Many of us fall into the trap of personalization. This is a type of thinking pattern where we take responsibility and blame ourselves for something, irrespective of whether we had any control over the outcome.
Consider the last time your partner was upset, your child had a meltdown, or your boss didn’t give you a promotion. What was the story in your head? For those of us who personalize, our thoughts are something along the lines of:
- I didn’t work hard enough
- If only I had tried harder.
- What could I have done differently?
- I’m not good at this. I’m a screw up
- They’re going to hate me.
When we personalize, we assume that we’ve done something wrong. We make meaning of the situation: it’s our fault and our actions have caused this screw up. Personalization does not take into consideration others’ influence. It does not take into account any external factors that could have affected the situation. Instead, we are to blame.
How we tend to deal with personalization:
No one actually enjoys personalizing. It’s lousy to hear, “it’s all on me.” So our system tries to compensate when we are overwhelmed with guilt, shame, or low self-worth. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our minds find ways to prevent personalization from happening. We avoid people and situations who make us feel like screw ups. We work even harder to prevent mistakes from taking place. We stay quiet so that we don’t accidentally say something offensive or incorrect. We learn to accommodate and focus on pleasing others so that they won’t become upset with us. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, we’re human and we get triggered. Because there’s a tendency to take on all that blame, at some point in time, we fall into the trap of personalizing once again. When this happens, our systems try and extinguish that blame. We find ways to self-soothe, distract, and get rid of this internal discomfort. If you’re like me, you may go down the rabbit hole of researching “how to handle emotions”. Perhaps you go for a run or an intense workout trying to shake off these uncomfortable feelings. Or, you may become fraught with disgust and anger towards yourself. Ironically, when your system is filled with this self-hatred, it’s attempting to punish the guilt. It’s hoping that all that anger will somehow compensate for that uncomfortable feeling.
The Opposite of Personalizing: Blaming
Our minds are constantly attempting to find equilibrium. So when we personalize, there are also parts of us that try and compensate by blaming. We blame friends, colleagues, babies, family members for putting us in this position. We start to feel upset with them about who they are, their behaviours and their decisions. We may have thoughts like, “if only they weren’t this way… they are being so difficult… they are causing their own problems”. In hopes of trying to reduce the internal blame, we bring our attention outwards to other people.
The caveat here is that you still feel lousy. Now you’re balancing that line between being upset with yourself AND being upset with another person. There’s limited self-compassion in this space, and there is limited kindness towards the other person.
What can I do?
#1 Recognize that it is a part of you, not all of you.
Internal Family Systems therapy introduces the concept that our mind can be divided into various parts. There is a part of you that takes things personally. It is one part of your mind, your consciousness, your emotional state, your personality. When this feeling takes over, it gets incredibly big. However, it is one part. It is not all of you.
You have thousands of moments during the day when you shift out of personalizing to a different state of mind. You are filled with self-loathing, then become angry, then you try to distract yourself, and so forth. These are all parts and they step in and step away at any point in time. Our internal struggle worsens when we say, “I’m horrible. I’m a terrible person. I should have done something.” Instead, we can shift our perspective by recognizing that, “in this moment, there is a part of me that feels it’s horrible, believes it’s a terrible person, and wishes it had done things differently.”
# 2 Notice how this part shows up
There’s a huge shift in intensity when we start to identify and label our emotions. When we are in the emotion, our amygdala (the feeling centre in our brain) is highly activated. Naming the feeling activates our prefrontal cortex (considered the planning, decision-making and moderating behaviours part of our brain).
When you personalize, start with acknowledging this part. Slow it down and notice how you’re aware of this part taking over. Does it show up as a thought? What happens to your body when you personalize? What starts to feel heavy, tense, or jittery? Where in your body do you feel this sensation? Are there images that come to mind as you slow it down and focus on the personalization? Sometimes memories come up. Sometimes a visual comes to mind. See if it’s possible to stay curious and keep noticing.
These steps of naming and noticing help you shift out of being IN the emotion into becoming more aware and observant of your emotion.
#3 Take note of what you influenced and what you could not control
When we are no longer in an emotion, there is more space to see the bigger picture. When this happens, we can better appreciate the aspects of a situation that were and weren’t in our control. When we are no longer overwhelmed by shame, guilt, or blame, we know that we cannot control others, read their minds, or know what is going on in their worlds.
When we personalize, we come up with moral meanings about a situation. When we are not in this emotional state of personalizing, we can step back and look at the scenario more objectively. We can recognize that there are many other reasons that could impact these circumstances. Consider the following scenarios:
|Situation||Moral Meaning that Personalization takes on:||Other Explainations|
|Baby will not stop crying||I am bad at parenting.||The baby is learning a new skill, going through a growth spurt, is adjusting to sleeping independently. or feeling uncomfortable.|
|My spouse looks unhappy||I am not making my spouse happy. I am not worthy of being in a relationship.||My spouse had a tough day, slept poorly, heard some difficult news, needs some self-care time.|
|I did not get the promotion||I am incompetent||There were others who had the required skills, have been at the company longer, have more experience, had more flexibility in their schedule and tasks.|
|They did not invite me to join them.||I am unloveable.||They did not invite me because they did not think I’d enjoy the activity, wanted to spend some time alone, intend to invite me for other activities in the future.|
|I made a social faux-pas||I am a horrible human being.||It is human to make mistakes. I can apologize and take accountability for my impact. I can trust myself to take the time for repair work in these relationships.|
#4 There’s always a history
We don’t automatically start to personalize from the moment we are born. This is a learned behaviour. As you get curious, notice if you can become open to understanding this history. How did your system learn to personalize? At what point did personalizing feel like the safest option? Perhaps you got blamed as a child. Maybe your caregivers continued to shame and tell you that you didn’t try hard enough. Maybe conflicts felt really scary during your lifetime. In these circumstances, it may have felt easier to become upset with yourself, rather than acknowledge the other person’s influence.
These initial onsets are what triggered this pattern of personalizing. When these initial wounds are addressed, your emotional state softens and no longer personalizes. A large piece of therapy is getting to these core wounds. Whether it’s that moment when your caregivers shamed, or that time when you got blamed as a kid, these moments stick with you. With therapy, we work at a slow and trusting pace to process these memories and unload all of the meaning, distress and vulnerabilities we’ve taken on from these moments in time.
Let me know your thoughts about personalization. What do you notice about your system? What strategies do you use to reduce this internal distress?