Say you forget to do the dishes – a totally normal slip-up – and your partner makes a passing comment about the empty silverware drawer. Do you offer up a quick apology, wash the pile in the sink, then move on? Or do you take that passing interaction personally, dwelling on how much you suck and wondering deep down if your spouse can’t stand you?
If you tend toward the second example, you’re not alone. The everyday, ongoing stress of taking care of kids while, you know, attempting to function as an adult, can make even the most emotionally healthy person turn molehills into mountains. But that doesn’t mean taking things personally is a habit you should hold onto.
Janette Marsac, a therapist in New York City, says taking things personally is essentially attributing a negative outcome directly to yourself rather than to their actions or behavior. For example, if you forget your spouse’s birthday, you might tell yourself “I’m a terrible husband” rather than “I made a mistake.” Or if you enter the house and your child doesn’t greet you with energy, you could think that you’re doing something wrong rather than they’re a child and they also have moods. In both situations, the initial response self-shames; the second emphasizes the action.
Here’s why that’s a problem: When you place the responsibility on yourself, you project the adverse event onto your identity – which causes you to get defensive. Of course, that can cause some conflict in your relationship. But taking things personally will also make you feel stuck, because it ultimately prevents you from learning.
“When the responsibility is placed on an action, we’re more capable of positive change because we see it as something malleable,” Marsac says.
It’s natural to take things personally. We’re human, after all. But, especially for young parents where a lot of the stress of life can make you more likely to feel things a bit more intensely, it’s important to do what you can to change your perspective. Want to grow out of your self-destructive habit and form a healthier relationship in the process? Here are some therapist-backed tips for how to not take things so personally all the time.
1. Be Aware of Your Hang-Ups
Self awareness is a crucial skill— and it’s particularly useful in learning your triggers. As Parke Sterling, a Virginia-based therapist, points out, interactions or comments trigger insecurities, which are often blind spots. For example, if you’re freaking out about forgetting to do the dishes, you might have an underlying fear that your spouse doesn’t respect you or that people see you as irresponsible. When that insecurity kicks in, you might feel threatened and defensive.
One antidote, Sterling says, is simply to be aware of your hangups. “They’re really just patterns of thinking and feeling that are a natural result of each person’s genetics and conditioning,” he says. Once you recognize and accept your hang-ups, you can look at them instead of from them. Focus on recognizing when you’re triggered, slowing down to own it, and then determining if you want to act from your hang-up or your desire to grow as a person or connect with your spouse.
2. Watch how you talk to yourself
Once you pinpoint your insecurities in the moment, you’ll also want to keep working on them. Part of that work, Marsac says, entails keeping tabs on your internal dialogue – the self-talk that influences how you see yourself and, ultimately, how you behave in relationships.
For example, if you continually tell yourself stories throughout the week that you suck and your partner’s mad at you, you’ll filter every interaction through that narrative. Instead, work to challenge those thoughts.
Try simply reframing that negative self-talk with a caveat, such as “I can be forgetful about chores, but I’m working on it” or “I’m not the best listener, but I want to get better.”
3. Check in with your partner
Another big part of growing out of taking things personally? Involve your partner in the process. Nick Bognar, a California-based therapist, says looping your spouse into the conversation can help promote more realistic thinking, all the while strengthening your relationship.
For instance: If you’re ruminating on the dishes situation, tell your partner you’re worried they think you’re an asshole. “Tell them you really don’t want to make up a story that isn’t true, and that you want to check in with how they really feel,” Bognar says. Then, actually listen.
4. Take your partner at their word
Here’s the hard part: When insecurities are causing you to spiral, you’ll find any cognitive affirmation you can to solidify them. Work against that urge, and resolve to actually take your partner at their word when they tell you the truth about how they feel. As Bognar says, believing what someone else tells you is a sign of respect for them.
Once you resolve the issue, don’t second guess – it’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest when you provide an opportunity to open up emotionally.
“If they don’t tell you something you’re doing that’s bothering them when they ask, then that’s on them, not you,” Bognar says.
5. Enlist additional support
If your insecurities continually interfere with your well-being or taking things personally is taking a toll on your relationship, consider therapy.
“Talking to someone can be a good thing because there’s some part of you that learned to anticipate someone will be angry with you if you hear criticism and make it the worst thing possible,” Bognar says. “Therapy can help you understand where that mindset was implemented and why it doesn’t work.”
If the problem is taking an ongoing toll on your relationship, and nothing’s helping, a couple’s therapist can help – think of it as having a conversation in front of someone who can help you decode it.
Either way, know you’re not the only one struggling, and that growth – as uncomfortable as it can be – takes time. “All these changes are so easy to rattle off, but they’ll take practice for you to learn,” says Bognar.