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Studies show that most of us will take the credit for ourselves if things go well, but put the blame on circumstances and even other people when things don’t go so well. We are naturally wired to blame circumstances or other people when things go wrong; it makes us less vulnerable and protects our ego. Blaming can be seen as a way to cope with discomfort or to make sense of events that are otherwise difficult to understand.
Blaming is a defence mechanism that we display from childhood, “It wasn’t me, it just broke”. As we develop, we learn about qualities such as taking responsibility and accountability, and although our tendency to blame circumstances or other people doesn’t disappear altogether, it often diminishes as we mature.
However, there are some people who take blaming to the other end of the spectrum, unfairly assigning blame to themselves or unjustly blaming others when things go wrong. In psychology this is known as Personalisation.
What is personalisation?
Personalisation is a cognitive distortion in which a person places blame on themselves or in some cases projects it onto another person, in a way that is disproportionate to the effects of an outcome, even when there is little to no justification for doing so. It is a misplaced sense of responsibility that does not account for external factors or circumstances beyond a person’s control.
Psychologists use the term “cognitive distortions” to describe these irrational, exaggerated thoughts or beliefs that distort a person’s perception of reality, usually in a negative way. Cognitive distortions are consistent unhelpful, unrealistic or irrational thoughts, or errors in our thinking; the way that we are thinking about something doesn’t match up with the reality of what is happening.
When something hasn’t gone quite as desired or expected, someone who is experiencing the cognitive distortion personalisation, will take all of the responsibility for the occurrence and blame themselves for everything that has gone wrong or could go wrong, even when they may only be partly responsible or even not responsible at all.
Personalisation can also involve a person believing that others are behaving negatively because of them. They may take others’ behaviours personally and take total responsibility for external events occurring, without giving any consideration for more likely explanations for this behaviour. An example of this might be a teenager being arrested for possession of cannabis, and the parent thinking, “It’s is all my fault that my teenage child is taking drugs, I am a bad parent”. There may be many other explanations for why the teenager is using drugs, their home life may have little or nothing to do with it, but the parent assumes total responsibility. Research shows that 80% of parents self-blame.
Personalisation is also found to be common for people who have experienced trauma such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or have been in abusive relationships, sexually abused, or experienced childhood loss.
It is very common for people to self-blame or personalise after experiencing rape or any other form of sexual or domestic violence or abuse. Many victims and survivors blame themselves for what happened, feeling guilty, or feeling ashamed, and because of this, only 1 in 6 victims (17%) of sexual violence ever report their experiences to the police. Personalisation is a really common response to these traumatic events, although totally incongruous as the only person to blame for what happened is the perpetrator.
Many people personalise and assume responsibility for the abuse they are suffering in a toxic relationship. The person knows that this behaviour is abusive and wrong, but on some level, they may feel that it is their fault that their partner behaves like this. It is their fault that their partner loses their temper, their fault that their partner is having an affair. If they had only been more giving, shown more patience and loved their partner more, perhaps things would have been different.
Another aspect of personalisation happens when a person takes things personally or takes things to heart, and more often than not it occurs when that something is not about them. People usually take things personally if something hits a nerve. They may feel as though their character, abilities, competence, or personal achievements are in question. It is a defensive mindset used because a person feels as though they are under attack.
People who lack confidence in themselves and their own abilities are more inclined to project their own doubts on other people. For example, when a customer has made a complaint, the person takes the complaint as a personal slight or attack, rather than as feedback on a product or service that the customer needs a solution for. The customer is looking for someone to blame for their lack of satisfaction, but that blame isn’t intended to be personal, although it can be extremely easy to take being blamed personally.
In personalisation, a person may engage in blaming others for their problems, rather than blaming themselves or taking some responsibility; they tend to play a victim role and hold other people responsible for their problems. A classic example of this is when a child who is struggling with issues, blames their parents for them being born at all.
What are the causes of personalisation?
It is thought that as with most other cognitive distortions, personalisation develops over time. Cognitive distortions are part of a complex system that is intertwined with our thoughts, behaviours and emotions. There often isn’t one underlying reason which is the cause.
Personalisation can be a learnt behaviour, arising from environments where a person was made to feel excessively responsible or accountable. For example, a parent unreasonably blaming a child or being excessively blamed by a partner, “It’s all your fault that….”. Over time, this pattern of thinking sets in, turning every situation into an opportunity for self-blame or wrongful accusation.
Whilst everyone can fall into the trap of personalisation from time to time, people with depressive or anxiety-related disorders are more prone than others to experiencing personalisation.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Various phobia-related disorders
Unhelpful comments by others can be a factor in causing the distortive thinking involved in personalisation. For example, personalisation can be caused when people who experience chronic pain or who are diagnosed with serious physical health conditions hear comments from others that their condition is a result of their own specific lifestyle choices, such as their dietary habits, being over or underweight, alcohol or substance abuse, lack of exercise, etc. On hearing these comments, the person may start to internalise that blame, and engage in personalisation.
Gaslighting, a form of psychological manipulation and abuse where the perpetrator makes someone question and doubt their own perceptions, memory, judgement and sanity, can also trigger personalisation. Gaslighting typically occurs over a period of time – it is not a one-off interaction – and a person can be made to feel that when things go wrong it is their fault, so much so that they adopt this thought perspective and self-blame automatically.
Personalisation can also be triggered by a variety of other factors, including:
- Low self-esteem – this can cause personalisation because individuals with low self-esteem may have a tendency to blame themselves for negative events. This type of self-blame can stem from a belief that they are not good enough or that they do not have control over their lives. They may automatically attribute a negative event or outcome to their own weaknesses or failings, rather than considering external factors or situational circumstances that may have contributed to the situation. This can lead to a negative self-perception and a vicious cycle of self-blame, which can further worsen their self-esteem.
