Women are often criticized for taking things too personally. But when someone says something rude to you, how do you not take that personally? “Please don’t take this personally, but your presentation sucked.”
How can that not feel like a personal attack or heighten your insecurities and hurt your feelings? Everything is personal. If you yell at me, that’s personal. If you dismiss, disrespect, or disparage me and my opinions, that’s personal.
Or maybe not.
Every situation is different, and sometimes criticism is personal and sometimes it’s not. Criticism comes from the other person’s experience, truth, worldview, and preferences. Constructive criticism is different from non-constructive criticism (or destructive criticism). I had a boss who criticized my writing. After I spent an hour crying in the bathroom, I had to filter his criticism through his preferences. The fact that he didn’t like my writing didn’t mean that I can’t write. It did mean that he wasn’t going to ask me to write for his department because he doesn’t like my writing style.
How you react depends on many things: how it’s delivered and how you interpret it.
How We Take Things Personally
As if it’s not bad enough to work our way through the emotional roller coaster of criticisms we get from other people, it turns out we are way harder on ourselves than others are on us. Taking things personally often comes from having low self-esteem. Because we are prone to assuming the worst about ourselves, we assume that others think the worst about us, too.
There are two ways we take things personally: it starts with someone else criticizing you, then shame spirals into self-criticism or internalizing that other person’s opinions.
When someone criticizes you, you may find that it’s impossible for you to have an emotional detachment — rather, you do the opposite and their point of view and then hate yourself for it. The criticism plays over in your mind over and over again. So you hear, “Please don’t take this personally, but your presentation sucked.” Which, of course, you take very personally and get mad at the person who criticized you, but THEN you beat yourself up for being such a stupid idiot for all the things you did wrong in your presentation.
It’s easy to fall into a shame spiral of self-hate.
Recently I was walking through a doorway and a nice gentleman opened the door for me. I smiled and said, “Thank you!” When he walked through the door, he said, “Sheesh, YOU’RE WELCOME” in a snarky way. I guessed that he didn’t hear me say thank you. Here’s how the shame spiral works if you take it personally:
- He held open the door for me;
- He thought I didn’t say thank you and criticized me for my rudeness; so
- I spend the rest of the day feeling like a jerk, even though I did the right thing and it was all a misunderstanding.
- I know that I did the right thing, even though he didn’t hear me. I feel bummed for a minute but then let it go.
The women I work with say this, over and over again: “He interrupted me in a meeting and I yelled at him in front of everyone. I am so embarrassed that I lost control and looked like an idiot.” Or “I was five minutes into my presentation and he asked me an irrelevant question. I spent the rest of my time defending stuff related to the question and didn’t have time to present the stuff that matters, that I was there to present. I’m so mad at myself because I didn’t know how to retake control of the meeting. I looked weak in front of everyone.” Or “One of the directors said in front of everyone that I talk too much and need to get to the point. I could barely respond. I was so mad at him but then ashamed of myself. It must be true or he wouldn’t have said it.” Or “I disagreed with the plan of action in a meeting and my boss told me I had to apologize to the VP. I was embarrassed at her calling me out but then mad at myself for speaking up and putting myself at risk like that.”
The thing is, this stuff happens all the time — and not just to women. The men I work with report the same things as true.
The Benefits of Not Taking Things So Personally
It’s still a man’s world in corporate America. The modern work place was built by and for men, so there are things women just have to do to get ahead AND get along, one of which is to quit taking things so personally.
Even when people are rude and disrespectful. Yes, even then. Maybe especially then!
When you take things too personally, you're also giving power away to the person who criticized you or your work. You're letting him control what you think and how you feel about yourself. Take the power back!
When you stop taking things personally:
- You stop wasting time mulling things over and over in your head, rewinding and stopping the tape at the moment when you could have said something different. Think of all the time this will free up for more productive things!
- You’re able to focus on the end goals and not the little bumps along the road. Think of this like being on a long road trip. You want to make stops at all the wacky roadside attractions along the route. You’re so excited to see the largest ball of bubblegum in the world, but when you get there you realize that you misread the hours and they won’t reopen until tomorrow. Oh well, you move on, bummed that you made a mistake but knowing that the three-headed alligator is only 50 miles away.
The Benefits of Disagreements at Work
The work world is getting more diverse and with diversity sometimes comes disagreements. There’s a good chance that everyone on your team thinks differently about what a good presentation is or what good writing is.
When you take things too personally it KILLS dialogue, which often involves disagreeing with other people, and thus kills creativity and relationships.
To be effective in a diverse company culture, you have to be able to voice your opinion, even when it differs from the status quo. But that works the other way, too. When people disagree with you, you have to be able to hear it without taking it personally. Before you immediately jump in with your defense, actually listen to what the other person is saying.
