Why Everything Is Personal

Emily Rapp says women are often branded “hysterical” and men are labeled “rageful” when they “take things personally,” and that isn’t fair.

“Personal” by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal—

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain—
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.


You’re so sensitive. Don’t take it so personally. How often have you heard these sentiments expressed after you or someone you know makes “a scene”? Gets too worked up, overexcited, expresses their feelings too loudly in public, at a party, on the phone.

This is a tangled issue, and one that has a very real impact on both women and men. In this culture we are lauded for “having a thick skin” and “taking the high road” when faced with some personal problem or calamity or conflict, but some of the time (perhaps most of the time) these platitudes feel meaningless. If you get fired unfairly, or are dumped unceremoniously, or if your work or your child or your family are insulted, it’s personal.

When my son Ronan was dying and people said to me, “What’s wrong with your baby? Why won’t he smile at me?” I was not polite or nice, thus going against every code of social ethics I’d been taught by my parents. “He doesn’t like you,” I’d say, “and that’s why he won’t smile.” I was angry—angry that my son was dying, angry that people would come up to him and try to interact with him and then label him as “unfriendly” because he was blind and had no idea that they were grinning at him or waving a hand in his face. People often huffed away, probably thinking, “Geez, lady, don’t take it so personally.” 

As with any interaction between strangers, neither person is aware of the reality of the other. We are often locked in this dance of mannerisms, which might maintain the noise decibel level in coffee shops, but does little to actually connect people on the level of empathy and care. A recent headline of a popular women’s magazine read “How to get anyone to like you.” I can’t think of anything more horrifying than a method of encouraging “likeability” (and what does that actually mean?) written by one person.

This, of course, was next to the usual articles of how to “get a better butt,” and “drop two sizes in two weeks,” and “walk off belly fat,” all of which are deeply personal suggestions that emerge from our society’s uber attention to women’s bodies and how they should look, the way women are broken down for a kind of unspoken consumption, our body parts treated as if we are up on the butcher block—which cut, which section, is it firm and tight and round? I once listened to a group of men “rate” women at a party (they didn’t know I could hear them from the other room), rating face, butt, eyes, legs, and breasts on a scale of 1 to 10. Gross. It made me think that all of the women at the party should just undress and hop up on a scale, prepare to be prodded, weighed, assessed. Personal? I think so.

Men are not immune to this scrutiny, either. “How to get rock hard abs,” and “How to make sure your son doesn’t turn out to be weak,” and “How to be the most powerful man in any room,” are random samplings of the advice given to men, all of which is almost unavoidable while standing in the supermarket line. The success of these endeavors (and who is measuring and by what metrics?) means…what exactly?

That’s the point. None of these very personal “goals” means anything at all. None of them will buy happiness, cure diseases of the people we love, or usher in humane gun control laws. Poverty and injustice rage on as they always have. The world is unfair as it always has been, but in this modern world, we think (we’re told) we can right these wrongs. But this is not always (and is rarely, in fact) the case. What we’re told will make us happy, actions that will somehow mitigate this unfairness, is largely an illusion of control, and it’s a personal one. No wonder we are full of discontent.

Unfortunately, our society doesn’t do well with discontent. Women are often branded “hysterical,” and men are labeled “rageful.” In order to try and offset the very real effects of being insulted or put upon or the victim of pure mistreatment—life is truly unfair—there seems to be a growing trend of people trying to accept the capricious nature of such meaningless concepts as “luck” and “being blessed” through various means that have gained traction in the last 20 years: yoga, meditation, support groups. These are all positive movements, but they are not as benign as they seem. The management of discontent will not be regulated by an occasional yoga class or meditation session. These practices are real and deep and take decades to master, and who has time when one is out seeking a high, round butt and six-pack abs, a better mortgage rate, and a super hot car? Rage—itself a product of a particular desire, most likely a thwarted one—will come out eventually.

And when it does, it’s always personal, and we need to make room for people’s personal discontent in a way that isn’t shaming. We need to make friends with discontent, so that it doesn’t fester into notions to express that violence in other ways, toward other people. It’s not a pity party, it’s just a way of acknowledging that the world can be a place full of both wonder and despair, and both must have equal time, because both are inescapable realities.

Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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