How to stop taking things so personally : Life Kit Being offended by something that someone did or said can be upsetting — but it doesn't have to eat away at us. Mental health experts share how to slow down and gain clarity when things get personal.

How to stop stewing about something you've taken (a little too) personally

How to stop stewing about something you've taken (a little too) personally

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Last month, I decided to get a snack from a convenience store. As I walked to the door, there was another customer ahead of me. And he opened the door for himself without bothering to look back.

How rude, I thought. Who doesn't hold the door open for someone behind them! I got my snack, returned to my car and stewed about the incident. Didn't he see me? Did he do that on purpose? The thoughts consumed me as I drove around running errands — and even continued over the next few days.

I knew I was wasting a lot of emotional energy on a seemingly trivial moment. And it got me wondering — why was I taking this incident so personally? And how do I manage my feelings about it?

To help answer these questions, I turned to Ethan Kross, psychologist and author of Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters and How to Harness It; psychotherapist Sana Powell, author of Mental Health Journal for Women: Creative Prompts and Practices to Improve Your Well-Being; and clinical psychologist Adia Gooden. They told me it's human to get upset when we feel offended by something that someone did or said, because we may feel their actions or words are a personal affront to our character.

And while it's one thing to feel annoyed by it, we shouldn't let these personal comments eat us up inside, says Kross. He and the experts share ways to slow down and gain clarity when things feel personal.

Pause and take a moment

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If you find yourself in a situation that offends you, pause before reacting, says Powell. Acknowledge your feelings and think about how your response might affect the other person. You don't want to say anything hurtful.

Then consider what else might be going on in the person's life to prompt the situation. Take the customer who didn't hold the door open for me at the gas station. I assumed they must've seen me, but maybe they didn't realize I was there. Or maybe they were in a hurry to use the restroom.

If we don't pause to consider other possibilities, says Kross, we may get stuck in "an unproductive negative thought loop" that can affect our ability to find good solutions to the problem and move on.

When I finally took a moment to examine why that customer might have shut the door on me, it allowed me to let go of my original assumption that he did it on purpose. And I found myself getting less and less worked up about the incident.

Look at the problem from another perspective

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If you still can't let the personal comment or action go, you can try distancing yourself from it mentally and psychologically. One way to do that, says Kross, is by reflecting on the incident — in the third person.

It might seem like an unusual approach, but Kross' research has shown that it can help people get out of their heads and promote wise reasoning. In a 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science, he and his co-author found that people displayed more wisdom when trying to figure out their own problems if they thought about it in the third person.

Doing so made them "more likely to recognize the limits of their knowledge, search for a compromise, consider other perspectives and recognize the myriad ways the future could unfold," he says.

If I had to try this tactic for myself with regard to the door incident, I might say something like, "Diana felt a little frustrated when a customer didn't hold the door open for her, but there is a good chance they didn't see her and it's not a big deal."

This alternate viewpoint can help me think about the incident more clearly without letting my emotions get in the way.

Have a heart-to-heart

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Don't rule out talking to the person who impacted you, says Gooden. A heart-to-heart may help clear up any assumptions you may have and offer a new perspective about the incident.

I wasn't able to do that with that random customer, but there are plenty of circumstances where this approach might make sense. For example, let's say your partner is always on their phone at dinnertime, and it makes you feel frustrated.

Instead of jumping to conclusions about their actions, says Gooden, you might say to them: "Because you're always on your phone, I feel like you don't think I'm worthy of your attention," says Gooden. "And they might say, 'Oh, shoot, I didn't mean to be on my phone. Or, you know, I've been kind of frustrated with you and I didn't know how to bring it up. So I've been looking at my phone instead of making eye contact. Let's talk."

Build up your confidence

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Self-confidence can go a long way in protecting you from taking things too personally, says Gooden, who also is the host of Unconditionally Worthy, a podcast that helps listeners boost their self-image and self-esteem.

If we're "grounded in the fact that we're unconditionally worthy," she says, then we're less likely to take offense when "somebody doesn't treat us that way."

To strengthen our feelings of self-worth, Gooden suggests "spending time around people who remind us that we are deserving of care and respect, like close friends and family members who lift you up. She also recommends giving yourself positive affirmations, like "I see you. I accept you. I affirm you."

These actions, she adds, can help us truly believe it when we tell ourselves: "I don't know what's going on with them, but I know I'm worthy of love, care and respect. My worthiness is not dependent on their treatment of me."

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with help from Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.