One of the biggest mistakes people make in their relationships is taking things personally—things which are not personal.
In cognitive psychotherapy, we call this error ‘personalizing.’ Personalizing is usually defined as: ‘Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role or blame) for events over which a person has no control.’ Example: A mother whose child is struggling in school blames herself entirely for being a bad mother.
It happens in romantic relationships, too.
What happens is that people—without realizing it—assume they’re responsible for things they actually never had any control over in the first place.
Example: A boyfriend feels hurt that his girlfriend shows interest in another guy. There’s no evidence of anything deceptive on her part. However, he feels that merely showing the interest is disloyal on her part. He fails to tell her about his feeling, or even acknowledge it to himself. Instead, he ends up picking a fight over something trivial and they’re both left wondering what they’re really fighting about.
This is why self-awareness is so important. If the man in this example doesn’t take the time to identify his feelings, he’ll never even know he had them. His emotional states and subsequent actions will remain an unsolved mystery. He’ll simply seem like a childish, petulant little brat, to his girlfriend or anyone else who knows about his actions. He might even regard himself this way.
It’s unfortunate, because feelings have origins. It’s not having an immature or erroneous feeling that makes you a brat. It’s failure to do anything about it that makes you one.
If the boyfriend in the example identified his feeling and attempted to trace it back, he’d probably discover that personalization was to blame. He’s likely to find out he has a belief that he’s supposed to be the only man his girlfriend ever notices or responds to, in any way. It’s as if the millions of men in the world who have desirable qualities or attributes suddenly no longer have those attributes, the minute his girlfriend falls in love with him and decides to sustain a long-range relationship with him.
Put that way, it makes no sense. Of course other desirable men continue to exist. But none of them are him. He’s the one who’s available, and he’s the one who has (hopefully) built up the track record that will keep her loyal (and vice-versa). The fact that people retain the option to break up or divorce, and that other options for romance exist in the world (for each partner), is not a fact that can merely be wished away. Yet in his emotional reaction, it’s almost as if the boyfriend expects such a thing can and should happen!
It’s interesting to discover how taking things personally involves accepting responsibility for what one cannot control. The boyfriend in this example assumes, without realizing it, that he can and should somehow be able to control the fact that other romantic choices exist in the world, both for himself and his girlfriend. If he had a more realistic perspective about what he is and is not able to control, he would not feel this way.
This is where serenity comes in. I have defined a state of emotional serenity as the standard of mental health. Serenity has a lot of causes. One major cause of serenity is the willingness to examine your feelings and identify whether they’re based on realistic expectations, or not. That’s what the boyfriend in this example is not doing, and both he and his girlfriend are paying the price for his silent, unrealistic assumptions and expectations about what he should be able to control.
It’s similar with the example of the mother who blames herself for being a bad mother because her child is doing poorly in school. She takes her child’s poor performance personally. This personalizing is based on the unrealistic assumption that she can control everything her child feels, thinks and does. If in fact she’s being a very good mother, and the evidence supports this, then what other explanations exist for her child’s (to date) poor performance in school?
If the mother in this example fails to examine her emotions, she’ll be forever unable to identify the unrealistic expectation implied by her feelings. As a result, she’ll walk around hurt and depressed, and nobody—including herself—will really know why. Or, she’ll become hostile and react unfairly or unjustly, either against her child or the child’s teachers. She’ll assign blame where it might not exist, and making solutions for the problem impossible as defenses go up and the child’s teacher refuses to cooperate with her. She’ll become ‘that difficult and obnoxious parent’ rather than a reasoning person with a real shot at resolving her child’s problem at school.
We talk a lot these days about ‘depression,’ anxiety disorder, ‘ADHD’ and all these other emotional and behavioral states. We’re great at labeling, but not so great at taking the time to discover what’s really causing these emotional or behavioral maladies we find so puzzling in everyday life. A little bit of introspection can take you a long way. You’ll often find that ‘personalization’ is the cause of many unidentified problems you or a loved one may be having.
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