This is the 3rd post in my series about Cognitive Distortions, and I am going to cover Personalization. This is a distortion that can include believing that you are responsible for things outside of your control, or it could also mean interpreting things in a way that always reflects back on you. As with all cognitive distortions, this may be something that we have all done once in a while, but if you find that you get in the habit of taking things personally when you don’t really need to, you may want to reflect on how you’re thinking about events that happen around you.
On the first part, believing that you are responsible for things that are actually out of your control, you might feel a sense of guilt or shame about things that are not your fault or that you couldn’t have controlled. For example, if your partner is struggling with a health condition, but isn’t following their treatment recommendations, and you then feel responsible for not doing enough to help when their health declines. Supporting your partner doesn’t mean that you have to take responsibility for things that are out of your control. It’s always important to understand what you do have control over, because we all need to be able to take responsibility for our own actions and choices when we can. Yet we also need to understand when something is out of our control, and recognize our own limitations.
The second part of Personalization is when you turn things around to reflect on you when an event or situation may not be about you at all. Sometimes this comes from a sense of insecurity or anxiety. For example, if you walk into the break room at work, and everyone stops talking, and you mistakenly start to believe that everyone must be talking about you behind your back. In reality, that could have happened for any number of reasons. Maybe they were discussing something private, or maybe it was just one of those weird moments when the room goes quiet. Regardless, if you don’t know for certain what’s going on, you don’t have to waste your energy worrying about it. Sometimes we think situaitons are about us when they really are not. One thing to consider is that most of the time, other people are worried about themselves and thinking about themselves. This just means that most of the time they’re not thinking or worrying about you. Of course there are people who spend their time focused on other people, and in general you don’t want to spend too much time involved with people who gossip or are just snarky in general. Even when someone is treating you poorly, their behavior is about them, not you. It’s easier to handle difficult people when you realize that the way they treat others is actually a reflection of how they feel about themselves. Most of the time, you won’t be able to do anything to change those kinds of people, so you just need to focus on being the kind of person you want be.
If you find that you are often personalizing situations at times when you don’t need to, reflect on why you think this has become a pattern. You may need to ask yourself why you feel responsible for things that you cannot control, or if you are holding yourself to a high standard that no one could realistically meet. Sometimes you may need to ask yourself “is this really about me?” to get a better understanding of a situation and understand how much control you really have. Try to practice asking yourself some of these questions when you are thinking about a situation and believe that it is about you or something you did. If you think that insecurity or anxiety is playing a role in how you are interpreting a situation, you can practice reminding yourself that you are working on not personalizing situations. This is one of those times when I will often recommend developing a personal mantra. A mantra can be any simple phrase that you use to center your thoughts and help clear your mind of negativity. It could be as simple as something like “Peace,” or it could be something more specific. For more on developing a personal mantra, see this post:
Changing patterns of thinking can be challenging, but the good news is that with practice it becomes easier. Once you are used to reflecting on your thoughts and taking more control over your own mindset, you will be building your emotional intelligence and you will feel more in control over your mentality and your moods.
For more about cognitive distortions, see my other posts in this series: