Emotional Intelligence, Negative Habits of Mind, Self Protective System, Self-Awareness, Striving Styles

Ever take things too personally?

“Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dreams. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”~ Don Miquel Ruiz

Why are we so quick to take things personally? Do we actually believe that everything is always about us? In fact, research suggests that we significantly overestimate how much we are singled out and judged by others. When someone says something negative or nasty about you, it actually says more about them. Right now, you can make a decision to no longer emotionally react to other people’s issues (see previous post respond rather than react). It takes practice and patience to stop taking things personally but once you accomplish it, your life will become completely transformed.

“You don’t have to control your thoughts, you just have to stop letting them control you.” Dan Millman.

Taking things personally is an automatic negative habit of mind where you make everything about you. It’s like you’re the center of everything that happens and where you believe that all situations have something to do with you, which in reality isn’t true. When you believe you are the cause or the object of negative events, then you are personalizing. Here are a few examples of personalizing:

  • If a friend seems distant, if a boss is angry about something, if your sister doesn’t call, you see yourself as the cause of their emotions and behaviour.   
  • If your co-worker doesn’t greet you like they normally do, you start thinking about what you might have done wrong to upset them, when really it has nothing to do with you. Maybe they had a fight with their spouse before coming to work. 

How to stop taking things personally

  1. Avoid jumping to conclusions. Give the benefit of the doubt to the other person and remember to listen to their entire story, then ask questions to clarify their viewpoint. Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly when you are being confronted. Don’t make assumptions about judgment or criticism seemingly directed at you. Maybe it’s not about you at all, but about them and their own projected perceptions. In fact, it’s almost always about them, their issues, their needs.
  2. Make decisions on your self-worth and not on what others say or think about you. Eleanor Roosevelt said “no one can make you feel inferior without your permission” so don’t give them your permission. Realize that your self worth depends on you and not what others say about you. Of course, relationships will always play a prominent role in our life. But the more you know about yourself, the less you will need others to tell you about yourself.
  3. Take a different perspective. Ask yourself how an unbiased outsider might view this situation. Ask yourself what might be impacting that persons behaviour such as, they’re having a bad day, their personality type, etc. If they were rude to you, it’s almost never about you but a reflection of their own issues.
  4. Understand your predominant personality type or Striving Style. Each of the eight striving styles have a dominant and/or preferred communication style. Learning about your predominant needs and fears, as well as that of others, will offer a deeper insight into how you respond and what might trigger you. Learn more.
  5. Consider the big picture. Instead of taking someone else’s comments personally, take a moment or two and think about the bigger picture. What do the people who know you best think about you? Doesn’t their opinion matter more than this person?
  6. Give up your judgement. Most of us have preconceived notions about people and situations. It’s just the way we are. That being said, no one likes to be judged. When we let that judgement go, it frees us up to see the person and situation in a whole new way. By giving up the judgement, we might actually find out what the real issue is.
  7. Practice being strong. Strong in who you are and what you believe. When we have confidence in ourselves, it’s much easier to stay neutral and avoid buying into somebody else’s baggage or their issues.
  8. Be aware of your triggers. If you are a sensitive person you likely have radar that constantly catches negative comments that hurt you. Know what makes you feel vulnerable. When you are aware of your sensitive spots, the things that trigger your emotions and reactions, you can prepare yourself if an interaction arises that attempts to draw you in. When we take something personally it’s often related to rejection in some way. Something has happened in the past that triggers our limbic brain, the emotional center of our brain. Do you know what triggers your emotional responses? If you do, that’s great. Recognizing the triggers is the first step in disengaging. When we take something personally we do not stand in our own power but buy into others weaknesses.
  9. Think about comments or criticism as a growth opportunity. When faced with critical comments, take them in a constructive way. Ask yourself if there is any truth to it and what you can learn. Ask yourself how you can grow and let the rest of it go.
  10. Create a space between yourself and your reactions. Your initial response might be to react emotionally. If possible, don’t follow that knee-jerk reaction. Take the time to rein in your emotions and assess what’s really happening before you respond (refer to my post on respond rather than react). In general, it’s a good idea to create a healthy personal space around yourself. When you create some space or buffer between yourself and another person, personal boundaries have less chance of being crossed or blurred.
  11. Let go of the need to please. Realize that you can’t please everyone. Work to reduce the impossible demand that you need to be perfect.
  12. Listen carefully to gain clarification. Hopefully, your emotions will take a back seat while you ask this individual to fully explain what’s on their mind and what they want from you. Listen carefully before you respond so you can discern what makes sense and what doesn’t (Refer to my post Are you listening?).
  13. Enlist some support. Seek counseling or enlist the help of a trusted friend to help shift your perspective on yourself and others.

If you practice these techniques over and over you will re-wire your brain and find yourself becoming more neutral and less affected by someone else’s negativity. As you develop these techniques you will stand in your own power and confidence.

When you find yourself thinking that someone else’s behaviour was caused by you or their feelings about you, think about other options or reasons why they might be behaving the way they are.  Or, consider why they might be behaving the way they are if you weren’t in the picture.  Notice how your emotional reactions change when you recognize that their behaviour is not about you.

Don Miguel Ruiz talks to Oprah about Agreement #2: How to Not Take Things Personally

Now, your turn:

Reflect on recent situations in which you have taken things personally. How did you make it about you, (What did you tell yourself? How did you interpret their actions?), and how did it affect your behaviour? Now think about other possible interpretations of the situation that don’t attribute the cause to you. Share in the comments.

Photo by Madison Inouye from Pexels

Negative Habits of Mind, Self Protective System, Self-Awareness, Striving Styles

Do you Catastrophize?

 “I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life.  Most of them never happened.” ~ Mark Twain

When we’re stressed our brain can get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours such as excessive worrying, difficulty focusing, or dwelling on negative experiences. Our brains can get stuck catastrophizing.

So what does it mean to catastrophize?  It’s a common habit of thinking about something and making if far worse than it actually is, creating a worst-case scenario, causing fear and anxiety.  Some call it magnifying which is a good way to think of it, because it emphasizes how we can magnify things way out of proportion, dreaming up scary scenarios, going far beyond simple exaggeration, linking one imagined event to another until we’re paralyzed with fear, going from one scary thought to the next. It magnifies or exaggerates something small or minor into a much bigger, graver situation. It’s when you make small errors but treat them like big ones – “I made a mistake, I’m such an idiot, I’ll probably get fired”. Catastrophic thinking is a whole other level of negativity (refer to my previous post negativity bias). When you imagine the worst case scenario, the what if’s, you will get scared or become angry.   

Catastrophic thinking is a habitual response to challenges or shortcomings such as how you think about failing or how you respond to challenges.  It starts with the belief that something terrible will happen, or that you can’t recover.   People with anxiety imagine losing control of themselves, for example, they think they’ll have a panic attack if they go to the mall and imagine it’ll be a catastrophic, rather than just simply uncomfortable.  Expecting the worse case is an excellent way to make yourself anxious, depressed, unmotivated and completely ruin your life. 

So how does catastrophizing mess us up?  We’ve all experienced some type of tragedies in our life, including painful rejection or failure.  We believe that if we trick ourselves into believing that if we expect the worst, we can prevent it from happening. But in reality, the exact opposite happens.  Seeing the worst often leads to the worst, because we not only cut ourselves off from opportunities, we actually end up inviting the exact problems we are hoping to avoid.  If we go into a conversation expecting the other person will be defensive, we come in ready to attack and lead off more harsh, thus inviting the other person to be defensive.  Catastrophizing invites depression as the future is seen as dreary, hopeless, leading to a cycle of withdrawing from life, a lack of motivation, and a pattern of depression.  It invites anxiety by forcing our brain to see threats and failures everywhere and our brain responds to perceived threats as very real fear response – flight, fight, freeze response. This contributes to social anxiety and leads to paralysis.

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t, said Pooh. After careful thought Piglet was comforted by this.

Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)

Examples of catastrophic thoughts, and how you can think differently

If or when you catch yourself catastrophizing, think of what might help you.   What could you consciously and mindfully say to yourself when you think these thoughts?  Ask yourself if it’s real or imagined. Here are a few examples:

Catastrophic thought: Oh no, I’m such an idiot, I made a mistake on the report,  I’m never going to finish it,  or even if I do finish it, it will be so bad, it won’t be any good anyway.  I’m going to get fired no matter what.

Replace with: Ok wait, that’s not true.  Everyone makes mistakes, I’m only human, I’ll fix this problem, or mistake, and if I need to ask for help I can but I’ll keep working hard and try to be more careful in the future.  Nobody is going to fire me for making a mistake in a report.

Catastrophic thought: I can’t believe I said that to my boyfriend.  He’s going to leave me for sure this time. 

Replace with: I shouldn’t have said that to my boyfriend. I need to learn to talk more kindly even when I’m upset.  I’m going to try and apologized, and try and make it right.  Hopefully he’ll understand  and accept my apology and we’ll both learn from this.

Catastrophic thought: My husband is late coming home from work. I’m sure he’s been in a car accident or something terrible has happened. I’ll probably get a call from the police or the hospital.

Replace with: I know he’s been really busy at work and I’m sure he’s just got caught up in a meeting and forgot to call. I’ll let him know that I worry when I don’t hear from him, and ask him to message me next time he thinks he’ll be late.

Catastrophic thought: I haven’t heard from my friend for over a week. She must not like me or want to be my friend anymore.

Replace with: I haven’t heard from my friend for over a week. She must be incredibly busy. I’ll give her a call to see how she’s doing and let her know I’m thinking about her.

Catastrophic thought: I heard rumors that my company is having financial troubles, and I just know I’m going to lose my job, my home, and end up penniless on the street.

Replace with: I’m curious if these rumors are true and maybe I’ll go talk to my manager. And even if it’s true, the worse case scenario is I lose my job. I’ll know I’ll be fine and get another job, maybe even a better one.

Why do we catastrophize?

Catastrophizing essentially serves two dysfunctional functions:   

1) Preparing for the worse is a coping strategy preventing us to feel risk or uncertainty.  If I expect myself to fail I won’t be disappointed if I do.  If I reject myself first, I don’t have to worry that someone will do it to me.  Catastrophizing is a way to avoid feeling and to protect ourselves from feeling sadness or worry. Yet paradoxically, when we try not to feel we often end up becoming depressed and anxious.  Expecting the worst also justifies not even trying and attempts to excuse our failure before we put in an effort. No wonder it feels more safe and comfortable than putting your heart out there.  While it’s comfortable in the short term it’ll crush the joy out of your life in the long run.  You’re not risking failure but you can’t have success either.  You’re not getting rejected, but you’re still alone on the weekend. 

2) The belief that fear is the best motivation. Motivating ourselves to study, go to work, etc. by using fear and predicting doom and gloom, like, we’ll end up working in a dead-end job, living on the streets, or be all alone, works briefly as a motivator but over the long term causes us to become anxious, depressed, overwhelmed and less functional.   It’s not a sustainable source of motivation.   

How you can feel better?

  • Get more sleep. Getting a good night sleep will give you a greater ability to face challenges bravely; when we are sleep deprived we are hyper sensitive to threats and lack resilience when facing challenges. 
  • Stick with the facts. Focus on the specifics to keep your mindset clear and focused on the only thing you can control – your reaction. You are not your thoughts or feelings.  The difference between a thought that sticks in your brain and one that floats on by is what we choose to make of it.
  • Set positive goals. Motivate yourself by what you do want in life, what you value,and hope for instead of using fear. For example, instead of saying I need to go to school so I don’t end up on the streets, you say, I want to go school because I want to be a teacher, doctor, (you fill in the blank).  Choose what you do want in life, break it down in to small goals, and bravely work towards those little by little.
  • Stay present and engaged even if a risk of not going perfecting involves vulnerability. Risking failure or hurt to have success and joy involves staying engaged even if things don’t go perfectly.  The only alternative is to guarantee failure by cutting yourself off before you even try.
  • Accept uncertainty as a natural and acceptable part of living a wholehearted life. This is fundamental life skill that can be developed and practiced.  It involves changing how you think about anxiety.  Instead of labeling a situation as bad or harmful or you can’t handle it, you can say, this is uncomfortable, but it won’t injure me and I can do hard things. Embrace acceptable risk and the anxiety that comes with it as natural normal and helpful.  Build up your emotional muscles so you can experience uncomfortable emotions by practicing mindfulness, meditation, or doing something that scares you every day.

