Personalization: “Everyone thinks this is my fault!”, “He said he was still hungry, I must be an awful cook and a failure”, “Compared to my friends, I am going nowhere in life”.
Personalization is the tendency to relate everything around us back to ourselves. This distortion comes in many different shapes and forms. At its core are concerns about how we are being judged, perceived and performing. This form of projection can become like a witch hunt where everything that is happening around us us related back to ourselves in some negative way.
Our fears are so terrible for us that we imagine they are coming true all around us. Everything points to us being failures, awful or bad. Our friends getting married means we never will. The team losing the final, all our fault for missing that chance. My grumpy manager’s mood means she hates me and thinks I’m lazy.
Personalization is something that all young children do when bad things happen around them. As children we lack the ability to appraise things accurately from the perspectives of others. As such, children may think that Mommy and Daddy are arguing because they have been bold. They can’t see the other factors, for example the money, alcohol, infidelity or power struggles etc. that may cause parents to row. Children naturally grow out of this as their ego development helps them see that they are part of a collective and are not responsible for all effects in others.
However, as adults we can occasionally fall back into this pattern and chronically take things personally. In this article we will go through how personalization may occur and how to combat its negative effects. There are three major forms of Personalization which we will cover and I will go through each of them.
- The belief that something that happened is our fault.
A somewhat depressed mother blames herself when she sees any sadness in her children. A manager’s team is under performing so he 100% to blame. A counselor’s client numbers drop off in the summer, therefore he tells himself he must be an awful therapist.
This type of personalization is closely linked with catastrophic thinking which we covered last week. However, in this case the negative conclusion is drawn that: “what is happening is not only awful…. but that I am to blame”. Again, these types of conclusions seem logical, but only due to our assumptions that “I am awful”, “no good”, “bad “or “incompetent” etc. These kind of insecurities bring personalization to life.
The kind of person who might worry in this way could also feel like they always ruin everything. There can also be an unreasonable expectation on the self to make everyone else happy. The logic goes that: if it’s my job to make everyone else XYZ (“happy”, “productive”, “safe”, etc.), and then they are not XYZ, then I am bad = anxiety.
- The belief that what someone says or does is a reference to us.
A recently married man thinks that every time his wife talks about tiredness she means she is tired of him. She goes to bed he feels rejected. A man whose wife complains about rising prices hears the complaints as attacks on his abilities as a breadwinner. A woman who hears someone else say there is a funny smell thinks that the person is talking about her. When the person walks away it feels like a complete rejection.
In this type of personalization, there are similarities to Filtering where we only take the negative element of something. Then despite a lack of evidence, we relate comments and actions back to ourselves. This can contravene evidence. For instance the girl who worried about smelling bad maybe forgot that she had a shower before coming out, is wearing antiperspirant and perfume and hasn’t broken a sweat.
Hearing criticism where it was not intended is a part of this pattern. As is having feelings hurt consistently by things that are not intended in that way. Sensing rejection or criticism in actions and words when it is not there. Perhaps, somewhere inside us we worry about being criticized or unloved, etc. These beliefs, even hidden unconsciously, will impact how we interpret the meaning of words and events. See our blog on texting and texting back if this resonates.
- Continually comparing ourselves to what others are able to do.
A major aspect of personalization is the habit of continually comparing ourselve to other people: ‘He plays piano so much better than I do … I’m not smart enough to go with this crowd … She knows herself a lot better than I do … He feels things so deeply while I’m dead inside … I’m the slowest person in the office … He’s dumb (and I’m smart) … They listen to her but not to me’.
The opportunities for comparison never end. The underlying assumption is that our worth is questionable. We are therefore continually forced to test our value as people by measuring ourselves against others. If we come out better, we have a moment’s relief. If we come up short, we feel diminished.
This can strike us when we compare where we are compared to peers or siblings in terms of relationships, jobs, having kids, going on holidays/travelling and in how we look to name just a few. Our feeling of being less than constantly triggers us to compare what we don’t have with others. This channels self criticism, negativity and anxiety.
These three distorted personalizations can make us feel anxious, defensive, closed off and under attack when really these feelings are internal to us. They are not in reality, and they cause us nothing but pain and confusion. I see clients who get these feelings all the time, they take the blame, they feel attacked when that’s not the case and they compare themselves to others.
There is a way out! If we identify that personalization is a factor for us in our lives, we have a job to do! One of the first things we can do is it check out if the focus of the personalization is really is to do with us.
Forcing ourselves to prove that another’s reaction is to do with us is one way to start. If we have no evidence we can ask the person: “is it related to me” and see what they say. We can also use the three-column technique shown in our blog on Overgeneralization to test our conclusions.
Make no conclusions unless we are satisfied that we have reasonable evidence and proof. It is also important to abandon the habit of comparing ourselves – negatively or positively – with other people. Comparisons are an exciting form of gambling. Sometimes we win and really outshine someone else. But when we lose, we set ourselves up for a blow to our self-esteem and maybe the beginning of a long, deep depression.
More than likely we will pick the people that have by luck, circumstances or things outside of our control done better than us. But remember no ones life is a paradise free of suffering. To suffer is human and even lotto winners report depression and anxiety. Crucially our worth doesn’t depend on being better than others, so why start the comparison gamble?
Psychotherapy and CBT can help us to realize when we are personalizing. We have a special network of Psychotherapists located around the country who are waiting to help.
Other Distorted Thinking styles are also extremely important for how we deal with and suffer from anxiety. Distorted thinking styles include: Filtering, Polarized Thinking, Over-generalization, Mind Reading, Catastraphizing, Personalization, Control Fallacies, The Fallacy of Fairness, Emotional Reasoning, The Fallacy of Change, Global Labeling, Blaming, Shoulds, Being Right and Heaven’s Rewards Fallacy.
If readers ever need help with anxiety, please do remember people can contact Anxiety Ireland via our Facebook Page, If curious about anxiety please feel free to visit our website, take our anxiety quiz or get anxiety help. On this page we will continue to write about Anxiety and related topics.
In our next blog we will be discussing Control Fallacies.
Team Anxiety Ireland
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