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  • Writer's pictureKatie Lewis

It's Not You, It's Them (How to Stop Taking Things Personally)

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

I spent a good deal of my life feeling guilty for things that were outside of my control, including others’ actions. My friends, family, and I have joked that “sorry” is my favorite word. A younger version of myself thought the word meant I was a kind person. After all, I was just considering others' feelings. In more recent years, I’ve worked to be more intentional about my use of the word so it carries more weight when I use it.

It took a while, but I began realizing that I needed to learn how to stop taking things personally. But how?

Big Journeys Small Steps Quote

My Road to Stop Taking Things Personally

Along the way, I’ve learned that the actions, and reactions, of others say more about them than they do about me. I can’t be sure where I came across the concept, but once I did, I immediately knew I could no longer live without it.

For months, I recited the mantra silently, not yet having occasion to put it to use. One day, I was having an informal chat with a colleague about something work-related. Long story short, my colleague got visibly frustrated about something wasn't really related to my role. I was tempted to offer to "fix it," whatever that meant. But a little voice, barely audible, shouted, “Their reaction says more about them than it does about you!” I paused, listening to the mantra echo, nodded, and assured my colleague I understood their frustration without allowing the guilt to drown me.

Wow, was that liberating! I’d experienced the first sprouts of the seeds I’d so carefully planted months before. Because I believed the mantra, I simply had to repeat it to myself over and over until it took root. Each time I reminded myself that others’ actions said more about them than they did about me, I sent a signal to my psyche that the idea was true, that it was important, and that I valued what it meant.

A while later, a colleague I’d once had an imbalanced relationship with asked me if I wanted to have dinner. No, no I did not. I was no longer interested in associating with this person, and I wanted to send that message without making apologies.

It was a simple question, right? Someone wanted to have lunch. No big deal. Yeah, right. I agonized for days about what I would do.

Would declining the invitation somehow hurt my career? What would others think if they found out?
What if I just participated with a phony smile pasted on my face? That couldn’t do much damage, could it? It would maintain my image as a kind, people-pleasing idealist.
Maybe I should just ignore the text altogether. Yes, that would be easier.
Would my retired colleague, who I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over a year, be hurt? I didn’t want to come off as cruel.

I spiraled. I panicked. I hyperventilated. About a lunch invitation. To be fair, I was in the beginning, awkward stages of learning how to set healthy boundaries. In the end, I decided to decline the invitation to lunch.

Guess what happened. Nothing. Nothing of note, anyway. Time passed, the planet continued revolving around the sun, and I was able to exercise my baby boundary-setting muscles. Maybe my colleague will hate me forever more. Or maybe not. I’ll never know, and it’s not my business to care. More importantly, it doesn’t matter.

Just as other’s actions say more about them than they do about us, our own actions communicate more about us than they do about anyone else. Had I decided to attend the lunch with a manufactured grin on my face, I would have communicated to the world, including myself, that I would continue to sacrifice my own peace to preserve others' contentment. Our actions and reactions convey our values, broadcast our intentions, and announce our purpose to the world at large. This isn’t a concept to take lightly. The way we deliver these messages to those around us is critical. We must protect our values, our intentions, our purpose at all costs.

Once a challenge, this experience finally became a victory. Through the tears, the panic, and the agony, I thought I’d certainly make the wrong decision. I came dangerously close to faking the smile. In the end, I made the decision that aligned with my values and supported my progress. That’s how evolution sometimes looks and feels.

When we make a habit of taking things that others say and do personally, we set ourselves up for an existence buried in guilt. Over time, we develop a belief system that assumes we are responsible for others words and actions. That’s simply not true. We’re responsible only for our own actions and our own words. I encourage you to be thoughtful about how you interpret the information that enters your brain.

Reframe Your Thinking

How to Stop Taking Things Personally

  1. Start by reciting this sentence, or a version of it, to yourself regularly: "Others' words and actions say more about them than they do about me." Maybe you whisper it to yourself each morning when you’re still lying in bed. Perhaps you silently repeat the words to yourself while you’re brushing your teeth. You could try cycling through a few loops of it while on a walk. Remind yourself anytime you have the occasion to do so. After a while, your brain will believe it’s true.

  2. You'll eventually run into moments you can put your rehearsal to work. Your in-law makes an unwelcome comment about what you wore to a wedding. You choose to stay home from the third holiday party you’re invited to and the host sends you a nasty text admonishing you for not supporting them. A colleague rolled her eyes when your boss announced that you’d be chairing the social committee at work. In these challenging moments, remind yourself that the words and actions of others say more about them than they do about you. Breathe a sigh of relief, realizing you don’t feel weighed down by the guilt.

  3. Continue cycling through this process, refining as you go. Liberally and regularly congratulate yourself for successfully reframing your thinking.

If you’re like me, each challenge you face won’t end perfectly. Some successes are quick, some are slow, and some might not come at all. Give yourself grace. If one time you practice and it doesn’t go well, forgive yourself and try again. Make adjustments that might work better for you. Most importantly, communicate to the world your values. Each step forward is an important one, and every small victory is worth celebrating. Remember: progress isn’t linear. Continue communicating to your brain what you want it to believe and before you know it, your brain will believe you.

What ways can you start the process of taking things less personally? What sentence can you repeat to yourself that will help reframe your thinking? In what contexts can you try putting this practice into action?

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