Practice mindfulness

  1. Start by noticing when you are catastrophizing. What are the words or exaggerations you use to make things worse than they are, such as never, always, terrible, failure, horrible, rejected, awkward.  Notice the situations that you tend to catastrophize about. Write down what it looks like when you do it.  Ask a friend or family member to point it out when you do. 
  2. Challenge those thoughts – just because you think it doesn’t mean it’s true.  Learn to notice and gently question your thoughts.  You don’t have to believe everything you think but don’t beat yourself up for your thoughts – it’s not very helpful.  Notice your thoughts, then let them pass. 
  3. Replace thoughts with something more honest and helpful.  Once you start to notice this type of thinking, begin to combat with more honest, more rational thoughts.  Consider other possible outcomes. Even if something bad did happen, you could learn from it it wouldn’t be the end of the world. 
  4. When you find yourself starting to imagine the worst-case scenario, grab a sheet of paper and write down what you’re telling yourself.  Then for each statement, ask yourself, “Is it real?” and then cross off everything on your list that is not real

Now, it’s your turn:

When was the last time you catastrophized? What was the situation? How did it affect your behaviour? What might you say to yourself when you find your imagination creating a worst-case scenario? Share your examples in the comments.

Meditation, Mindfulness, Negative Habits of Mind, Self-Awareness, Striving Styles

Cultivating Happiness: Understanding your Negativity Bias

“If you can extract happiness out of common, everyday moments you will have captured the art of happiness.” ~ Elle Sommer

Do you find yourself dwelling on bad memories and experiences?  Do you tend to fixate on one little negative comment, criticism or feedback? When you’re hurt, upset, or angry with someone, do you fixate on everything you don’t like about them or focus on their flaws? It’s so much easier to focus on the laundry list of bad things about them and why they pissed you off. Thinking about that persons good points takes a lot of energy, and it’s easier to think of all the things you don’t like about them. Maybe you find that you often ignore all the positive events that are happening (or have happened) and focus primarily on the negative or what didn’t happen? We can become consumed with our negative qualities or on negative experiences while ignoring our positive characteristics and experiences.

If you can relate to this, you might get some comfort in knowing that you are not alone.  It comes down to human evolution. Our brains have been programmed over thousands of years to focus on the negative, which was once helpful in protecting us from being eaten by wild animals or eating poisonous plants. Our survival was dependent upon remembering those negative experiences so we didn’t die. This default in our brain is referred to as a negativity bias and causes us to remember or focus more on negative memories than good ones. These automatic negative thoughts can trigger our self protective system (SPS) which can have a powerful effect on our behaviour, our decisions, and our relationships.  Today, this negativity bias is less useful and is ultimately damaging to our overall sense of happiness and well being. It often results in us focusing on unnecessary worries and fears and having a less optimistic outlook on life. 

These negative memories are stored and recalled in our emotional brain, known as the basal ganglia, the strongest part of our brain that recognizes and repeats patterns until told otherwise.  While the basal ganglia is the strongest part of the brain, our prefrontal cortex, or the logical “manager”, understands long term benefits and consequences. The good news is, because of the brains plasticity, our prefrontal cortex can override the basal ganglia.

Cultivating your inner strengths

Understanding how you think and how your brain works is key to cultivating your inner strengths and changing your automatic negative habits of mind. Reprogramming your brain starts when you become aware of how often you think the same negative thoughts about your self or make situations worse by making up stories about what is going on. Recognizing your automatic negative thought patterns and focusing on the positive takes a conscious effort and lot of work. Mindfully refocusing your thinking and responding to events with greater awareness and consciousness will help to build your inner strengths, thus allowing you to feel stronger, more secure and resilient.

To cultivate your inner strengths you must begin to orient yourself and your awareness towards those everyday moments of happiness and satisfaction. To linger in them, savor them, allowing them to touch you and soak into the fabric of who you are. When you allow yourself to linger in these everyday moments of happiness and satisfaction, you not only experience happiness in that moment, but you’re also strengthening the neuropathways in your mind, which leads to greater happiness and well-being.

This is not as easy as it sounds thought. Especially when we add busyness, stress, anxiety or  a sense of overwhelm of everyday modern life. We may find ourselves going through our day seeing life as a whole lot of little challenges to be overcome, mishaps to be avoided, fires to be put out, rather than as a series of opportunities for happiness, fulfillment, connection, meaning, and satisfaction. Modern day life coupled with our negativity bias means we move through our days allowing our negative experiences to really stick while those positive experiences slide off without having the opportunity to become absorbed into our awareness. 

Let’s take a moment to think about this.  Can you think back to a time when you let a small inconvenience taint your day or really get to you? Such as bad traffic, a slow driver, a chaotic morning, or an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague or friend. Or maybe you can think back to a time at work when you received some overall positive feedback about your performance with just one suggestion for improvement. Instead of seeing this for what it really was you only focused on the suggestion for improvement, taking it as a personal criticism or even as insult. Or perhaps you enjoyed a lovely weekend with family and friends but let one slightly critical comment made by a friend or relative really sink in and take over the overall feeling of happiness and connection that was actually present during this time together.  Or what about all the small acts of kindness that you receive each day that go by largely unnoticed such as  when you partner brings you a coffee or when the person serving you at the restaurant serves you with extra attention.  Or what about when a colleague holds the door for you, when a stranger smiles at you in the street, or when another driver lets you in.  What about all the good decisions you make, the movements in your day that go by without a hitch, the times when life just runs smoothly.  These are the moments that we let slide right off without being absorbed into our awareness, or into our minds and hearts.  Yet these are the everyday opportunities that hold the seeds of our happiness and fulfillment. 

How can you turn ordinary everyday moments into an opportunity for happiness?

According to Neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson “every time you take in the good you build a little bit of neurostructure… doing this a few times a day will gradually change your brain and how you feel and act in far reaching ways.” Firstly, we need to wake up from the modern day trance of busyness and move from our minds into our bodies, hearts, and the present moment and turn our attention to the moments of good that are right in front of us.  From here we become more open and receptive to the everyday opportunities for happiness that exist for each of us throughout our days. 

“Every time you take in the good you build a little bit of neurostructure… doing this a few times a day will gradually change your brain and how you feel and act in far reaching ways.”

Dr. Rick Hanson

These moments will look and feel different to each of us.  Then we must linger in these moments of happiness using our breath and attention to help transform these experiences from passing states into enduring traits. Recent studies in neuroscience suggest that in order create these new neuropathways we need to stay with these experiences for at least 15-20 seconds or about  4 to 5 breaths.  Amazingly, we can also build this neuropathway by focusing our attention on past or present experiences of happiness and fulfillment. By taking the time to recall a happy experience, allowing it to land in your body, mind and heart, you are helping to strengthen these pathways. 

Meditation is a powerful way to strengthen our neuropathways as the very act of meditation allows for a focused awareness, for a natural presence, a slowing down.  During meditations, spend time recalling past experiences as well as enjoying present moments experiences of happiness.  Meditation allows us to experience things in our minds, bodies, and hearts. 

Now, it’s your turn

What happened this week that was good? Describe something that you are excited about. Tell us what makes you happy. What’s going well? What are you grateful for? Share in the comments.

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