Today we’re on to part 7 of our series on the most common “cognitive distortions,” or thinking errors.
Cognitive distortion #7 is…
What it is:
Personalization is a cognitive distortion that involves taking things personally, even when they have nothing to do with you. It assumes that everything others say or do is a direct response to you, regardless of the circumstances.
It discounts other contextual factors and magnifies a sense of hyper-responsibility for everyone else’s behavior. (In that sense, it’s a close cousin of the “fallacy of internal control” which we covered last week.)
When it happens:
Personalization typically arises when we are feeling insecure, vulnerable, or criticized. And like the other cognitive distortions, it involves internal storytelling and assumptions that are not entirely grounded in fact.
Personalization tends to go hand-in-hand with self-blame, taking responsibility for things that are not actually our own fault or within our control.
What to do if you catch yourself personalizing:
The first step is to recognize the distortion for what it is. Pause and ask yourself, “What other reasons could this be happening, that have nothing to do with me?”
This is a useful exercise to shift the brain into curiosity mode, and opens up a sense of possibility – while still leveraging its innate tendency to make up explanatory stories.
You might generate a few possible alternative explanations for the situation. Then, consider if there’s any objective evidence to support any of those explanations.
(Of course, if you are able to objectively determine that you really DID do something to elicit the response, take responsibility for your part and address the situation as needed. But for the sake of this post we’re more focused on the reactions that truly don’t have anything to do with you personally.)
Even if you can’t really identify the reason someone responded to you the way they did, this brainstorming and evidence-seeking exercise loosens our grip on the personalization narrative and creates a bit more lightness and potential for objectivity in the process. The more often you practice that questioning exercise, the weaker the personalization habit becomes.
And as always, practice self-compassion. Personalization hitches a ride on that cranky old inner critic, so try to approach yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would to a dear friend in a vulnerable moment.