Do you see yourself as the cause of things you are not responsible for? Or feel responsible for other people’s happiness? If you answer yes to either of these questions, you are most likely engaged in personalization, one of 15 common errors in thinking called cognitive distortions.
A cognitive distortion is where the brain, in essence, lies to you. Personalization is such a distortion where one consistently relates external events to themselves, even when there is no basis for making this connection. As an example, you blame yourself for something you didn’t do. “If only I were a better mother, little Johnny would not be failing math this year.” “If only I pushed harder to get my wife out of the door on time, the hostess would not have overcooked her dinner.”
Personalization is a major source of anxiety and discontent and is often accompanied by a crippling sense of guilt. It can also lead to self-blame and condemnation, which can make you even more miserable and add to mental suffering.
Let’s explore two forms of personalization and then look at some ways to counteract this erroneous thinking.
Two Forms of Personalization
Personalization generally appears in two forms. In the first form, you take your own struggles and disappointments personally. In the second form, you feel responsible for people’s happiness, taking on the job of making sure that those whom you care about are successful at whatever they undertake.
Everyone experiences setbacks, struggles, and disappointments. It is a common occurrence in everyday life. However, when you personalize these setbacks, you treat these occurrences as the result of some character failing on your part. This first form of personalization makes one feel responsible for something that one cannot change and results in self-esteem taking a huge hit.
The second form of personalization leaves you feeling responsible for another person’s happiness and for their success. This type of personalization was demonstrated in the mother who felt she was failing her son, who was failing his math class. Here responsibility is taken by the wrong person and the person with whom the responsibility lies avoids dealing with their issues.
Overcoming Personalization in Your Life
There are several strategies that you can apply to overcome or counteract personalization in your life:
- Practice awareness of blaming yourself when things do not go as you wish – be mindful of how you react to struggles and disappointment in your life. Ask yourself if your response to the situation is a reasonable and rational one. By practicing awareness, you can replace self-blame with self-compassion. Be gentler to yourself about your imperfections, mistakes, and lack of specific skills.
- Do not turn setbacks into catastrophes – if you experience rejection or negative feedback, it does not mean that you will never be successful or lack the capacity to become better at something. It is not zero-sum, all-or-nothing setbacks – just opportunities to grow and change.
- Label your emotions accurately – analyze the emotions that are triggering personalization in you (e.g. disappointment, anger, or embarrassment). By labeling the emotion you are feeling, you will better be able to apply self-care to deal with the emotion. Accept that you are having the emotion and patiently wait for it to pass.
- Understand that you often do not know why people act the way they do – everyone’s life story is playing out in a unique way, so it is not often clear why people behave in a certain manner. Do not take responsibility for other people’s behavior or take it personally by blaming yourself.
- Stop believing you are responsible for other people’s decisions – make a realistic assessment of why the other person is responsible for their decisions. Their happiness, success, and ability to cope are dependent on any number of factors, some of which include childhood influences and personal life history. Individuals are responsible for their own decisions and reactions to life’s stressors.
By applying some or all of these strategies to your life, you can free yourself from the self-blame and condemnation that accompanies personalization, most especially the crippling sense of guilt. You will be able to live in the reality of being responsible for your own actions and decisions while not taking on the responsibilities of others unnecessarily. Overcoming personalization will help you find more freedom in your life and relationships with others.