So much of the pain we experience in relationships could be diminished, even avoided, if we didn't take things personally. Partners routinely interrupt each other with comments like, "What did you mean by that?" Or, "I can't believe you'd actually think such a thing about me!" We make comments like these when we get snagged by the belief that our partner is doing something to us. In the language of traditional psychology, we become defensive. We feel attacked and instinctively defend ourselves from blows that are often more imagined than real.
The taking-it-personally phenomenon reminds me of a fight my wife and I had a number of years ago. At one point she was describing, in very uncomfortable detail, all the ways I had failed her--all the ways she was disappointed in me. At the time, I did what came natural. I began to defend myself. After a few sentences of energetic defensiveness, she stopped me asking, "Why is it that every time we have this discussion it always has to be about you?" The question took all the wind out of my sails. I thought, "You mean this isn't about me? You mean I don't have to take all you've said personally? You mean you'd just like me to be able to hear and understand your disappointment?"
Although I learned a lot in that exchange, the inclination to take things personally, to be reactive and to defend one's self is incredibly powerful. It takes a lot of practice and a deep desire to be present with a partner before hearing things we'd rather not hear can be done genuinely and compassionately.
Just imagine how wonderful it would feel to be able to tell your partner about your disappointment in him/her without feeling like you needed to be ready to duck once the words passed your lips. In all likelihood it would make you feel closer and, paradoxically, a lot less disappointed.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 35 years.