Feeling like you’re to blame for the mistakes of others? Personalizing is the problem


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Photo: Stocksy / Briana Morrison

If your best friend gets back with her garbage ex, would you feel guilty and blame yourself for not talking them out of it? It’s one thing to own up to your part when you’ve actually done something wrong, it’s another thing to assume blame for things out of your control. If you find yourself doing a lot of the latter, you’re not alone. This is the phenomenon known as “personalization,” and it’s not the best thing for your mental health.

“We can’t control other people’s thoughts, behaviors, choices and actions, or the outcome of any interpersonal situation,” says licensed psychotherapist Joyce Marter. “You can never cause somebody to behave poorly—that’s their choice.”

Personalization can actually stem from lowered self-esteem, according to Marter. “We all have different aspects of our life that we feel more or less confident in, and it would be in those less confident areas that we would be more susceptible to personalization,” she says. In other words, when you’re not feeling so great about yourself, you’re more likely to believe that when bad things happen it’s somehow your fault. But this “self-flagellation” isn’t helping anyone. “You’re beating yourself up, you’re putting yourself down, and it can lower your mood,” she says. “It can distort the situation so that you’re not seeing it accurately.”

To do less personalizing, Marter says you have to become mindful of your self-talk.

“Any negative messages that you’re giving yourself like, ‘this is my fault, I’m to blame, this is because of my inadequacies that this has happened,’ those should be red flags that you are personalizing,” she says. We all have that inner critic, Marter explains, and we have to try to turn it down.

You’ll also want to get a handle on what’s beyond your control and zoom out from situations where you find yourself personalizing. “Some healthy detachment is useful for all of us,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the situation, [it just means] not going to take it on.” Talking to someone removed from the situation, like a therapist, friend, or family member, can help you see things more clearly. She says you can also try mapping out the problem.

“Some healthy detachment is useful for all of us. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the situation, [it just means] you’re not going to take it on.” — Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist

“Whenever [my clients] are having a situation that they’re upset about, I encourage them to write down everything about that situation that’s within their control on one piece of paper,” she says. “On another piece of paper, [I encourage them to write down] everything that is out of their control.”

Keep in mind that your emotions are always in your control, and you can’t give other people power to determine how you feel about yourself. “Always hang on to your strength and your confidence and and all about you that is smart and beautiful and capable and wonderful, even if you’re experiencing some sort of challenge at home or at work,” she says.

If you tend to personalize, don’t beat yourself up. Marter says that personalizing is normal and means that you’re willing to look at yourself and try to see where you messed up. You’ll just want to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.

“It’s understandable that people go through that, and you just need to really compensate with a lot of self care and positive self-talk,” she says.

Our beauty editor’s Mental Health Monday routine:

Here’s 10 ways to stop feeling guilty, and boost your self esteem.

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