Personalization is a common cognitive distortion where the person inflicted with these irrational thoughts perceives random comments and occurrences as purposely directed at them or personally relevant. Personalization also overgeneralizes events as personally relevant, taking unrealistic responsibility for outcomes beyond one’s control.
Personalization is based on Aaron Beck’s cognitive theories of irrational beliefs and a common target for adjustment during cognitive behavioral therapy.
Emotional Impact of Personalization
What’s wrong with taking personal responsibility, right? Taking responsibility, in many situations, motivates action. The problem is when taking personal responsibility is irrational. We make decisions based on information available at the time of the decision. We often judge the outcome on information available later. And lastly, we take responsibility.
Many things are beyond are control. The serenity prayer is a perfect mindful request for those suffering from personalization: Personalization is repeated failure to know the difference. This failure has emotional consequences, creating a continual source of anxiety and unhappiness. Unforeseen interferences after a decision has been made impact the personalizing victim’s self confidence. They berate themselves with petty judgements, “I should have known better.” Albert Ellis advised his personalizing clients, “stop shoulding on your self!“
Personalization is a self-critical, self-shaming tactic, often coupled with perfectionistic expectations. Whether a person takes on unrealistic expectations, or reads more into the motivations and words of others than reasonably appropriate, the personalization magnifies discomforting emotions. Perhaps, dirties underlying emotions already there in reaction to the external events.
The concept of irrational thoughts impact on sense of wellbeing is strongly tied to early founders of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT). Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis (respectively) theorized that irrational thought was the root of unhappiness.
The early concepts of personalization continue in many forms of positive thinking today. Personalized critical judgements fall under the often cited category of “negative thinking.”
Strategies for Lessoning the Impact of Personalization
Are you ready for conflicting advise? One of the best approaches for mediating personalization is taking responsibility for your tendency to take unrealistic responsibility.
Identifying irrational thought patterns is majority of the battle. They work best when flying under the conscious radar, smoothly disrupting our emotional equilibrium, alarming that something is wrong and that we are deficient. Once we habitually catch these bugaboos of irrational thought, we can challenge them. In cognitive behavioral therapy challenging is a type of reappraisal. Instead of jumping with the first superficial, self-blasting appraisal, theorizing meaning, and placing blame, we can pause, catch our breath and identify other possible explanations.
A few tidbits of reappraisal wisdom:
- We don’t know other people’s underlying motivations
- We aren’t responsible for other people’s success, happiness, or choices
- We can’t perfectly predict every potential factor
By applying wisdom to cognitive reappraisals, we soften (not eliminate) the discomfort. We clean up the distortion and can deal with the original disappointment or underlying emotion.
Underlying Emotions and Personalization
Personalization is often an (mal)adaptive response to discomfort. The underlying emotion, such as fear of rejection, can lead to a stream of personalizing thoughts.
For example, if I am insecure, struggling for a sense of approval, I may interpret others actions as confirmation of this harsh self assessment. “She said that because she thinks I’m stupid.” This personalizing judgement is taking liberty to assign a motivation that matches our insecurity. Our judgement is a self confirming bias that heightens the discomfort. Honestly, people think much less about us than we think. they are too worried about what we think about them.
A Few Final Thoughts on Personalization
Our thoughts are critical, enhancing our mitigating underlying emotions. However, we can’t jump to the conclusion that we are completely in control of the emotional process. Genetic programing plays a significant role. We have underlying sensitivities. Much of our learning early in life begins foundational responses to these sensitivities. In a cruel twist of nature, those that struggle with similar sensitivities (our parents) are the ones that also model maladaptive responses to those sensitivities.
Research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can help. However, seldom does therapy completely extinguish habits solidly based on genetic inheritance and childhood learning. So, please don’t personalize lack of progress in personalization tendencies.