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Blog Short #157: How to Deal with People Who Take Things Personally

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What do you do when you need to let someone know their behavior is causing you distress, but you know they’ll take it so personally that they’ll either defend, get angry, break down in tears, or totally dismiss what you say? It’s like walking in a minefield.

There are some strategies you might try that are effective, but it helps first to know why someone might react this way because what avenue you decide to take will depend on knowing the cause of the problem.

Let’s start with a quick outline of why people personalize.

The Need to Protect

In all cases, personalizing signals a need to protect against a perceived assault, even when there’s no intent to assault or criticize. That signal usually leads to a fight-or-flight response. Here are some common underlying causes.

The Narcissist

The narcissistic person has a strong need to protect his sense of self, which is tenuous at best. Because there’s no solidity to his identity, he operates with a pseudo-self, which is easily dismantled and which he must protect at all costs.

Any hint of criticism is an attack on the whole self.

So, if you comment on his behavior in any way, it means you’re dissing his entire personality.

If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone like this, you’ve likely experienced this phenomenon. You point out a behavior you don’t like – something like “I wish you’d put your clothes away after you take them off,” – and they react with an angry counterattack that has nothing to do with the issue you brought up, or they generalize that you attack them all the time about everything, or they begin rewriting history and go off on a tangent that’s so confusing and blown up, you can’t return to the issue.

They can’t take in what you’ve said and won’t.

The Highly Sensitive

This person is highly sensitive to criticism, not because they’re narcissistic, but because their feelings are easily hurt, and they experience intense guilt when they do something “wrong.”

There are several reasons this could occur.

  1. It could be part of this person’s natural temperament. They were born with greater sensitivity to stimuli than others.
  2. They’re perfectionistic and feel shame when they make a mistake. Anything less than perfection means they’re not worthy.
  3. They equate criticism with abandonment. When someone’s mad at them, they feel a loss.

The Traumatized

Someone with background trauma can have triggers that cause them to overact in particular situations.

For example, if you experienced abuse growing up, you’re more likely to be hypervigilant and watchful for signs you could be hurt or attacked. You might react to small things defensively or shut down when you sense displeasure.

Heavily traumatized people have difficulty separating current situations from past experiences and can respond to you as though you’re trying to hurt them.

Their perceptions become distorted.

The Avoider

Denial runs through all of the typologies we’re discussing, but it’s particularly prevalent among people who avoid dealing with issues.

These folks lack self-awareness. They typically avoid when possible, defend when they can’t, and often deny what’s right in front of them.

They refuse to consider information contrary to their view, rarely take responsibility for their behavior, and avoid talking about it when someone brings it to their attention.

They can appear to be narcissistic, as we’ve described above, and may be, but not always. They can present as very quiet, calm, and unaffected.

They brush it off, and the feeling is that the shop’s closed and locked up. No entry.

Other Possibilities

In addition to the above, someone might be more prone to personalize when they’re:

  • Stressed
  • Overly tired
  • Feeling unwell or sick
  • Struggling with something else you have no awareness of

Under any of those circumstances, someone who normally doesn’t personalize might feel particularly vulnerable and become more sensitive or defensive. Most everyone’s experienced that.

Now, let’s look at some strategies you can use.

The Strategies

1. Preface what you want to say with a disclaimer.

Let the person know you want to talk about a single behavior, but you’re not saying you don’t think highly of them or feel any ill will towards them. In other words, this isn’t an attack. For the narcissist in particular, this is especially important. You want to emphasize that you’re struggling with a specific behavior and are not indicting their whole person.

Depending on how well you know this person, you can preface what you have to say with positive attributes you appreciate. That buffers the complaint some and creates more receptivity. You don’t need to be fake or overdo it, but setting up the buffer first can help.

It’s also imperative to make your complaints with “I” statements. Never start with “you.” Remember that the person you’re talking to is likely extra sensitive to criticism.

2. Normalize mistakes and errors, especially for the highly sensitive person.

Their problem is not so much one of denial but rather beating themselves up for even the smallest of infractions. Remind them that you make mistakes all the time, as we all do, and that’s just part of being human.

Focus on why you wanted to bring up the issue and how you hope doing so will make things better for both of you. Let them know you expect them to do the same when something bothers them.

3. Set boundaries when the reaction is either over the top or underwhelming.

When dealing with the avoider, the reaction is often underwhelming because although they don’t present as though they’re personalizing what you say, they’re blowing you off because they need to disown any responsibility for your concern.

It’s an underhanded and unconscious method of personalizing, but it’s so inaccessible that you often can’t deal with it directly.

Let them know they’re stonewalling you and that it’s not okay.

You can also set boundaries with the narcissist who’s likely to deal with a perceived threat with revenge, a counterattack, or angry denial.

You don’t need to accept abusive behavior, and you might eventually get a better response by refusing to participate.

You might even bring the person around because they can’t stand the feeling of loss, either of you or their self-esteem.

Basic Guidelines to Follow

  • Use “I” messages which we’ve already established
  • Describe behaviors only
  • Don’t label, diagnose, or negatively characterize the person
  • Avoid getting baited into a battle of wills or exchange of personal attacks
  • Make your boundaries clear regardless of receptivity on the other person’s part

You always want to engage in the most successful interchange possible, leaving both parties feeling good about the conversation. However, that’s not always possible. Both people need to want that.

Your role is to ensure your behavior is above reproach and that you’re sensitive to the other person without being dragged down into conduct you disapprove of. That’s not always easy, and it’s better to opt out than get pulled in.

What about you?

It’s also good to know when you personalize and for what reasons. We all have triggers, and when you know what yours are, you can be more aware of when you distort perceptions, especially when it comes to perceived criticism. I think that’s hard for most people.

An excellent personal goal is to get good at hearing constructive criticism without overreacting, and using it to improve yourself.

That’s an accomplishment!

That’s all for today.

Hope you have a great week!

All my best,


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