Stop Taking Things Personally

Smart things to do to attain & sustain emotional sobriety

The following is an excerpt from 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone.

Hopefully it is becoming clear that we achieve emotional sobriety by maintaining our autonomy in relationship to others and circumstances. This does not mean we are cold and calloused or that we avoid people or circumstances. Quite the contrary. We eagerly anticipate interaction with others, because we aren't worried that we will lose ourselves. We have faith in our ability to manage our anxiety or other feelings, whatever they may be. However, as our ability to hold on to our center decreases, we become increasingly more reactive to the input from others. We lose our autonomy. We become guarded and reactive.

Letting other people edit our reality is one way that emotional dependency manifests itself in our lives. Another way is by taking others' reactions personally. We've all experienced this. A specific look, comment, or action can provide an emotional high or low. We develop a "reflected sense of self" in relationship to others and circumstances. We see the other person's behavior as though it were a mirror reflecting their thoughts or feelings toward us.

This way of interpreting other people's behavior as being "all about us" is a symptom of emotional fusion. When we are emotionally dependent, we are driven to seek emotional fusion. To become emotionally sober, we need to work to maintain emotional differentiation. This is what I mean when I say we need to stop taking others' reactions personally.

Fusion is very apparent in relationships where one or both partners believe that intimacy is missing unless both partners always feel the same way. The drive for fusion also exists in all types of friendships, though it is more subtle. It's too bad that we seek fusion, because differences in perception and feeling in relationships are normal and healthy, even enriching.

Have you ever enjoyed a dish of tiramisu, that great Italian dessert? It consists of layers of light cake ("ladyfingers"), whipped cream (mascarpone), and cocoa dust, bound together with a touch of espresso. Though each layer is delicious on its own, the delight of this food is the difference in the textures and tastes we encounter as we eat them. If we were to mush all the layers of tiramisu into a bowl, we'd get a bland mass of wet dough. But as we encounter the separate layers, we get to enjoy and savor each. At the same time, we take pleasure in the way the flavors and textures work together. This is the joy of that particular dessert. In the same way, there is joy to be found in the differences of individuals in a healthy relationship, whether between friends or lovers. The way the differences are still real and maintained is what makes the whole such a delight.

When we are driven by emotional fusion, we constantly try to mix the flavors together—to fuse everything into one. But seeking emotional fusion rather than connection with differentiation robs us and our relationships of the very things that make them special.

Why do we seek fusion? Because emotional dependency has robbed us of our autonomy and self-esteem; we are dependent on external validation. Our self-esteem is other-validated—it is based on how other people feel or act toward us. It's our perceived reputation with others that determines our sense of well-being. Therefore we carefully monitor people for their attitude toward us and for either real or perceived reactions. We tune in to the tone of their voice, their body language, what they say and what they don't say, and how they act or don't act toward us. Our radar is looking for anything and everything that would be either a validation or a threat.

The more differentiated we are, the less reactive we are to other people or circumstances. The more mature we are, the less we take others' reactions personally. The opposite, of course, describes many of us: As our level of differentiation decreases, we become more reactive to other people or circumstances. This means that you can get a rough idea of your level of maturity or differentiation by observing how reactive you are to other people and circumstances. If you find yourself taking things personally all the time, then you are undifferentiated.

Do not be alarmed. We are all works in progress. No one among us is perfectly differentiated.


Allen Berger 100x115Allen Berger, PhD, is a psychotherapist who has written extensively about the experience of recovery, emotional sobriety, and the psychological forces operating within the Twelve Steps. A nationally recognized expert on the science of recovery, he has, for more than 30 years, been on his own journey in recovery while helping thousands of others discover a way of life free from addiction. He is author of 12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery, 12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends, 12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone and 12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.
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