If you often feel responsible for other people’s happiness or failure, you might be dealing with a negative thinking pattern called personalization.
There are many things you cannot control in life. You can’t control how people act or day-to-day events, such as traffic and even the health problems of your loved ones.
Learning how to recognize personalization will help you stay in reality. It reduces stress and overwhelm in your life. Here’s how to recognize and overcome it.
What is Personalization?
Personalization is one of the cognitive distortions where you believe that things are connected to you even though you have nothing to do with the situation.
For example, if a family member’s sickness (let’s say diabetes) worsened, someone who uses personalization might think that this could have been avoided if they took better care of their family member.
People with anxiety-related disorders are prone to experiencing personalization. A study showed that depression symptoms in patients with social anxiety disorder contributed to personalization and two other thinking errors, mental filter and overgeneralization[*].
Symptoms of Personalization
You may find yourself personalizing in situations where it’s completely unnecessary. You’ll know when you’ve fallen into this mental trap again if you:
- Feel guilty or inadequate about a situation you had no control over.
- Assume that other people are targeting you.
- Feel responsible for something bad that happened and that you are to blame.
- Always think that there must be something wrong with you.
Who is at Risk for Personalization?
Mentally well individuals can personalize from time to time, especially when triggered by a stressful situation — for instance, problems at school or work. Anxiety negatively affects your perception of reality[*]. It makes you believe things that may not be true, such as friends gossiping about you or intentionally excluding you from a project.
The risk of personalization also increases among individuals who are chronically anxious and depressed. The more severe their mental health condition, the greater the cognitive distortion[*].
Anxiety and depression triggers can include anything from being in social situations to relationship problems to loss (such as job loss or the death of a loved one).
Examples of Personalization
Check out these examples to recognize personalization in everyday situations:
- Your partner broke up with you and you assume all the blame. “If only I did everything he asked, our relationship wouldn’t have ended.”
- A mother blames herself for her child getting bullied in school. She says, “If I placed my child in a different school, this would have been avoided.”
- Seeing someone post a photo of their recent success, which makes you feel insecure and unworthy even though it had nothing to do with you at all.
- Marie’s friend called her to cancel their coffee date at the last minute due to a “personal emergency.” Marie started convincing herself that her friend was hiding something and that she somehow feels responsible for that cancelled date.
- Avoiding your mom because she had a bad day at work and might lash out at you if you say something that might upset her.
All these situations have one thing in common — all the subjects feel that the negative things in their lives are connected to them. They have failed to accept the fact that not all circumstances are within their control and that everyone is just different.
How Personalization Can Be Harmful
Personalization can result in negative self-talk and self-criticism. It causes you to experience a wide range of painful emotions, such as shame, guilt, and confusion. These emotions are unhealthy and they make you less effective in life.
How to Stop Personalizing
Overcoming the destructive habit of personalizing takes awareness and self-care strategies. The more you can practice coping skills, the better you will feel over time.
Focus on what’s within your control.
Learning to accept the fact that you can’t control others and don’t need to be in charge of everything will help you feel at peace. Perhaps the best thing you can do is to give your best and surrender the rest.
This circle of control handout serves as a helpful reminder to take your mind off of things, such as world problems, whether people like you or not, and how others behave around you.
Know your anxiety triggers so that you can manage them.
Since anxiety gets you trapped in negative thinking, it’s important to recognize what makes you feel anxious. You can have one or multiple triggers and that your own set of triggers may look different from others, so don’t judge yourself.
Answer this worksheet to identify your triggers or your child’s triggers if you are helping them. While your life can’t be completely free of triggers, no matter how you try to avoid them, you can at least prepare for a challenging situation.
Self-compassion means being kind to yourself during difficult times. According to a Harvard Health article, self-compassion comes naturally to some people, while others need to learn it. Mastering it leads to a number of benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression[*].
Here are three ways to treat yourself with kindness each day:
- Mindfulness: Don’t judge your experiences as “good” or “bad.” Stick to facts. (Get this mindfulness handout for more ideas.)
- Positive affirmations: Tell yourself, “I don’t need to be perfect.” (Get this positive affirmations handout for more ideas.)
- Stress relief: Let the little things go. (Get this stress relief handout for more ideas.)
When to Consult an Expert
Anytime is the right time to consult a mental health professional who can offer you support and guidance. There’s no need for you to wait until negative thoughts and emotions get worse, which destroy your inner peace. If you feel that you’re always taking things personally, a therapist can help you explore and reshape your thoughts.
The Bottom Line
We sometimes blame ourselves for things we can’t control, but when it happens more frequently, it can be a sign of personalization. This negative thinking pattern arises during stressful events, although it’s greater in people who are already struggling with anxiety and depression.
Our collection of worksheets can help you develop the skills needed to cope with personalization, but make sure to reach out to a mental health expert who can work through your issues.
- E Kuru, Y Safak, İ Özdemirc et al. Cognitive distortions in patients with social anxiety disorder: Comparison of a clinical group and healthy controls. 2018 April 14
- Miers A, Blöte A, Westernberg M. Negative Social Cognitions in Socially Anxious Youth: Distorted Reality or a Kernel of Truth? 2010 October 02
- Song J, Kim J, Oh C et al. Depression, Anxiety, Related Risk Factors and Cognitive Distortion in Korean Patients with Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 2020 October 30
- Harvard Health Publishing. The power of self-compassion. 2022 February 02