We manage life through a smooth balance of protecting our ego and accomplishing tasks that ensure survival and fulfill desires. Life doesn’t march along smoothly, at least not as smoothly as we desire. We crash into unplanned walls of disappointment, failure, and resistance. We dust ourselves off, pickup the pieces, and continue towards our goal. However, the past doesn’t disappear. It percolates in our mind. We give the failures meaning, drawing conclusions, learning lessons, and integrating the event into our new narrative of self. When we primarily project the causes of our failures onto outside causes, we call this externalization.
In psychology, we refer to externalization as a defense mechanism. We externalize by projecting behaviors, feelings, or emotions on outside forces. Instead of viewing the cause of a disturbing event as a personal failure, we view it as an unfortunate string of circumstances or bad behavior of others.
Externalization is attributing causes to discomforting events to outside circumstances. In psychology, we externalize through use of the defense mechanism of projection.
Dorothy Hochreich explains that a person who possesses an external orientation projects blame “for personal inadequacies and failures onto bad luck or the malevolent influences of other people.” She continues, “by using blame projection…the external person thereby avoids taking personal responsibility or actual or anticipated failures” (1975).
Externalizers adopt an external locus of control as a defense mechanism. “The rationale behind this concept is that attributing reinforcement control to forces outside of himself, the individual is freed from the responsibility for outcomes of his own behavior and is thus relieved of the personal threat that those outcomes may incur” (Prociuk & Breen, 1975).
Example of Externalization
The other day, while I was with my grandchildren at the park, I overheard a few friends rousing a young man for failing to capture a milestone event on video. He responded, “it wasn’t my fault. I had my dog on a leash, he jumped and pulled my hand and the video function turned off.”
Externalizers masterfully take any cause for a behavior and shift responsibility to the cause. In reality, everything we do has a preceding cause, some trigger in the environment leading to our reaction. We easily can identify that event and point to that event as responsible for our behavior, never taking responsibility for anything, whether it is violently assaulting an innocent victim, burglarizing a store, or failing to record a baby’s first steps.
In interviews of perpetrators of serious crimes, researchers Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discovered that “most of the perpetrators reported, at least in retrospect, that what they did was reasonable; their actions might have been regrettable, but they were understandable, given the circumstances.” In addition, the perpetrators that regretted their behavior but minimized it. They greatly maximized any external or mitigating circumstances while minimizing their role in the event (2020, location 3,044).
As George Valliant explains, their “distortion grossly reshapes external reality to suit inner needs” (1998).
Are their Benefits to Externalizing?
We externalize because we derive some benefit from the practice. Assigning cause is always subject to bias. We succumb to the fundamental attribution error, harshly blaming others and circumstances while excusing ourselves from responsibility. Many optimistic thinkers soothe their egos through a practice of externalizing. Over personalizing causes may contribute to depression.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote that “personalization also overgeneralizes events as personally relevant, taking unrealistic responsibility for outcomes beyond one’s control” (2021). The optimal goal is taking enough responsibility that we can make necessary behavioral adjustments in the future to not repeat maladaptive behaviors.
Other Forms of Externalization
Another form of externalization in literature is externalizing inner emotions and judgements onto others. Jerome Blackman wrote “a special form of projection where you experience a part of your mind as ‘external’ to yourself. You might think someone or ‘society’ will criticize you, when actually you feel self-critical” (2003). Basically. I critically and unconsciously judge myself for a behavior (ego ideal), project my thoughts onto someone else and get angry at them for judging me in such a harsh manner.
Dangers of Externalization
Externalizing damages relationships and prevents personal growth. Many of our difficulties arise from circumstances we had some control over. Failing to recognize our role in our current circumstances blinds us to resolutions to the problems. For example, a person suffering from heart disease may ignore their poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyle and blame the genetic factors. This relieves them from guilt over self-destructive behaviors. However it also diminishes their opportunity for change.
Dr. Les carter suggests that ““emotionally independent people do not require that all the external factors be in place first before they can proceed with healthy plans. Armed with well-conceived priorities, they look for a way to put their best qualities into action, especially in circumstances that might otherwise evoke traits that are inconsistent with their convictions” (2009, location 1,143).
Wayne Dyer preaches to “decide that any and all unhappiness that you choose will never be the result of someone else, but rather that it will be the result of you and your own behavior. Remind yourself constantly that any externally caused unhappiness reinforces your own slavery, since it assumes that you have no control over yourself or them, but they have control over you” (2009, page 171).
A Few Final Words by Psychology Fanatic
Certainly, we can’t rely on a perfect balance between externalizing and personalizing. As we can watch for signs of over-reliance on one or the other, we can make necessary adjustments to keep our life moving forward without the wait of unnecessary guilt.
Blackman, Jerome S. (2003). 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself. Routledge; 1st edition
Carter, Les (2009). The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life. Jossey-Bass; 1st edition
Dyer, Wayne W. (2009). Your Erroneous Zones: Step-by-Step Advice for Escaping the Trap of Negative Thinking and Taking Control of Your Life. William Morrow Paperbacks; 1st Harper Perennial ed edition.
Hochreich, Dorothy J. (1975). Defensive externality and blame projection following failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(3), 540-546.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Personalization. Psychology Fanatic. Published 8-3-2021. Accessed 3-19-2023.
Prociuk, T., & Breen, L. (1975). Defensive externality and its relation to academic performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(3), 549-556.
Tavris, Caroll; Aronson, Elliot (2020). Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition
Valliant, George (1998). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition