January 5

How To Not Take Things Personally At Work


We’ve all had experience with criticisms that weigh on the mind. Someone says something poorly phrased, and we spend the rest of the day mulling it over.

At work, taking things personally can hold us back from achieving our goals, and advancing our careers.

While there is some room for emotion in the workspace, taking things personally can lead to extreme (and unearned) reactions.

But there are steps we can take to ensure healthier reactions to workplace criticisms. 

Why You Shouldn’t Take Things Personally At Work

Taking things personally means you frequently assume negative comments are meant as an attack.

It might be a criticism of your work, a response to an accomplishment, or even another person’s general behavior.

When you take things personally, you’re often on the defensive, and you can find even small comments have long lasting effects.

There can be benefits to taking things personally — when you take criticism to heart, you might put more effort into achievement — but it often limits you from reaching your goals.

Negative feelings from even minor criticisms and throw away comments can lead you to doubt your own skill.

It can also cause those around you to doubt your abilities, making them less likely to trust you with important tasks.

How To Not Take Things Personally At Work

Reflect Before You React

Taking things personally is often an intuitive response. Someone says something you perceive as critical, and you immediately go on the defensive.

In time, you might recognize that your behavior was the wrong response, but in the moment, you felt under attack.

Instead of reacting immediately and potentially making a problem worse, take some time to step back and reflect. Then, if you do need to respond, you’ll be coming from a calmer place. 

Take Confidence In Your Work

Feedback can feel much more personal when you lack confidence in your own work. Even minor comments can become an attack if they’re reinforcing your own negative perception.

It’s much easier to brush off, or even learn from, criticism when you take confidence in your work. 

Confidence doesn’t come naturally to everyone, so take the time to boost your own feelings of self worth.

Write lists of your achievements, reflect on your accomplishments, and recognize when you do good things. 

Don’t Assume — Ask For Clarification

Communication is key in the workplace, but it’s not a skill we all have mastered. Poor communication can lead to hurt feelings, and permanently damaged relationships. 

If you’re worried a comment was a veiled criticism, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. And if you believe a comment did cross the line, discuss your concerns with a superior.

A calm discussion can clear misconceptions, and help everyone move forward happily.

How To Not Take Things Personally At Work

When we take things personally, it can be because comments and reactions reinforce a negative opinion already held. In doing this, we often misinterpret a situation, or look for negativity where there isn’t any.

Don’t let your own self-doubts color your perceptions of interactions. Instead, ask for clarification when conversations are unclear.  

Use Criticism As Feedback

It isn’t always easy to see the good in criticism, especially if it’s been phrased as an attack, but it can be used as a tool for growth.

Look for potential learning opportunities in criticism, and use these to improve your work.

Often, distance is necessary to view a criticism as feedback. Take a moment to reflect on what was said when you have a clear head, and see how you can turn a criticism into a positive. 

Foster Healthy Workplace Relationships

We all want to get on with our coworkers, but it isn’t always possible. Sometimes you just don’t mesh with people.

As long as it doesn’t prevent you from working together, you can still maintain healthy workplace relationships with people you don’t really like.

Remember that sometimes what seems like a criticism might just be a personality conflict.

Healthy work/life boundaries can prevent negative feelings from one aspect bleeding into the other.

When your feelings of self worth are closely tied to your workplace performance, any negative interactions can feel like an attack.

Understand Your Emotions

Take a moment to consider what kinds of comments have a tendency to set you off.

For example, you might be fine with someone criticizing your work, but feel judged when someone comments on your hair. 

By understanding your emotions, you can be better prepared to react when an incident occurs. Don’t beat yourself up for taking things personally.

Instead, treat yourself with compassion. You don’t have to justify your reaction, but recognize that it happened, and look forward. 

Consider what might have driven your reaction. Was it purely related to the situation? Or have outside situations been causing you stress?

Do some people make you feel more defensive than others? By asking these questions, you can better prepare yourself for future situations. 

Understand The Emotions Of Others

Someone snaps at you and you spend all day thinking about it?

Other people’s actions can have a huge effect on our own wellbeing, but it helps to remember that the actions of others are often driven by their own negative emotions.

As the saying goes — misery loves company.

This isn’t a justification of their actions, but it can help you rationalize your response.

A coworker having a bad day might snap at you, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Step back, and consider your own role in the argument.

Workplaces are highly pressured environments, and the stress of deadlines, clients etc. can stop people from watching their words.

Putting someone’s actions into context might not make up for what they’ve said, but it can prevent an argument from feeling like a personal attack.

Final Thoughts

Not taking things personally is easier said than done. For many of us, it’s a natural response to criticism. But in the workplace, these snap responses can escalate problems. 

Instead of taking negative interactions to heart, take some time to reflect on your emotions, the emotions of others, and the context of the situation.

Receiving criticism hurts, and often times when others are dismissive of your efforts or contributions, that hurts even more. Learning to be emotionally intelligent in these times can save difficult moments from escalating. Use the information as feedback and assess your part.

After you assess the information you received from the negative or hurtful comments, learn to let it go quickly. Let it go and move forward with your job and your life. Learning to let it go improves your stress levels and gives you more life joy (see also ‘The Power Of Letting It Go: Why It’s Good For Your Anger And Stress Levels‘).

In the meantime, work on building your confidence, and establishing healthy boundaries. 


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