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:
The Power of a Personal Mantra
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:
Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing
Cognitive Distortions 2.0: Disqualifying the Positive
This is the second post in the series I am doing about Cognitive Distortions. For more about what cognitive distortions are and how they negatively impact out life and world-view, see my first post on Coping with Cognitive Distortions: Catastrophizing.
This week I’m going to talk about another distortion called “Disqualifying the Positive”. Disqualifying the positive means we are recognizing only negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. Perhaps you receive a compliment or a positive statement on an evaluation you receive at work or a paper you have turned in, but you only focus on the single negative feedback you also received on your work. When you are in the habit of disqualifying the positive, it makes it hard to recognize the good things you have done, leaving you feeling inadequate, or sometimes even worthless or incompetent. Therapists sometimes refer to this as having a case of the “Yes, but…”s.
Have you ever had a friend that was feeling down, but when you tried to cheer them up, they just refuted everything positive you had to say? Perhaps you tried to compliment someone on a new opportunity they received at work, and the response was “Yes, but they only gave it to me because they already promoted Becky and she’s not around to do it anymore”. When we constantly disqualify the positive things we have going for us in life, or only look to the negative aspects of the situation, we are really not looking at the given situation with the true lenses of reality. Not only is it inaccurate, you’re missing out on the joy you could be experiencing by allowing yourself to recognize the positive things you have going for you.
In life there are few things that are all good or all bad. Even if you’re going to take a vacation in Hawaii, there’s no way you’re getting around that long plane ride. However, if you focus only on how long and cramped and boring the plane ride will be and how much you’re not looking forward to it, you’ll arrive at your vacation grumpy and tired. Some people have a special knack for disqualifying the positive wherever they go, and in general these people aren’t the most pleasant to be around. Other people always have to spend time pointing out to them the positive aspects of the given situation until they begrudgingly accept that there may be a positive to be found somewhere in there.
The antidote to this cognitive distortion is gratitude. Looking for places to find gratitude wherever you go can be a habit that you cultivate. When we look for the positive in any situation we face, we become happier overall, and we become more resilient to negative situations or feedback when it does happen. Some people can accomplish this with starting a gratitude practice, or you can journal about things you are grateful for. They can be very simple things. Even when negative experiences happen, there is usually a lesson that can be taken from the experience, or a kernel of gratitude that can be found if you look for it. If you lose a loved one, perhaps you choose to include a reflection of the positive memories you had with that person as you journey through your grief process, or perhaps you choose to honor their memory by giving back to a charity your loved one cared about. It doesn’t make the loss go away, but it can help with the grieving process and take something negative and insert a little positivity into the situation. There is a great list of simple things to be grateful for over at Radical Transformation Project here:
50 Things to be Grateful for Right Now
For some people, particularly if you have struggled with depression or low self-esteem in your life, looking for the positive doesn’t come naturally. That’s okay because it is a habit that can be changed if you want to start thinking in a more positive and realistic way about your life and your accomplishments. You do not have to automatically disqualify everything positive that happens to you just because there are also negative things that happen. When we ruminate on the negative and give that negativity more energy than we give positivity, the negativity starts to rule our lives. Sometimes, that negative voice that sneaks up on you when something good happens may really be the voice of someone who abused or neglected you, someone who convinced you that you were not worthy of enjoying your life, or that you didn’t deserve good things and didn’t deserve to be recognized when you did something well. Many of us have to learn to combat those negative voices in our heads by consciously choosing to listen to the positive. Think about it like having that little devil on one shoulder and that little angel on then other shoulder. The little angel is trying to say something positive to you, and that little devil just whispers in your other ear “Yes, but…”
Make a decision that you are going to start recognizing the good aspects of the situations you find yourself in, and stop disqualifying the positive. As with any problem, the first step is recognizing that the problem exists and making a commitment to want to change it. When you start to hear “Yes, but…” creeping into your vocabulary, that’s when you know it’s time to brush the little devil off your shoulder and listen to what your little angel has to say to you. It’s okay to be proud of yourself, it’s okay to be imperfect, and it’s okay to take the good along with the bad in any given situation. This doesn’t mean that we put on rose colored glasses and ignore negative situations that need to be attended to or dealt with. It just means that we don’t disqualify the positive at the same time, thereby robbing ourselves of the ability to see both the good and the bad in a situation.
Battling cognitive distortions is not about disqualifying the negative or never making a plan to deal with a bad situation. It just means that we are looking at the full picture with attention to what the reality of the situation is, so that we don’t over-emphasize negativity when it’s not warranted.
