Take It Personally!®
The Art of Dealing with Rejection
Sometimes You Don't Know
What Hit You
By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.
It happens so fast-a barrage of words, a wilting look, an insulting tone of voice-and it's as if a loose board springs up and whacks you on the forehead. You feel stunned. You lose your balance. You can't think straight. And then the hurt starts. You might freeze up and withdraw. You might be reduced to tears. You might explode into a blaze of rage. You wonder, "Where on earth did that come from?"
When someone else's words or actions lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings, it's because you're taking it personally. Rejection. That's what it is and it just takes over. Your knee-jerk response is all out of proportion to the event itself and is most likely a reaction to rejection experiences dating back to childhood. But new hurts pile on top of old ones, and it's as if each cutting remark opens up an old wound that never healed.
Over the years, signs and signals, tones and inflections, words and phrases pile up. These childhood rejection wounds may come from parents, teachers, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, baby-sitters, or neighbors. Maybe they were intended, maybe they weren't. Either way, they become self-rejecting beliefs that can tinge your adult relationships. Anything in that stockpile may trigger a defensive response that ignites into something larger than life.
When people endure a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or hurricane, or when they experience a frightening incident like a physical attack or an upsetting episode like a verbal attack, they may not only be reacting to the shock of the present crisis. They may also be reacting to all previous traumas, going back to childhood. Enduring rejection is similar. You may not only be reacting to the present situation but to past experiences as well. Some of these experiences may have been traumatic, and children experiencing them may have felt violated, betrayed, or rejected, making it hard to trust the world as a safe place. One woman described how she feels overwhelmed and is reminded of childhood experiences whenever she feels rejected. "It's like the tornado hits and I'm Dorothy."
As psychotherapist and researcher Elaine Aron describes in The Highly Sensitive Person, some children are especially sensitive to their environments and tend to get overstimulated, overaroused, and overwhelmed. These children feel constantly battered by a multitude of anxiety tornadoes.
Let's talk about two specific childhood anxiety tornadoes: the fear of being abandoned and the fear of losing our identity. What creates these fears? From our earliest years, we learn about relationships from our parents or other caregivers. But because we're so dependent on them for care, these are by necessity unequal relationships. Children are inherently trusting until something happens to break that trust. Lying all alone in a crib, hungry or wet, can seem like an eternity to an infant with no sense of real time. That child might feel vulnerable to the parent's whim-will that parent ever return and give comfort? At times, we worry they'll leave us-and we come to fear the rejection of abandonment. At other times, we might become afraid our caregivers will overwhelm us with closeness, smothering out the spark of our identities-another rejection. How does this happen? They may not let us show independence or creativity or assertiveness or a sense of our own personhood. These dual rejection fears-abandonment and intrusion-often accompany us throughout life, causing no end of trouble in relationships.
Fear of possible rejection has lead many of us to withhold statements of love, acts of caring, sexual advances, or even movie or dinner invitations. We're often afraid to come forward with requests such as asking someone for a first date, requesting a raise, submitting artwork or manuscripts, or asking for favors like a ride to the airport. It's constricting and restricting, keeping us from being ourselves. When we hold back like this, people often misunderstand what our hesitancy is really about.
It helps to understand how adult rejection ordeals are rooted in childhood. Most of us wanted to be loved, cared about, and respected, but perhaps that didn't happen when we were growing up. There were so many disappointments. What if you wanted to be comforted by your mother, but she held back? What if you wanted your father to listen to your stories about the school day, but he just kept reading the paper, notpaying attention, not even looking at you? Wouldn't it have been great to be praised once in a while for the times you did something well instead of having been chastised for the times you messed up? Wouldn't it have been nice once in a while to be told you did a good job, even for small things-like the times you successfully carried milk to the table-instead of getting yelled at the one time you spilled it? One man remembers, "I rushed home once to tell my dad I got 92 percent on a math test. He looked at the grade, looked at me and said, 'So what happened to the other 8 percent?' I think in that moment a part of me died-I quit trying."
Many of us encountered rejection messages, even though our parents or teachers may not have intended them. Perhaps we felt laughed at or invalidated or ignored-maybe even disowned or abandoned. Perhaps someone inadvertently discounted our emotions by scoffing, "You're acting like a baby. What's the matter with you, did your feelings get hurt?" Perhaps they were trying to dictate how we should feel so they didn't have to examine their own feelings. But it felt like they were trying to take our feelings away.
Years later, we're still affected by these timeworn childhood wounds. Early dings and dents take their toll, and we're stunned when these old feelings reverberate into our adult lives and relationships, causing even little things to set us off. When we feel easily slighted, when our feelings continue to get hurt by the actions, words, and behaviors of others, or if we unrelentingly blame ourselves for any given situation-we're taking it personally.
A songwriter I know uses musical terms to explain this process: "I picture myself as a harp with all kinds of large and small debris swirling around out there-words, feelings, innuendos. Some float toward me, passing right through the spaces between the strings, and glide on by. But others seem to be hurled at me and hit the strings, striking a chord that reverberates way back to my past, bringing up old hurts. It really jangles my nerves and throws me off balance.
"I'd like to be able to ride out these encounters and not get so unnerved-to reorchestrate and find my balance. First of all, I want to choose whether they stick or pass by. If they do stick, I want to be able to say, 'Okay, what can I do to make this noise musical?' What works best for me is to chant to myself, 'Don't take it personally, don't take it personally.' In fact, it's become my mantra."
There's no question that taking things personally can get in the way of both work and personal relationships. Sensitivity to rejection can be a symptom or attribute of a number of psychological issues: Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, stagefright, eating disorders, highly sensitive nervous systems, shame-based issues, shyness, and abuse. And you may be able to think of others. Rejection, however, is more than just another slice of the pie-it is also the crust that overlays these issues.
Take It Seriously but Not Personally
We are taking things personally when we get our feelings hurt by misinterpreting the meanings of others. Words or actions feel like rejection even though that wasn't the intention. But sometimes words or actions of another person not only seem rejecting-they actually are. It's important to properly acknowledge this to ourselves. As Harvey Mackay writes in Sharkproof, if you didn't get a job, were turned down for a raise, or denied admission to the college of your choice, "don't rationalize away the hurt . . . point your head in the right direction and get back in the game. . . . It's not a permanent condition. It's a short-term setback." As painful as it may be, maybe we can learn something constructive from what was said or done.
What if there's no question you're being excluded from social functions or work activities by a certain group of people? How can you best deal with the situation? It helps to ask yourself a few questions. For example, "Could I be so supersensitive to feeling left out that I pound on doors to get in?" "Am I overgeneralizing the situation and believing there's something wrong with me because I'm being excluded?" "Could I be putting out some sort of message to people that says 'Go ahead, exclude me, I'm expecting it?'"
Most of us have at one time or another had a really bad day and taken it out on someone else. That doesn't make it okay, but it sure does happen. What if someone said something to you that was especially hurtful? It could be that this person is a rejecting sort of personality, maybe even a bit mean-spirited. But most likely this person was not thinking very highly of him or herself that day and unloaded on you because you happened to be there. Mackay reminds his readers, "Whatever you do, don't take rejection personally. It may have nothing to do with you."
Gathering information about other people in an effort to understand them better may circumvent problems for you in future dealings. In fact, you may even decide not to have any future with that person or persons. You can be selective not only about what information you let into your life, but who you let in as well.
What about those times when a small part of you can acknowledge that something someone said just might be true, but you were overreacting to the way they said it. Can you respect the truth of their words while disregarding their attitude? In other words, can you take it seriously, but not personally?
Then, too, there are times when taking things personally could be useful. When we open up our hearts and minds to include all aspects of the world, we are allowing ourselves to take them in-in a personal and intimate way. Isn't this also taking things personally? What happens when this phrase is seen in a positive way rather than in a negative way? We gain the opportunity to obtain new and different information about ourselves and our world.
