Are You Taking Things Too Personally?

I could tell when I entered the waiting room of my office that Samantha was having a bad day. She appeared depressed–she sat slumped in the chair and she was visibly upset. Her mascara was running and she looked like she had been crying. Unlike times when she was more upbeat, she was not distracting herself with her phone or a magazine.

As we entered my office, she mentioned that on her drive home from work she did something that she hadn’t done in over six months. She stopped at the market and bought two of her favorite pints of ice cream and ate both in her car. She had begun to lose weight in the last couple of months and she was furious with herself for slipping back into old patterns.

When I inquired as to what triggered the binge, she stated that she was “tired of being given crap projects at work and being excluded from staff meetings.” She had been working for a new advertising firm, as a designer, for less than a year, and was well aware that she was “low woman on the totem pole.” At age 29, this was her second job in the industry and her superiors were satisfied with her work. She still couldn’t stop herself from feeling slighted and taking it personally when the “juicy projects” were given to senior staffers. She was afraid that she might act out her displeasure at work and risk losing her job. 

She also shared with me that she was feeling excluded with her friends as well. One of her married friends, Evelyn, threw a dinner party recently and didn’t invite Samantha. When Samantha found out about it, she inquired as to why she hadn’t been invited. Evelyn shared that her husband had invited a few couples over, last minute, and that he hadn’t invited any single friends.  As Samantha calmed down and we reviewed both scenarios, she realized that neither her co-workers nor her friend Evelyn were trying to exclude her and that what was going on at work and home truly had nothing to do with her. But she couldn’t understand why these situations always felt so personal.

When we have had repeated experiences, especially during our early years, of being excluded (not invited to the party), passed over (not picked for the cool girl’s cheerleading team), unfairly teased, ignored or made fun of, we unconsciously store the memory of these wounding experiences in our body. Our body remembers the slights and keeps the score. Our brain circuitry is affected as well and it gets wired for reactivity and hypervigilance. These current situations feel very similar to the situations of the past. At times like these, we may feel flooded with feelings such as hurt, anger, shame, unworthiness and inadequacy.

Psychologist Albert Ellis, father of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, suggested that a person is not affected emotionally by what happens around them, but by their interpretation of what happens. And our interpretations are formed by our beliefs. Samantha and I identified the following beliefs that were leading her to personalize other people’s behaviors:

  • When co-workers shut doors for private meetings, they’re being exclusionary and unkind. 
  • When close friends exclude me from a dinner party, they’re being rude and disrespectful.
  • They are being unkind and disrespectful because they think that I’m not worthy of inclusion.
  • If people think I’m not worthy of being included, then they think I’m worthless.
  • If people think I’m worthless, then maybe I am. 

Clearly, this line of reasoning was triggering shame, anger and feelings of worthlessness in Samantha and understandably, she was worried she would act it out. So instead, she “acted it in” on herself; she binged.

As we dismantled her beliefs, Samantha became clear that she was personalizing the exclusion and overreacting. She realized that not every closed door at work had something to do with her and that as a junior designer, she was not going to get the choice assignments. Over time, she would be included and given more exciting work. She also knew that her close friends had a right to have a private dinner party with other married couples. And that this didn’t mean that they cared any less for her.

In the Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz, the second agreement is as follows:

Don’t take anything personally.

Don Miguel Ruiz writes : “Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you. What they say, what they do and the opinions they give are according to the agreements they have in their own minds.”

We’ve all been conditioned since birth to care about what other people think. We all want to belong and be accepted by others. But the truth is, how people treat us and what people think about us says more about them than about us. Our job is to watch our interpretations and when necessary, dismantle the underlying beliefs that are causing us distress. When we do this, we can clear through the mind clutter and see, in the clear light of day, that there are many explanations for the behavior of others and most of the time, it has nothing to do with us.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of Artur84 by FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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