Ask a Therapist: On Personalization
Q: I feel like it is my fault whenever something goes wrong in my relationships – can you help me understand why?
A: When we find ourselves taking responsibility for things that are not actually our fault, on some level, we are likely dealing with shame. Personalization is the cognitive distortion that mistakenly ascribes guilt as a result of perceiving oneself to be at fault – even when that may not be the case.
We often assume through our lens of interpretation that it is our insufficiency or error that is the source of all the problems in the relationship. We question whether the outcome could have been different if we had said or done something differently. And while that is a good thing to consider (and it might sometimes be true), it is often only part of what needs to be sorted through in our thinking.
In some cases, we will feel at fault even when there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that we have offended or caused harm. This automatic negative personalization can be a result of insecurities that we carry from our personalities and/or lived experience and it can be hard to understand why that is our go-to assessment of the situation. A therapist can help you make more sense of why those thinking patterns are so prominent for you and perhaps help you understand the role
of shame in how you are relating to others.
You may be looking to find meaning in the relationship challenges and feel that blaming yourself is the “easiest” way to solve the mystery of whatever rupture has taken place. Perhaps you feel like you need to always be in control of the exchanges so when something goes wrong, you are trying to find a way to take back some of that control. Sometimes personalization can be the result of wanting to avoid conflict or to please the other person or from pattering in your childhood where you were blamed or made to be a scapegoat. In other cases, assuming fault unnecessarily can be the result of gaslighting or manipulation on the part of a partner or friend who is attempting to avoid responsibility and preying on your emotional responses to absolve themselves of their own guilt or shame.
This common distortion can be a heavy burden to bear and it is important to sort out healthier ways of understanding and interacting in relationships. We do, of course, have to self-reflect and be honest about what part of the relationship dynamic IS ours to own but we also need to discern when we might be moving beyond that territory in our own negative processing. Once you can identify the truthful assessment of what responsibility you have in a particular exchange or situation, you can better understand how to proceed without shame.
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