Personalization

by Monica Ross

Personalization is something a lot people do as well. It’s the third unhelpful thinking style in the series I typically cover. Sometimes when I say “personalization” people immediately respond with “oh, that’s when you take something personally that really wasn’t directed at you.” That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, but it's close. I can see how it can be related. For the purposes of CBT personalization is when a person takes on added blame and responsibility for things for which they may only share partial responsibility.

It’s kind of the equivalent of telling oneself “It’s all my fault.” The relationship ended and “It’s all my fault.” My daughter got involved with drugs as a teenager and “It’s all my fault.” My boss fired me and “It’s all my fault.” My parents got a divorce and “It’s all my fault.”

In order to get out of the habit of personalizing, it’s important to take a step back and ask oneself “How much responsibility did I actually have in this?” More often than not, there were other people involved or other unforeseen events that were a factor and that share in the responsibility.

A person might start out thinking I’m 100% responsible here and later discover its maybe only about a 30% or less. The percentages don’t really matter and that’s not the focus. It just helps to illustrate that very few things in life actually are 100%.

To take on added responsibility is in a way to self-blame. It is kind of like saying to oneself, "I fell short of expectations here." And that in a way alludes to the fact there may be some perfect ideal that failed to be grasped. So it's kind of like  acknowledging our shortcomings and feeling some sense of shame about it.

Instead of self-blame or shame we want to move towards self-acceptance.  A person could say themselves “Okay, so I played some part in this perhaps. As perfect as I am in spirit, I’m not always perfect in deed. And that’s okay.”

Once we accept that it is okay to be imperfect then taking on partial responsibility for things that go wrong doesn’t seem like such a bad prospect. Things are rarely often all our fault. And at the end of the day, even if things were all our fault, who is to say that we are not allowed to make mistakes?

To take on self-blame has a negative connotation and feels a bit like it taps into some implied innate "wrongness" or "badness" on our parts for lack of a better word. To take on responsibility implies there was a choice to be made, perhaps it was a bad choice but the choice is independent of the perfect soul of the person making the choice.

I believe people to be on the whole innately good. We just as humans don’t always make the most healthy choices. We could go the route of beating ourselves up about something that we have done, but what would be the point in that?

That won’t serve as some sort of motivation to do differently next time. There is a fine line between stepping back, acknowledging our role or responsibility in something and compassionately telling ourselves “I made a mistake here and I really want to do better next time.” The opposite would be to take on the burden of feeling ourselves to be bad people or bad natured in some way.

With the approach of the later we might say to ourselves, “Well I wouldn’t have done such and such if I wasn’t such a bad person.” We want to move away from all those types of tendencies.

Let’s enter into the topic of guilt and shame because they somewhat apply here. Guilt is associated often with the completion of an action that we have remorse over. Shame is a much more personal thing and may be related to something we have or have not done, but has more of a social component.

Shame is the feeling of appearing to be bad in the eyes of others. With the attempt to combat the tendency towards personalization we want to let go of both guilt and shame. Guilt moves us in the direction of pro-social behaviors some argue because feeling guilty is the equivalent of having remorse over our wrong actions.

There is an empathy component in guilt. The thinking goes that a person might not have remorse to begin with, if they didn’t in some way relate to how their actions may have hurt someone else.

Shame though doesn’t seem to do much for us. It’s like saying to oneself “I am bad” not "I did something bad" as explained above in the dichotomy I drew. And it’s just not true. You, nor I, nor anyone else is on the whole “bad.”

Who we are as human beings is separate from our actions and part of our perfectness is our imperfectness. I wrote a thesis as undergraduate student on the topic of guilt and shame. A lot of the material for my thesis came from Dr. Thomas Scheff’s work.

I remember emailing Dr. Scheff at the dawning of email.  Here I was in Austin a student at UT and here he was teaching on the West Coast.  It felt similar I think to what achieving transcontinental flight must have felt like at the turn of the 20th Century.  And once again I fall into the trap of dating myself.

Dr. Scheff is a professor emeritus at The University of Santa Barbara. I wrote the thesis a long time ago and nowadays you do a Google search and a lot of people have written on the topic of guilt, shame, and perfectionism.

But let me not stray too, too far here. The bottom line is that we are perfectly imperfect. It’s okay to accept responsibility for ones actions, but acknowledge that that responsibility is often a partial one and is not in any way related to being innately bad or flawed or corrupt or immoral or depraved or devalued or wicked or unscrupulous (this is where the synonyms function in Word really comes in hand).

No, the bottom line is that we want to move towards radical self-acceptance and self-compassion and away from unattainable notions of perfectionism.