Sorting Out the Facts
The key is to screen input from others and process it appropriately. For example, mail arriving at a large corporation goes to the mail room to be sorted. Then it usually gets sent on to the appropriate department. But what if a piece of mail is routed by mistake to someone in the wrong department, who isn't used to dealing with it? This person might get confused and overreact. However, in the right hands this particular communication could be properly processed and given attention. You, too, can learn to give incoming information proper attention by considering its usefulness. You can learn to toss or reroute the mail.
When I was a child, my processing system didn't work very well; I was always taking something personally. My antennae were always out. I would watch and listen carefully, searching for cues from people around me. I frequently felt I was being judged or compared. It seemed as if almost everything was a test, but nobody told me the rules or if I passed it. I'd try to read their faces, their tones of voice, their walks, their sighs. If someone looked at me the wrong way-narrowing their eyes or raising an eyebrow-I'd wonder, "What's wrong with me? What did I do wrong this time? How can I do it better?"
A few years ago, I was ironing clothes and burned myself. As I blurted out "What's wrong with me?" I remembered the message I'd heard as a child: "What's wrong with you, can't you do anything right?" When I thought about this some more, I realized that most of the time it wasn't even a spoken message. It was communicated by looks and tones of voice. My mom's long sigh clearly said, "You can do better," which to me meant "What you did was not good enough."
It seems I was getting my feelings hurt all the time. I often thought people were laughing at me. I remember my first day at dancing class when I was about five years old. While all the parents watched, the teacher told us to follow her as best we could and she began to shuffle and stomp and kick. Then she began to shimmy, which we just couldn't figure out. Can you just picture all of these little five-year-olds shaking their butts instead of their shoulders? The parents roared, and I, of course, thought they were laughing at me. For many years after that, I would make sure I was in the back row of any dance or movement class, and I never again tried to shake my shoulders or shimmy because I thought everyone would laugh at me.
Then, a few years ago I discovered NIA (Neuromuscular Integrative Action), a highly aerobic (yet barefoot) technique that blends the rhythms and movements of modern, jazz, and ethnic dance; yoga; and tai chi, tae kwon do, and aikido. This is movement without judgment, and it's perfect for self-conscious people like me-there's no right or wrong way. In other exercise classes I'd be mortified if I made a mistake, but now I can stand in the front row-and even shimmy if I feel like it.
In NIA your energy follows the music, and you move from the core of your body. You move with purpose, "taking a stance," developing new body awareness and a sense of your own power.
Participants are encouraged to "personalize their actions to support moving freely and openly, to personalize their thoughts to support fullest potential, to personalize their feeling to discover more about themselves, and to personalize their spirit to support moving about the earth freely and lovingly." I love the idea of making a choice to personalize how I move, think, and feel-it's a nice switch from my usual tendency to personalize other people's messages.
Some beliefs we develop about ourselves can come from misunderstandings. When I was nine years old and visiting my aunt across the country, I overheard her telling someone on the phone, "I'm disappointed in her, she's lazy." I believed she was talking about me and from that day on I thought of myself as lazy. Twenty years later someone said to me, "How can you think of yourself as lazy? You commute to San Francisco, work full-time in Child Protective Services, attend graduate school, run a household, and parent a young child. That doesn't sound very lazy to me." Well, when you put it that way . . .
Maybe I never was lazy. I decided to check it out from the source- my aunt. I even scheduled an appointment with her to talk about it. "Lazy?" She was genuinely surprised when I recounted the story in my memory. "I couldn't have been talking about you-it must have been about someone else. Maybe the housekeeper."
You can see how my supersensitivity as a child has affected my life. Another child might not have been so reactive. Another child might have been more resilient and not so quick to perceive rejection. Another child might have gone about his or her business without wasting time and energy on deciphering the meanings of looks, tones of voice, or laughs. (Chapter 10 takes a look at resiliency.)
From the time I was very young, I put out my antennae, turned the frequency to high, and got very good at paying close attention to what was going on around me. I got so good at it, that I thought I could read minds. Have you ever had a similar experience?
One message I came to "read" was that my parents didn't have much room for me when they disappeared into their own private worlds. Even though I believe my parents loved and cared about me, they often seemed to be emotionally unavailable. My dad worked long hours and I didn't see much of him except on Sundays. My mom seemed preoccupied with her own thoughts and worries. I felt left out, ignored, hurt, lonely. It felt as though I was always knocking on doors, wanting to be let in.
Feeling left out has caused huge problems for me. Back when I was married, my husband was planning to move his study to a structure in the backyard. I overreacted. I had finally gotten used to the many evenings he would go into his downstairs study and close the door to write. But the idea that he would actually be leaving the house really upset me. I felt left out just thinking about it. And I thought about it day and night. I couldn't sleep. Looking back I see how I was interpreting his plans to mean he was "leaving" me. I felt hurt-as if a door were closing in my face. Yes, I took it personally!
I began to wonder why this situation carried such a charge for me. What were my childhood experiences? How often did I feel left out and alone? What kind of emotional shades got drawn?
The moves back and forth across the country didn't help. When I was nine, we moved from Washington, D.C., to Omaha, then back east to Baltimore when I was a senior in high school. Moving my senior year was the hardest. I had to leave old friends, start a new school, learn new routines, and make new friends. I remember feeling as if I were on the outside looking in, as if I didn't belong anywhere.
For me, feeling left out is connected to feeling different from other people. Both of these feelings are linked to one of the most devastating experiences of my life. When I was twelve years old my mother and grandmother died in a plane crash. They were on their way to the Mayo Clinic so my grandmother could undergo some tests. When my mother told me she was leaving, I felt left out; in my eyes, my mother had chosen to leave me to accompany my grandmother. And the next thing I knew, she was dead.
On top of the grief, I experienced strong feelings of isolation. One of the clearest memories I have of feeling left out was the first day of school in eighth grade. Back in those days, families were supposed to be perfect, like Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleavers-intact and happy. Hardly anyone had divorced or single parents, so having a mother who'd died in a nationally publicized accident was not only devastating but mortifying.
I remember, about a week after the plane crash, walking across the playing field toward the inner school yard where students were clustered together. As soon as they spotted me, they stopped talking. I knew they had been talking about me, feeling sorry for me. I remember feeling so different from everyone else, so alone, as if I was the only person in the world without a mother. I was the center of attention, yet I felt so left out.
Feeling left out triggers strong responses for me. These responses interfered with my marriage as illustrated by the backyard-study story, and I unwittingly passed them down to my daughter as you'll see in chapter 7. Yet there are things I have done in my adult life that seem to perpetuate that feeling-like marrying a writer who was in his own world so much of the time. You can bet I really felt excluded when he carried on conversations in his head between his characters! I had a lot of practice during that marriage learning about my "left out" issues, and a few other issues as well. Isn't it uncanny how we're attracted to the very people who trigger overblown responses from us?
The experience of my husband moving his study outside taught me something important about myself. I realized there was some sort of a process going on here, and I began to pay attention. First, I learned to recognize when those "left out" feelings begin to take over. Next, I would remind myself that feeling like that most likely meant I was feeling rejected-sometimes even abandoned. Putting words to my feelings helped define the situation for me. Understanding this process changed the way I was responding to overwhelming situations. Now it's easier to keep my balance and my composure. It helps to ask some questions here:
- Am I taking this personally? How?
- Is there any cause for me to feel threatened?
- Am I feeling rejected in some way?
- Where did this reaction come from? Is it something "old"?
Next consider for a moment how much energy it takes to worry about something so much. Think about how much energy goes outward, squandered energy that could be used more creatively. Ask yourself, "Do I really want to put so much time and energy into this?"
This process of rejection allows you to make some choices here. At this point you can begin to identify and manage painful feelings of rejection that threaten to immobilize you. It may be an old feeling you recognize. It may be the same one that caused you so much confusion in childhood. Remind yourself that you can choose to stay immersed in this childhood pain if you want to-or you can make an effort to bring in your adult perspective. By reminding yourself that you have a choice, you can begin to feel in control of it, instead of allowing it to control you.
Reweave Your Tapestry of Experiences
Don't Take It Personally! will help put you in control. By identifying childhood rejection messages and the core beliefs you formed about yourself and your world, you can see how you might overadapt to your environment in order to protect yourself from hurt or fear. By reflecting on your childhood, you can learn to make connections between the "then" and the "now," exploring how these obvious, and not so obvious, messages come to be repeated in everyday interactions, in personal relationships, and in the workplace.
Next you'll explore how many of these rejection messages were passed along from generation to generation-and learn how to break the cycle. Finally, you'll learn how to recruit these old messages to work for and not against you. You'll learn to highlight strengths instead of "weaknesses" and to develop tools to manage painful feelings so they don't overwhelm you and cause you to lose touch with your emotional compass.
Don't Take It Personally! provides the opportunity to reweave the tapestry of your life experiences by inspiring you to see yourself in a new light, to become more aware of options and personal resources and to use them creatively. This enhances the process of breaking old patterns and moving from self-rejection to self-acceptance.
I wish I could promise that these old unwanted behaviors can be totally extinguished. But in reality they're something like a slow-motion version of those trick birthday-cake candles. They seem to die down for varying lengths of time, then unexpectedly flare up again. But these flare-
ups can be useful. (It's really true.)
Whenever this happens it's a reminder that you have a unique ability that has saved your feelings-maybe even your life-a lot of times as you were growing up. Look at it as a method you learned to protect yourself, an overadaptation to an unsafe world. You don't have to discard it just because it's no longer usable in its current form-you can modify it. You can choose to recognize it, appreciate it, befriend it even, like an old friend from childhood who pays a surprise visit. You grew up together, you were once a part of each other's lives. Then your interests changed, along with the way you both view the world. Although you don't have much in common anymore, you've been through a lot together.
You've had a lot of practice taking things personally, so what about taking things personally in positive ways for a change? How would it feel to recognize a caring look on someone's face? What if you could really hear favorable comments about yourself? And take them in? And believe them? And cherish them? What if you could embrace these positive messages in your life, trusting that appreciation really exists out there, that you can absorb it, letting it infuse every part of your being? What if you could accept yourself?
Accepting yourself includes recognizing the various parts of yourself and accepting them. There is usually a child self, maybe more than one. There is probably an adolescent self as well. Then there is the adult self, with all its complexities and a lot of possible players: the reserved self; the spontaneous self; the light self; the heavy self; the carefree self; the responsible self; the good self; the bad self. You may come to recognize other parts as well. One woman describes how she tries to accept herself, "I want to be like a big umbrella over myself, to parent myself. I want to be like a sheepherder, available to all the little parts of me."
The more of yourself you can learn to accept, the less room there is for self-rejection. After all, if you don't like yourself, it spills over into your relationships. I know it seems that some days are filled with trying to avoid the minefields of rejection that appear to be everywhere. Treading so cautiously, dodging and swerving, can be such an energy drain. Why not choose to think of minefields as mindfields, allowing yourself fertile ground for changing your mind-sets-your beliefs about yourself and your environment.
How to Use This Book
We each experience rejection in our own way and so we each will ultimately have to find our own solutions. Don't Take it Personally! will help you identify your rejection issues, negative beliefs, and recurring patterns of behavior as well as the sources of all of these. Then it will provide you with the means for change. But don't expect to be able to do everything all at once. That's why this book is broken up into three parts. When you read part one, try to find the situations that most closely mirror your own rejection experiences. If you start paying attention to yourself and when you're taking things personally you'll be better prepared to deal with these situations when they arise. In part two you'll learn to look to your past experiences to see how these dynamics have invaded your present interaction. You'll examine messages that were perhaps unknowingly passed on to you by your family, friends, and caregivers.
Part three is where you'll learn to make a change. You'll read about the possibility of making choices and discover creative ways to transform stumbling blocks into building blocks. You can practice walking alongside yourself, giving yourself enough distance from stressful situations to create options. You can even find the balance of taking yourself seriously enough to believe in yourself, yet lightly enough to laugh with yourself.
The first step involves recognizing the feeling and putting words to it. Are you ready to join me in some teamwork? Let's look at some of the ways you might be taking things personally.
© 2003 Elayne Savage, Ph.D.