Taking it Personally — And Personal Responsibility

To have a sense of how we appear to others can be helpful information. And “not taking it personally” can actually contribute to our taking “personal responsibility”.

I’d like to look at two pieces of advice in this post: “Don’t take it personally”, and “Take personal responsibility for your life”. They are both widely endorsed, and they seem contradictory. But perhaps they’re not: this is what I would like to explore in this post.

“Don’t Take It Personally”

When faced with criticism, we are sometimes advised to “not take it personally”. I think that in some ways this is good advice.

Not taking it personally means not being upset and traumatised. This probably doesn’t contribute to our happiness and probably doesn’t help us assess whether the criticism is at all valid.

The problem is that this advice doesn’t tell us how to do it. This advice often amounts to, “you shouldn’t be upset”. Perhaps not, but I still have no guidance about what to do about it.

I’d like to examine this piece of advice. Firstly, it seems to be focussed on ‘personally’. And ‘personally’ here seems to mean pretty much ’emotionally’. To not take something personally I think means to not get emotionally entangled with our reaction to it. This is useful advice sometimes. Our emotions can shut down our thinking when we need to think — if we are in danger, for example, panicking is not usually helpful.

Secondly, it presumes an alternative. To not react emotionally presumes we do something else. And the something else I think is to respond thoughtfully, as if the criticism was directed toward someone else who happened to be the same as us in the way criticised or who was behaving as we are.

This can be helpful I think. To have a sense of how we appear to others can be helpful information. This can help us to adjust our behaviour.

Taking Personal Responsibility

Usually our behaviour contributes something to our situation.

This may not always be the case. In Australia, where I’m from, we are in bush fire season (called “wild fires” in other parts of the world). The fires turned due to a change in the direction of wind, and the speed of the change meant that many people didn’t have time to escape. There was little that people could personally do about this at the time. (In a wider perspective, there are various things: planting fire retardant species, councils changing building regulations, and so on.) There was little personal responsibility involved for these people at the time. Similarly, accidents sometimes happen.

Usually, however, what we do has contributed to our current experience. And usually we can do something to alter our experience of our situation.

It can be difficult to see how we have contributed to our current situation. This is especially the case when we feel that there is nothing else we can do. This is rarely the case: what we usually mean is that there is nothing else I would do. It may even be the case that there are alternatives that we haven’t considered.

In this situation there are usually two possibilities. The first is to talk things over with someone else. They may have a different way of looking at things and be able to suggest alternatives. The second, if others aren’t available, is to imagine how other people would respond. These can be people you know or our heroes or even entirely fictional figures (such as that Martian Anthropologist who observes what goes on on earth). These are both ways of finding how we have contributed to our current situation (if we have).

It can also be difficult to see what we can do to alter our situation. Talking to or imagining others will usually help with this too. One slogan I have found helpful is: There are always six options.

Here’s an example. A couple are about to get married. The bride can’t decide whether to change her name or not. Surely there are only two options — His name or hers? Actually, there are others:

  1. A hyphenated surname made up of both their names.
  2. A different name chosen at random (say from the phone book or a book of names).
  3. A name that is meaningful to both (perhaps a favourite flower such as rose, or an occupation such as carpenter).
  4. An entirely new name (one that doesn’t appear in a phone book or book of names)
  5. His adopting her name.
  6. And finally, as suggested by the bride at the time, “If we can’t decide about something like this, maybe we shouldn’t be getting married”.

(I know people who have adopted all of these options — apart from the last one.)

Making Changes

When we wish to make changes it is helpful to know what we value, and how our behaviour is perceived by others. Criticism from others may assist this (unless it is just unmitigated prejudice or misunderstanding, there is usually some useful information).

“Not taking it personally” can be useful when we want to make changes. Being able to see what we have done to contribute to the situation may give us ideas about what to change. It may show us what has been ineffective so far.

If we can reflect on why the criticism gets to us — why we take it personally, why our emotions are so hooked by this particular criticism — then we may learn about what we value. This can help us sort out whether the changes we are contemplating are actually worth making.

What I’m suggesting is that “not taking it personally” can contribute to our taking “personal responsibility”. Without dismissing our feelings, it is possible for us to consider our behaviour and values. It is possible for us to see what we have done to create our current situation and what we can do to change it. And so we are enabled to make desired changes.

What do you make of these two pieces of advice? Do you find that either — “Don’t take it personally” or “Take personal responsibility” — helps you make changes? Do you find one more helpful than the other? I’d like to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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