how.

When you feel that you are at the center of a situation, ask yourself why. Notice the ways in which your brain “fills in” the causal links that don’t necessarily exist.

Notice how you assume the causality that actually exists in someone else, or in the general dynamics of the situation.

When we personalize, we usually invent the causal links that seem to part of the situation we’re personalizing. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to make it about us!

Shift perspectives.

We can only personalize when we’re locked into our own experience. When we take a moment to empathize with the other party — by imagining what a situation is like from their point of view — it becomes much harder to exclusively view life through our highly personalized lens.

Michaela worked on this exercise alongside her thought investigation.

As she tested her beliefs against the facts, she also pushed herself to imagine the office from Chelsea’s perspective.

Upon reflection, she saw a boss with dozens of people and workstreams to manage every single day. She saw a dedicated person who was severely underslept and spread way too thin. She remembered that Chelsea mentioned having an ailing mom and a demanding family. She imagined how much harder it would be to speak gently every second of the day if she had so many responsibilities. Michaela even realized that Chelsea’s terse way of speaking was, from her perspective, a form of intimacy. She didn’t talk to anyone else in the office like that, which initially bothered Michaela. But because she and Michaela had worked together so well for so long, Chelsea probably felt she could be more direct.

The cure for personalization is empathy.

When we personalize, it’s usually because we’re not empathizing with the other person’s position.

When we do empathize with another person, we tend not to personalize as much, because we’re not locked into our narrowly self-oriented point of view.

That’s what Michaela discovered. She could no longer view her relationship with Chelsea exclusively from her side, which gave her access to more data to calibrate her experience of their relationship.

She didn’t abandon her point of view — that still mattered — but she was able to shift between her own experience and Chelsea’s experience, which allowed her to appreciate all of the variables at play. Variables, of course, that had nothing to do with her.

With that empathic perspective, her stress and anxiety reduced significantly, and her patience and understanding grew. Chelsea picked up on that shift and began treating Michaela with more empathy, too. Just like that, Michaela had transformed their dynamic.

Talk about it.

As we’ve seen, when we take things personally, we’re often forming implicit assumptions in our minds.

Oftentimes, testing those assumptions can reduce the associated anxiety. In other cases, we just can’t know if those assumptions are true — unless we talk about it with the other person.

Cooper, a furniture designer and listener of the show, recently shared a story with me about this process.

After starting a custom furniture company with his best friend — a very profitable but stressful business — he found himself struggling with more anxiety and anger than he ever had in his life. Neil, his friend and partner, found the new venture very stressful, and would often snap at Cooper and assign him blame for challenges in the company.

They still respected and loved each other, but Cooper found it impossible not to take Neil’s outbursts personally.

Was he to blame for all of their problems? Was he as good a designer as he thought he was? Could he run a successful company if he couldn’t keep his best friend happy and focused?

(You can see the similarities between Cooper and Michaela. At the end of the day, despite how subjective our experiences are, all personalization starts to look the same!)

Cooper did the exercises we’ve covered so far, but he still found himself taking things personally. So he decided it was time to talk to Neil about it.

In a calm, respectful, impartial way, Cooper pointed to specific moments in which he felt that Neil had accused him, challenged him, or made him feel like a difficult business partner. He explained that he wanted to understand whether he was really at fault in these conflicts, and whether he could work on anything to improve their relationship.

Neil was taken aback. He didn’t realize that Cooper had taken on so much of his frustration and anger. He was puzzled that his business partner would assume that he was at fault when Neil got angry.

But as they talked, Neil began to understand why Cooper viewed these attacks as personal. What Cooper didn’t know was that Neil was struggling with his competing roles as an entrepreneur, father and friend. He wanted the business to succeed more than anything, and when things got difficult, he tended to lash out in frustration. This was Neil’s first business, and he didn’t know it would be so difficult.

Cooper realized that this was Neil’s dynamic, and not a reflection of Cooper in the least. On the contrary — Neil said he was grateful to be working on something so difficult with a friend who really understood him.

That said, Neil did point out that Cooper had a few traits and behaviors that did upset him, and that he wanted Cooper to work on them. When he was presented with them honestly, Cooper realized that he did have some work to do on his end — that part of what he took personally was, to a healthy degree, personal.

This is the benefit of opening up to other people about personalization. This is empathy in action.

By discussing their personalization openly, Cooper and Neil were able to parse their conflicts to figure out which pieces they were actually responsible for, and which they had incorrectly assumed. Their working relationship took on a whole new tone, and Cooper’s mental health outside of the company improved dramatically.

Which leads us to our final — and perhaps most important — principle.

Take some things personally.

When we talk about not taking things personally, we often think about how to not take anything personally. If we could just viewing things so damn subjectively, the thinking goes, we’d finally be free!

But that isn’t realistic — and it isn’t healthy.

The truth is, some things are personal. We do have a role to play in events. We should take on some responsibility for how our lives unfold.

That’s what Michaela, Danny and Cooper all discovered through their exercises. They found that they had been taking huge swaths of their lives far too personally, but that there were other pieces — behaviors, choices, qualities, decisions — that they didn’t take personally enough.

While they were so fixated on taking responsibility for other people’s reactions, they had lost sight of responsibility for their own.

Our job is not to stop taking things personally. It’s to take the right things personally.

How do we take the right things personally?

  1. Ask yourself a few key questions.

How much influence/control do I actually have over this person/event/decision/relationship?

What can I do to ensure that this person/event/decision/relationship unfolds as productively and peacefully as possible?

In a world where I can’t be responsible for everything at once, which aspects of my life require the most of my time and energy?

All of the principles we’ve discussed in this article are also good exercises in this step. In short, figure out how much of your life you should be personalizing, and which specific pieces you should be personalizing.

  1. Translate those answers into specific action.

If you find that you’re responsible for something, then parse out the specific pieces you’re responsible for — the deliverable, the conversation, the emotional reaction, the offer to help, the apology, etc. Every personalized thought implies a task. Identify that task, and be specific. “Write that email.” “Finish that presentation.” “Pop into that office to offer your help.” “Check and see if she’s okay.”

Then, focus your time and energy on completing that specific task. By executing on the specific action, you translate your healthy personalization into concrete value.

That’s how we can make personalization truly serve us.

  1. Monitor your level of personalization.

After taking action, do you still find yourself taking things personally?

If so, then ask yourself if you’ve pursued all of the actions related to the issue at hand.

If you’ve done all you can do in this moment, then that’s a good sign that your brain is still trying to take on more than it’s truly responsible for, and you can choose to release it.

If not, then you can rest assured that your healthy personalization has served you well. You’ve taken responsibility for your piece, and you’ve acted up on that responsibility.

Over time — in the bigger picture — check in with yourself to monitor your tendency to personalize.

Notice if it increases or decreases with this new awareness and strategy.

Take stock of your emotional reactions when life gets hard, and notice the ways in which your brain wants to assume responsibility and control over elements that have nothing to do with you.

Return to these exercises, and use them to understand and calibrate your personalization as it pops up.

That’s how we can use personalization to make our lives happier, richer, and more productive — not by learning how to stop taking all things personally, but by learning to personalize the right things, and then translating them into action.

[Featured image by Japrea]


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