Dealing with Difficult People-
Do You Take It Personally?
By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
All it takes is a look, a tone of voice, or certain words to knock us for a loop. We keep replaying it again and again in our mind: "What did he mean by that comment?" "I can't stand her attitude," "Did I say something wrong?" "Is she angry with me?" "Is she out to get me?" "What a jerk-why is he treating me this way?"
We all have to deal with toxic people–back-stabbers, saboteurs, complainers, or those folks who have to make someone "wrong" or "bad." Which type gets on your nerves the most? Maybe it's the boss or coworker who has an "attitude." Or the person who turns complaints into character assassinations. Or the one who micro-manages, leaving you no breathing room. Then there's the coworker who takes all the credit for a project or blames you for their mistakes? Or the colleague who freezes you out or stops talking to you with no explanation. And what about the one who asks too many personal questions or keeps borrowing your stuff and doesn't return it?
Do you find yourself taking it personally and overreacting?
Ways We Take Things Personally
When you take something personally, it happens so fast. You feel stunned. You lose your balance. You can't think straight. And then the hurt starts. You might freeze up and withdraw. You might be reduced to tears. You might explode into a blaze of rage. You wonder, "Where on earth did that come from?"
When we take things personally:
We perceive someone's actions as a personal affront.
We feel slighted or wronged.
We get upset when others don't see things our way.
We believe others are taking sides against us.
We feel blamed or blame ourselves.
Taking things personally is connected to feeling rejected – betrayed, judged, criticized, intruded upon, humiliated, or bullied. We feel "dissed" in some way – disrespected, discounted, or disapproved of (the list of "diss" words goes on and on.) Someone says or does something (or neglects to say or do something) and we find ourselves overreacting.
Misunderstandings Lead to Resentments
Misunderstandings all too often result in full-blown "personality conflicts." When misunderstandings lead to hurt feelings and anger, before you know it, resentment takes over. You can see how this kind of negative energy fills up space, leaving little room for connection or effective teamwork. And it surely affects productivity when so much time is spent dwelling on the exchange or fantasizing what we'd like to do to "get back."
It Ain't Much, but It's Home
It helps to remember that work situations are often a re-creation of the family in which we grew up – especially if it was Certifiably Dysfunctional. If you work with someone who ignores you, or insults you, or is heavy-handed, you may find yourself experiencing some of the same feelings you had as a child. And you may especially find yourself overreacting when situations arise that involve loyalties or alliances or secrets.
And you may be surprised at how members of our families seem to follow us to work. For example, when you are discussing a problem with your boss, you just think there are only two of you in the room. But in fact, there are generations of "family members" sitting behind each of you – voicing old family messages and beliefs. Every one of them wants to put in their two cents' worth to liven up the negotiations.
It helps to understand what contributes to these conflicts and how each person (including you!) is a player in the drama. By stepping back and being objective, you can learn to sidestep hurt feelings, misunderstandings, anger and resentments. You can create enough breathing room to make space for work and personal relationships to succeed.
© Elayne Savage, Ph.D.