It takes a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness to figure out that you’re “taking things personally”, i.e., feeling threatened, often signaled by feeling angry, irritated, miffed, hurt, anxious, and/or fearful. When we feel threatened, we feel that some fatal flaw of ours is exposed. It is this dreaded sense of exposure of flaws that is the very essence of feeing threatened.
There is ample evidence childhood experiences are recorded in some form in our memory and can be evoked in our adult interactions. Such experiences are frequently evoked in our adult intimate relationships because we expect extra consideration from our spouse. Married couples, thus, are vulnerable to experiencing the dreaded feeling of “not being good enough”,” not being important enough”, “not being worthy”, not recognized enough”, “not valued enough”
Feeling threatened (indicated when we take things personally) comes from our own sense of vulnerability or insecurity. My belief is that we all suffer from such vulnerabilities and/or insecurities; this is not a sign of some psychological malady or impairment. I believe it is a consequence of the cognitive and emotional limitations of childhood.
Let’s use “feeling ignored” as an example of how we can be affected by earlier childhood experience. To understand the experience of “being ignored” we have to think about a child’s experience of not being paid attention to in a way he wants.
Let’s imagine a child in the following situation with his dad: One Sunday his dad is enjoying reading the newspaper, preoccupied with what he wants to do1. His son approaches and interrupts him asking him to play a game with him; he wants some attention from his dad. The dad is preoccupied and responds to the boy with a sharp tone, “Can’t you see I’m busy? Don’t bother me.” This is not abuse, this is not awful, it’s an adult being interested in something he wants to do. The boy wanted some time with his dad, and usually his dad is very attentive.
Children experience events such as this one entirely differently from adults. Children are utterly dependent physically and emotionally on their parents for their needs or wants. Children cannot be objective about themselves to know that they are okay even if they are in trouble or don’t get what they need or want. They cannot evaluate how they are doing in the world separately from how they think others see them, particularly their parents. This inability to think objectively about oneself is a characteristic of the concrete nature of childhood cognition. Their reliance on others is their natural dependency on adults, particularly parents.
The boy in the example experiences his father’s lack of acknowledgement of his wish as if he (father) is saying that something is wrong with him or his father would pay attention to him when he asks. It is as if the child said to himself, “If there weren’t something wrong with me or what I want, it would have been attended to.” But the child is thinking personally, it must be about him as a person. Of course, father, like lots of parents, forget how concrete children think and therefore, failed to realize how his child is experiencing the interaction with him (father). Over time with repeated experiences like this the child can develop a generalized experience of “not being good enough”, not being worthy.
By the way, responding appropriately to children does not mean either immediate or even delayed gratification of their requests. It does mean openly acknowledging the want and that it is important. This acknowledgement of the child’s wants supports his own feeling of being valued and important, i.e. being “enough” as a human being. To not be attended to, to not have what you want acknowledged, is to be “ignored” and it is personal to a child!
These kinds of incidences happen to children all the time. Over time, as children we experience anxiety, fear, anger in such events and our mind and body prepare us to protect ourselves from the threat of what we experience as “fatal flaws” being exposed to others such that they will reject, humiliate, avoid, criticize, ridicule, and/or harm us.
Our mind conjures up defenses against such flaws and our body prepares us for self-protective defense of “fight or flight”.
A few signs of insecurities2 are:
- Fear of speaking up for yourself
- Not being sure about what you want
- Resorting to bullying or manipulative actions
- “Steamrolling” others
- Letting others make your decisions
- Overwhelming doubt
- Jealousy or envy
You can begin the process of self-reflection about feeling threatened by your insecurities checking out the thumbnail “Worksheet to Inventory Taking Things Personally”.
1Kaufman, Gershon, Shame: The Power of Caring. Schenkman Books Inc