This article first appeared on Happify
We’ve all had this experience: Someone says something, we think they’re judging us, and we take it personally. Some of us may get angry and somewhat aggressive, while others may seethe in silence, pretending it’s not a big deal, but feeling tormented inside. Then we spend hours, sometimes days, ruminating about what was said or what happened, unable to learn from it and move on.
There are other reactions too. Some of us—especially those with a type-A personality—may go to extreme lengths to disprove the comment or evaluation, setting the bar so high for ourselves that the journey to it is joyless and unsustainable. Naturally, this plummets us back to shame, blame, and their self-defeating reactions.
If any of this sounds familiar, you may have wondered why certain comments (or behaviors) lead to your extreme reactions. It could be a not-so-ideal performance review at work, criticism (or lack of praise) from friends or family, or even a relatively light count of social media “likes.” It could be a lukewarm comment about your cooking, a partner who scrolls their social media feed as you’re talking, or a relative’s casual remark about your weight. It could be a hundred different things, but only you know which ones make you cringe and react in impulsive ways.
The reality is that most of us walk through life wearing masks. Some of these masks are normal and needed. For example, we don’t want to talk to our corporate clients the way we talk with our buddies or spouses. Nor would we want to be as results-oriented at a casual meetup with a friend as we would often be at a high-stakes meeting. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers saw these as different selves of an authentic core, capable of adapting to situations and relationships.
But when we wear masks to hide our authentic core because we see it as inadequate, unworthy, or not “enough” in some way, we walk through life holding tightly onto them, and highly vigilant to comments and behaviors that question them or risk pulling them off. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle look or a facial expression to make us feel bared to our bones.
This precarious state is the world of fragile confidence, where our emotions are highly dependent on external feedback. When this feedback is positive, we feel elated, sometimes more than we need to be. And when it’s negative, we fall apart because we don’t feel safe anymore.
The good news is that we can build this inner safety so we’re able to step off the emotional roller coaster and respond in ways that are beneficial for both us and our relationships. Here are 3 steps to do so.
Step 1: Be Prepared
The first step is to build your awareness around your triggers. Not everyone may react to a comment about their hair the way you do, or snub back every time their sibling announces a promotion or shares their success. What are the situations where you tend to react in ways that don’t make you proud? Often these are tied to what professor Jennifer Crocker at Ohio State University calls our “contingencies of self-worth”—the domains in our lives on which we depend to prove our worthiness.
Step 2: Be Compassionate—to Yourself
Now that you know when you’re at your most reactive, you need to arm yourself to face your triggers with the best of yourself. This means learning to speak to yourself in a kind and understanding tone when you take things personally, instead of beating down on yourself for doing so. This is important because the fact that you feel judged points to a deeper and more critical dialogue you may be having with yourself.
In my work, I find that most clients become perplexed when I tell them about this step. If they are understanding about their emotions, aren’t they just giving themselves permission to justify their self-defeating behaviors? Surprisingly, no! When we provide ourselves with compassion, we activate the wisdom, courage, and consciousness that live in the more evolved parts of our brain.
Step 3: Be Wise
Sometimes, tapping into this higher self takes a bit of work. Dr. Martin Seligman’s “3 Ps” approach is an excellent way to do so because it helps you build perspective around the evaluation. If you tend to take things personally, work on the first P, which is “Personal.” Ask yourself: “What other factors may have been at play that led to this evaluation?” In her book Playing Big, leadership expert Tara Mohr says that feedback tells you a lot more about the person giving the feedback than it says about you. Thus, you may want to ask yourself: “What can I do differently next time that helps me grow and also benefits our relationship?”
Life is lonely in a bubble. We’re social animals, wired to learn, grow, and find meaning through our relationships and experiences. When we open up to external evaluations instead of taking them personally, we magnify our chances of living our best lives.