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Unhealthy Thinking Patterns: Personalizing

So far, we’ve talked about how negative focus and overgeneralization can cause your thoughts to take a destructive turn. Today, we’re talking about an unhealthy thinking pattern that can cause you to self-destruct: personalizing.

What personalizing is

Personalizing could also be called self-blame. It involves blaming yourself for something that was not your fault (at least not entirely). Some people might think of it as “taking things personally.”

Here’s the thing: when something happens, there are often a lot of factors at play. A decision that someone makes could be affected by the weather, their mood, their past experiences, what they last ate, and so on. 

That means that blaming yourself is oversimplifying the situation drastically. 

Consider this: what if a group of your colleagues went out to lunch one day, and they didn’t invite you?

If you’re personalizing, you would think something like “They don’t like me.”

However, the reality is probably a combination of many factors. Maybe they were going to a restaurant they know you don’t like, and they didn’t want to pressure you. Maybe they are planning a surprise party for you. They could be having a meeting over lunch that doesn’t require your input. Or they could have just forgotten to ask you.

Jumping to a personal conclusion like “They don’t like me” is personalizing. It’s failing to see all the other explanations for a given scenario because you think it must have something to do with you personally. 

In this way, personalizing is very similar to shame. Shame tells you that you are bad; personalizing reinforces that idea by assuming that something happened because you messed up or are a bad/unlovable/flawed person.

One more thing: personalizing can look like assuming responsibility for something that happens (e.g. if everyone has a good time at a party). When you do this, you fail to think about the other factors that contribute to the success or failure of that event. You take the burden on yourself. You make it personal.

What personalizing looks like

Personalizing is an interesting unhealthy thinking pattern, because it can show up at the oddest times. Depending on your propensity for shame and self-blame, personalizing can happen very easily and very often, and can show up as a response to any number of triggers. 

What I’m saying is personalizing is personal. You personalize differently than I do, because certain things will trigger you but not me, and vice versa.

You can tell if you’re personalizing something because you immediately assume the worst about yourself, and you neglect to consider any other possible explanations.

Personalizing may sound like:

“They must be upset with me.”
“Great, I totally screwed that up.”

“This is why I have no friends.”
“If I hadn’t (x), then (y) wouldn’t have happened.”
“I ruined it.”
“I thought they were my friend.”

Why it’s a problem

Personalizing is a death blow to self-esteem. When you get stuck in this unhealthy thinking pattern, you tend to see the worst in yourself. You start to believe that you are unworthy or unlovable, or that you lack talent or potential. You might feel lonely, isolated, hopeless, or depressed. 

Personalizing can also lead you to compare yourself to others, resulting in an unhealthy competitive attitude or lowered self-esteem.

For these reasons, personalizing is not part of the recipe for happiness in life. 

How it affects you as a creative

As a creative, personalizing can be very damaging.

When you shame yourself, you lower your ability to see your potential, which can make you feel hopeless as a creator.

Comparing yourself to others can demotivate you to pursue your creative endeavors, as you start to think you’ll “never be as good as” someone else.

Lowered self-esteem can make creating (and sharing what you create) feel exceptionally risky. Creating is a risk at the best of times; when you aren’t feeling confident, it might feel like the risk is too great to take.

How to overcome personalizing

Like other unhealthy thinking pattern, personalizing easily becomes a habit. But habits can be broken. Learning how to break free from personalizing can help you build your self-esteem, see yourself in a more positive light, and understand and appreciate nuanced truth.

Recognize what you have control over (and what you don’t).

If your style of personalizing is to take responsibility for everyone’s happiness and for everything going right, then you need to think about control. What do you have control over?

Here’s a hard truth: you will never, ever, have complete control over someone else’s happiness, or over how an external event plays out. Ever. There are too many factors at stake for that to ever be true—factors that are simply outside of your control. 

The only thing you always have complete control over is yourself: your thoughts, your attitude, your actions. Trying to claim control over anything other than that is going to end up in disappointment every time. 

Admit that you don’t know.

Part of the problem with personalizing is that it assumes you know something that you don’t know. You think you know why something is happening (and you think it’s your fault), but if you stopped to think about the evidence you have to support that idea, you’ll probably come up wanting.

When you’re tempted to personalize, remind yourself: I don’t know what’s going on here. You can guess, but you don’t know. And if you don’t know, is it really worth putting yourself through the pain of personalizing?

Remember self-worth.

Self-worth should be a strong foundational principle for everyone. If you know your self-worth, it’s going to be harder for personalizing (or anything, really) to make you feel bad about yourself (or at least, to take those feelings to the extreme).

Self-worth is different from self-esteem, in that it isn’t based on performance or accomplishment. It is a constant. You always have worth, no matter what. If you can remember that, then you’ll be able to keep things in perspective when you start to take things personally. 

Stop worrying about what other people think.

Funny enough, personalizing often happens because we’re worried about what other people will think or experience because of us. I know that seems a little backwards, but it’s true. We’re worried if people will approve of us, if they’ll blame us, if they’ll want to be our friend. We prioritize their feelings, but we make it about us. 

What if we started prioritizing our own feelings? What if we realized that we deserve to be happy too, and that personalizing makes us unhappy? If we could recognize that what other people think about us doesn’t matter as much as what we think about ourselves, our tendency to personalize would decrease.

Personalizing can have a negative impact on the way you see yourself. It can tear down your confidence, lessen your willingness to take risks, and start shame spirals that are hard to escape. 

Learn to recognize and overcome unhealthy thinking patterns like personalizing. Create room for more positive, helpful thoughts. Be deliberate about what you think and how you respond to your thoughts. This will make a tremendous difference in your happiness and in your life. 

Learn to overcome unhealthy thinking patterns.

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