This post is going to be the first in a series of posts that I will be doing about Cognitive Distortions. Cognitive distortions are basically little mind games we engage in, or tricks that we play on ourselves that distort how we think about the situations we are in or how we interpret events that happen to us. They can be self-limiting and cause us distress because we are using our emotions to create a narrative that may not be truly accurate. We all fall victim to these cognitive distortions from time to time, but as individuals we may engage in one or more cognitive distortions regularly, so it can be helpful to recognize when we have an ingrained pattern of thinking that is distorted and needs to be changed in order to increase our mental wellness and have a healthy mentality. Today I’m going to talk about a very common cognitive distortion that I have found many of my clients identify with when we talk about these mental tricks we play on ourselves: Catastrophizing.
Catastrophizing basically happens when we take a situation and either make it have more significance than it really deserves (turn it into a catastrophe when it doesn’t have to be) or we predict that a catastrophe is going to occur before we really know the outcome of a situation. Basically this means that you are always expecting the worst case scenarios, and you may take ordinary problems and interpret them in ways that become overwhelming and seem insurmountable.
We often cannot see the positive in a given situation when we are in the midst of a crisis. Yet given time, many situations that we stress and worry about will resolve themselves with time, or you can solve the problem with a little effort. To give you an example, I will discuss a common situation that I ran into with clients: those who were being separated from the military. Being separated from the military can be extremely stressful because it entails a huge shift in your lifestyle. You go from having the military basically be in charge of all major decisions in your life (where you live, for how long, what job you have, where you get benefits for your family from) to being out on your own and in need of a job that provides some of the stability and security that the military provided while you were active duty. In the best of circumstances you have a chance to plan ahead and move forward with those plans when your separation date approaches. However, not everyone gets a lot of advance notice. Sometimes people get separated because of an injury or disability, sometimes people don’t get higher tenure and have to separate, some people don’t make the fitness requirements and have to separate, or they get into trouble because of behavioral problems and face involuntary separation. Regardless of the reason they have to separate they are losing their job. Anyone can understand how stressful and difficult it must feel to know that you are about to lose your job, income, and benefits.
However, just as with everything else in life, we can choose how to interpret and cope with this information. You can argue that being involuntarily separated from the military is, indeed, a catastrophe. That is how many of my clients interpreted their situation when they realized that separation was a possibility. However, once we dug a little deeper into their options, the situation was not always so catastrophic. In fact, we often discovered that separating from the military could end up being a positive change that propelled their lives forward in ways that helped them pursue their higher goals. They realized that they would finally have time to go back to school to pursue other career goals, or they realized that they would no longer have to deal with stress of deployments, the separation from their family, or the grueling schedules they had been keeping. Once we were able to process through their options and find the best path for them to move forward, separation didn’t have to be such a catastrophe. Certainly the adjustment would still be stressful, but it didn’t mean that their lives or their careers were over with. Re-framing the situation to look for opportunities instead of looking only at the catastrophic event of involuntary separation helped them to put their energy into making plans for their future instead of ruminating on the looming changes in a negative way and thinking about all the things they would not have access to anymore. The situation hadn’t changed at all, but the way we were looking at it had.
This is a powerful shift that anyone can do. If you find that you often interpret events that happen as a total catastrophe that you have no control over and can only result in terrible things, or presume that the worst possible outcome will indeed occur, think about how much distress this way of thinking is causing you. Look for your choices. We always have choices, even when we feel that we don’t. The reason this is true is because even in the worst situations, where there appear to be no choices, we always have a choice about our mentality. Sometimes our mind is the only thing we CAN control, and so that’s why it’s so important to make sure your mentality is healthy. Few people get through life without some major hurdles, so we all will come face to face with difficult circumstances or unexpected setbacks. However, choosing to look at a situation and decide that it is a catastrophe will only increase your suffering, and doesn’t help you resolve the issue. Recognizing this pattern and learning to look for your choices will help you to stop turning ordinary problems into overwhelming disasters. Cognitive distortions don’t do us any favors. They may be common, but they don’t have to rule over our emotions if we don’t let them. Ask yourself what difference this situation might make to you in a year, or 5 years. Chances are, many situations are going to be resolved and you will have moved past them by that time, or you may have to make some adjustments in your life. Of course there may be times when an actual catastrophe happens, but that just means you need to reserve your energy and focus to deal with the major problems that you WILL have to deal with, and stop letting ordinary situations (like your boss criticizing your work performance) have undue influence over your mood and happiness.