Women often complain that they get interrupted, and it’s true, male dialogue patterns include interrupting and one-upping in order to take control. I’m not talking about rude, clearly sabotaging behavior that attacks you to bring you down. I’m talking about how we talk to one another and are able to disagree, continue talking, and walk away knowing that we’re on the same team, willing to keep the dialogue going.
If you take things personally, you can’t do this. And in a time when we’re on the precipice of breaking the glass ceiling, this is a critical skill.
Is the Disagreement About You?
Sometimes criticism is about you, and sometimes it’s not.
- When it’s NOT about you…ask yourself is this person always rude or critical? Is this person having a bad day and took it out on you? You might be surprised that people who are rude often have NO IDEA that they’re being rude. That doesn’t mean you have to be okay with their rudeness, but it does mean that you don’t have to take it personally because it’s not about you.
- When it IS about you…ask yourself: is it true? If so, consider it a gift of feedback, regardless of how rudely it was delivered. I have a client who was told that she talks too much and needs to get to the point. And it’s true. After she got mad at the criticism and had a huge pity party, she started asking around to find out if it was true. She asked her peers to help her, to tell her the truth. It turns out that she said, “Like I said” and “As I said before” many, many times in her presentations and conversations. In the end, she was still mad about the way it was delivered but was grateful to know about it so she could get better.
How Can You Stop Taking Things So Seriously?
Here’s what I’ve learned from teaching people to negotiate for 23+ years. I dug deep into those communication, persuasion and influence skills to help me move forward.
1. What you think: Not taking things personally starts in your head, by stopping that self-sabotaging dialogue from your inner critic who rears her ugly head and screams, “That was so stupid! Why did you say that?!”
Here’s how to turn negative self-talk into a positive by using the “maybe” trick.
It sounds like this:
“He interrupted me in a meeting and I yelled at him in front of everyone. I am so embarrassed that I lost control and looked like an idiot….or maybe he interrupts everyone and everyone was secretly happy that I yelled at him…maybe I’m a hero!”
“I was five minutes into my presentation and he asked me an irrelevant question. I spent the rest of my time defending stuff related to the question and didn’t have time to present the stuff that matters, that I was there to present. I’m so mad at myself because I didn’t know how to retake control of the meeting. I looked weak in front of everyone.….or maybe he was trying to take over the meeting to make himself look good because he’s insecure and it has nothing to do with ME."
Want to read more about this? Download my free eBook, “Three steps to get a grip before you say something you regret.”
2. What you say: “One of the directors said in front of everyone that I talk too much and need to get to the point. I was so mad at him but then ashamed of myself. It must be true or he wouldn’t have said it.….or maybe he was just being a rude jerk and it has nothing to do with ME.”
When someone is being a jerk, you may need to show confidence and strength. You don’t have to be a jerk in response, just be clear and concise in your response. “I have 30 minutes on the agenda and plan to stick to that time.”
In the book Talking from 9 to 5, linguist Deborah Tannen points out that women position themselves as friends where men position themselves as opponents. When you have an intentionally oppositional confrontation at work, such as in this situation, consider that the men are (unconsciously) testing you. Men often rise to the occasion when they are challenged, with an adrenaline boost to sharpen their thinking. Women, on the other hand, become more fearful of making an enemy (or losing a friend) if they respond in kind.
“I disagreed with the plan of action in a meeting and my boss told me I had to apologize to the VP. I felt like a second grader being scolded.….or maybe he feels like his job is at stake and it has nothing to do with ME.”
Get curious. Ask some questions: “Help me understand how to be more effective next time. What about my statements in the meeting made it necessary to apologize?” You want to find out if you were being rude or disrespectful. Because come on, ladies, we can be just as rude as the dudes. We’re all human!
If it's a case in which someone was just trying to offer constructive criticism, consider the benefits of the advice and how it can help you change. Follw up, too—doing so will help you grow personally and professionally.
Want to read more about this? Check out this article on How to replace “be convincing” with “be curious.”
3. What you do: Time for action! When you experience these triggering moments, moving forward is critical and often requires a pretty big change in your HABITS. Yes, your habits. Think about it….what do you do now when this happens? Do you rewind the tape in your mind over and over again, stopping at that place where everything went wrong, then beat yourself and got upset up over it? Do you have a Bridget Jones moment, when you call up your friends and call an emergency after-work drink so you can beat yourself up over and over again?
Stop that. Seriously, just stop. Break that habit. Let it go.
But remember that, nonetheless, it's just going to happen sometimes. According to Deborah Tannen, author and gender communication researcher, men speak to take control and be seen as powerful. Women speak to connect. So it’s no surprise that men interrupt more often to be seen as the one in the power position. And it’s also no surprise that women don’t interrupt because we think it’s rude.
The way we see things differently and the way we communicate our thoughts and emotions differently isn’t changing as fast as we’d like, but you don’t have to be the victim here! You can take control and stay connected.