Why We Take Things Personally
Inspired by a recent, repugnant incident of unwarranted offense-taking.
Dear Letter Opener,
If you find yourself taking things personally, it's all thanks to that sneaky inverted parabola, the sly sibling of the familiar U-shaped graph that represented a quadratic equation back in school. And believe me, my level of bewilderment in retrieving this information from the depths of my subconscious mind surpasses your own by a mile.
I’ve hated mathematics ever since my adventurous detour—majoring in finance. This, however, was the need of the hour. It’s the perfect graph to explain the underlying cause of you getting triggered, or, in layman's terms, taking things personally. Put simply, the x-axis is age. And before we get into what the y-axis is, let’s venture back to the good old days of youth.
Pardon my French, but as kids, we gave the least amount of sh*t, and we did it with the widest smiles on our faces. We happily did our business in diapers, cried because it was our only language, and slept as if in an eternal slumber (well, most of us did). We disrupted flights with our infamous crying fits, but instantly brightened up strangers' days with our adorable smiles, making them forget about the time they hated themselves for being on the same flight as a baby. It's amusing to think that some of the best moments in our lives are the ones we can't even recall.
As we grew older, we gained knowledge, but we weren't overnight geniuses. We made friends effortlessly, felt remorse instantly, and forgave faster than we could hold a grudge. The world was our playground as we dreamed of becoming astronauts, doctors, actors, singers, or painters. My neighbor had the wildest dream. He aspired to become a skyscraper window cleaner because it looked cool, but rest assured, that's not where he ended up.
Around the age of 12 or 13, things start to shift dramatically, and it's not just puberty, contrary to popular belief. Puberty may be biological, but what truly hits us is maturity. Some go through puberty before becoming mature, and that's fine when it comes to taking things personally. Maturity is about making sense of the world, knowing how to navigate through life's situations, and understanding right from wrong.
Experiences shape us, values become clearer, and our environment starts to play a role. Personalities begin to form, and the mold that was being shaped starts solidifying irreversibly. By the time we reach 18, those around us can already predict the type of person we'll become, and believe it or not, that's who we ultimately end up being.
Throughout this journey, something within us builds up, much like the inverted parabola above. It's a sense of superiority that, when targeted, can send us into a fit of rage. That's our ego. If age is the x-axis, our ego is the y-axis. Each passing day, our ego grows, particularly if we're smarter, better-looking, or wiser—and only if we know it, the ego gets that extra little boost.
During the early stages of our careers, around our 20s all the way up to our early 30s, our egos are constrained; they’re held captive, punished, and bruised by our superiors, who have greater egos. After all, while our egos are on the ascent (look at the inverted parabola), they’ve already reached the pinnacle. This phase in our lives is perhaps the most infuriating, perplexing, and frustrating for us.
We develop an appetite for anger because things don't go as planned, because nothing seems to fall into place, and because there is no one on whom we can unleash our frustrations. Be it positive or negative, at this point in our lives, any kind of criticism is taken personally. Any unintended statement seems targeted at us, even if it’s not at our workplace. It’s a very dangerous phase because our superiors have us as scapegoats while we’ve got nobody.
All we’ve got to do is wait our turn.
After a while, the tables turn. Promotion brings with it increments, appreciation, an ego boost, and the unspoken, hush-hush ability to do the same with our juniors as our seniors did with us. At this point, confidence soars, self-importance (basically, a more acceptable way of saying ego) takes center stage, and we strut around with a sense of superiority. Our ego is at its peak.
When our ego reaches its peak, we become experts in the art of taking things personally. It's like we have a personal radar that detects even the faintest criticism or slight, and we're quick to interpret it as a direct attack on our awesomeness. Picture this: someone innocently suggests a different approach to a project, and boom! We're ready to defend our brilliant ideas like it's a battle of egos. It's as if we've taken out a patent on being hypersensitive.
But let's not forget the comedic side of this inflated-ego saga. Imagine a colleague innocently mentioning that they prefer a different brand of coffee, and suddenly we feel like they've insulted our very existence. We can't help but take it personally and start plotting our revenge in the form of passive-aggressive post-it notes. It's like our ego has transformed us into a walking soap opera, where every interaction becomes a high-stakes drama.
That’s when time plays a vital role. After the age of 45, like Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button, our mentality slowly starts reversing. I’m still mesmerized by how similar teenagers and people in their 55–60s are. Both are trying to learn the same thing, i.e., the trending lingo; both are insecure with their bodies changing every day; and both want to take significant time off to enjoy and relax. They’re less likely to give a damn, and taking things personally becomes a bimonthly occurrence as opposed to their every-day shenanigans when their ego was at its peak.
And then, after the age of 65 or 70, it’s all goo-gaga for us. We’ve lived life, understood it, regretted moments that we would change in a heartbeat if given a chance, and sometimes we’re back to doing our business in diapers. And guess what? We do it with the widest of smiles on our faces.
We can reach this stage earlier in life. But with everyone trying to make something out of themselves, it’s going to be easier to take things personally.
Thank you for reading Aamer’s Letters! Forward this to three of your friends and if you haven’t already, put your email down there!