In September of 2014, I wrote an article titled “How Distorted Thinking Increases Stress and Anxiety.” It covered the ten most common cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are errors in thinking. Although they’re easy to define and often easy to recognize in ourselves, they can be hard to overcome. They’re worth learning about and working on, though, because they can make us (or, as I think of it, intensify our mental suffering).
One of the ten distortions is called personalization, and that’s the focus of this piece.
When you engage in this type of thinking, you erroneously see yourself as the cause of things you’re not responsible for. For this reason, personalization is a major source of anxiety and unhappiness. It also leads to self-blame . . . and that’s never good for you.
Personalization appears in two forms, which I will address separately.
First Form: You take your disappointments and struggles personally.
Everyone experiences disappointments and struggles in life. When you personalize, you treat these inevitable events as the result of some character failing on your part. Here’s an example I use in my book How to Wake Up. If you’re turned down for a promotion, you assume it’s because you weren’t good enough at your job, when in fact, there could be many other explanations. Perhaps the company is having budgetary problems. Perhaps the job went to the boss’s nephew. Instead of even considering these alternatives, when you personalize, you jump to the conclusion that you weren’t good enough.
Here’s another example. You were expecting a friend to come over for a visit, and she emails you that morning and says something’s come up, and she’ll have to reschedule. In this situation, personalization occurs when you assume that because she didn’t give you a reason for canceling, it must have been because she didn’t want to see you, or because a “better” offer came along. You don’t stop to consider the many reasons why she might not have shared her reasons. Maybe a family member is having trouble. Maybe she’s the one who is personalizing — canceling because she’s afraid you may think she’s not interesting enough company!
A third example applied to me when I first became chronically ill. I thought it was my fault. I actually believed that my inability to regain my health represented some personal failing on my part. Talk about taking something you’re already struggling with (your health) and making things worse!
How can you learn to counter this tendency to take disappointments and struggles personally? Here are two strategies:
1. Practice becoming mindful of your tendency to blame yourself when things don’t go as you wish, or as you planned.
Work on becoming aware of how you react to disappointment and to your struggles in life. Do you immediately jump to the conclusion that whatever isn’t going your way is your fault? Recognizing your tendency to blame yourself in these situations is the first step in changing this thinking pattern because once you recognize what you do, you can ask yourself if your response is a rational and reasonable one.
When you ask yourself this, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that blaming yourself for disappointments and struggles makes no sense; they’re an inevitable part of the human experience. No one gets a “pass” on them, because no one gets what he or she wants all the time.
This kind of mindful awareness can help you replace self-blame with self-compassion. Let’s face it: Life is hard sometimes. You make it harder when you take the bumps in the road personally. There’s no reason to do this because those bumps are part of everyone’s life experience.
2. Recognize that you often don’t know why people act as they do.
When you feel let down by someone — your partner is irritable, your friend doesn’t call for weeks, you don’t get that promotion — instead of taking it personally by blaming yourself, recognize that it’s often not clear why people act as they do.
Everyone’s life story is playing out in his or her own unique way. Your partner may be irritable because of something that happened at work. Your friend might not be calling, because she’s overwhelmed with family commitments. And, as mentioned above, there could be any number of reasons why you didn’t get that promotion.
Bottom line: You often don’t know why others behave as they do. Therefore, to take their behavior personally isn’t fair (or kind) to yourself.
Second form: You feel responsible for other people’s happiness — and for their disappointments and struggles.
This is the second form that personalization takes. You think you’re responsible for how others are doing, whether it be their ability to be happy, to succeed in some way, or even something as minor as whether they had a good time with you when you last visited. What a burden to impose on yourself! No wonder personalization is often called “the mother of all guilt.”
Here’s a strategy for countering this form of personalization:
1. Question the validity of your belief that you’re responsible for other people.
To try this, first bring to mind a person you feel responsible for and then fill in the blank:
I’m responsible for his/her ___________________________.
2. Having a good time
3. Social life
4. Grades in school
5. Success on the job
6. Ability to stay in a relationship
7. Skill at coping with adversity
Now consider whether holding yourself responsible for how well another person is doing is a realistic assessment of how life works (including your ability to control and even influence other people). It is not. People’s happiness, successes, and ability to cope are dependent on any number of factors: their personal life history, their childhood influences (such as from parents and teachers), even their genetic make-up.
Having reflected on this little exercise above, now say to yourself: “I am not responsible for this person’s struggles and disappointments in life. I’m willing to help if I can, but everyone has to make their own way in this world. Sometimes they’ll succeed at something, and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll have a good time, and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll be happy, and sometimes they won’t. It’s that way for me; it’s that way for everyone.”
Overcoming this second form of personalization can be a challenge. It requires making a serious effort to stop believing that you’re responsible for other people’s lives, particularly those you hold dearest. It helps to revisit this exercise and then repeat some version of the words in the previous paragraph. When you are able to let go of feeling responsible for others, it’s not only free, it’s also likely to lead to a better relationship with the person in question.