- A strong need for control – people who have a strong need for control may feel that everything that happens is a direct result of their own actions or decisions and that they have the power to control their environment and the events that occur within it. They automatically attribute a negative event or outcome to their own failure to control the situation, rather than considering external factors or situational circumstances that may have contributed to the situation. This can lead to feelings of frustration, disappointment, and a sense of powerlessness, which can intensify their need for control.
- Personal life events – these can have a significant impact on a person developing personalisation, as they can lead individuals to question their own decisions and actions, and to attribute negative events and outcomes to their own shortcomings or flaws, particularly when events are perceived as highly personal and meaningful. For example, after a redundancy, a person may feel that they are responsible for the outcome, and may attribute the job loss to their own lack of skills or abilities.
- Perceived personal importance – people can often assume blame or take things personally because they believe that everything is about them, even when it isn’t.
- Anger – personalisation can be caused unjustly by anger, anger with yourself for not being in control of a situation or anger with others as a way of deflecting the guilt from yourself.
How to recognise personalisation
Being accountable and taking responsibility for your own actions is an admirable quality that establishes you as a credible person, and someone who people can trust. However, it is important to recognise when being accountable and taking responsibility strays into personalisation and self-blame as this is distorted thinking and can have a negative impact on your physical and mental health.
Some examples of personalisation and blaming include, but are not limited to:
- Your child is bullied at school and you blame yourself for choosing that school in the first place. The blame lies with the bully, and perhaps the school’s safeguarding processes, not your choices.
- The plumber that you recommended to a friend doesn’t turn up; even though you don’t control the plumber’s movements, you blame yourself that your friend was let down, “It’s my fault, I recommended them”.
- You choose the venue for a family event, but the meal is really poor. You can’t stop apologising for the fact that the event was spoilt, you feel that you ruined their entire evening, even though you didn’t cook the meal.
- Your organisation is making redundancies because of the economic downturn and is outsourcing your business area so your role is “at risk”. You feel that it is your fault that you are being selected because you are bad at your job rather than recognising that the decision is being made for business reasons.
- At work you are overlooked when a leaving card for a colleague is being signed. Although you were out of the office at the time the card was taken around, you take the oversight as a personal slight, “Nobody at work likes me, they didn’t even notice I was left out, I’m not important to them”.
- Your partner develops a drink problem. You feel that you are responsible for letting their drinking get out of hand, “I could have noticed earlier”, “If I didn’t open a bottle of wine every time we are having a meal”, “I should have been more supportive”. You are taking the blame for something that is not in your control.
- At college, the class goes quiet just as you enter the room, so you assume that they must have been talking about you, when in fact the conversations had come to a natural end just as you waked in.
- You’ve lost your job through no fault of your own and money is tight, but when you can’t buy your child the trainers that they want, rather than blaming the circumstances you find yourself in, you blame yourself, you are a bad parent who can’t provide for your family.
- Your boss is having an off day and is being tetchy with everyone, but you are convinced that it has to do with your work, you must have done something to upset them.
It is important to recognise when you are personalising or blaming in situations when it is completely unjustified, unnecessary or undeserved. There will be situations and circumstances within your control when you will be responsible and should be accountable for things happening, but there will also be situations and circumstances outside of your control that you cannot be responsible for them happening. The key is to distinguish the difference between the two.
What are the symptoms of personalisation?
Personalisation can have adverse effects on a person’s mental health and on their overall well-being.
People who find themselves personalising or blaming may:
- Feel guilty or inadequate about a situation that they have no control over
- Feel responsible for something bad that has happened and that they are to blame
- Feel responsible for other people’s happiness, disappointments and problems
- Blame others for their lack of happiness or their disappointments and problems
- Blame others for something bad that has happened
- Feel that other people are targeting them
- Feel that there must be something wrong with them or that they are not good enough
Personalisation is an unhealthy thinking pattern, where a person tends to see the worst in themselves. It can exacerbate a person’s self-doubt and can be very damaging to a person’s confidence and self-esteem.
It can result in:
- Experiencing a wide range of painful emotions, such as hurt, shame, guilt, confusion and vulnerability
- Negative self-talk
- Being less effective in life
- Triggering or exacerbating anxiety or depression
- Perpetuating negative patterns of thinking
Personalisation can also be isolating. It can be seen as playing the victim, and when someone feels sorry for themselves it can force others to feel sorry for them too, for a short while. However, people often do not feel comfortable around those who constantly place blame on themselves or on others.
How to overcome personalisation
Overcoming any cognitive distortion including personalisation and blaming starts with awareness. Once noticed, fortunately, there are things that you can do about it. You can start by focusing on what is within your control. Accepting the fact that you can’t control all situations, circumstances or others’ actions and behaviours and that you don’t need to be in charge of everything will help you to distinguish between what you are responsible for and what you are not.
You could try making a list, one column for things within your control, for example your own actions, feelings etc., the other for things outside of your control, for example others’ actions, feelings, things such as the weather etc. The list can help to remind you when things go wrong of what you can take responsibility for and what you should not.
Try to identify what triggers your personalisation. Does it happen more often for example when you feel anxious? Knowing your triggers can heighten your awareness of this negative habit.
Look out for any thoughts that you may be having that sound like:
- I should have…
- I shouldn’t have…
- If I had only…then it wouldn’t have happened
- I deserved it
- It’s all my fault
- They don’t like me
- They are talking about me
Once you recognise these negative thought patterns you can start to challenge and replace them. Try telling yourself what you would say to a friend in a similar situation of self-blaming. “If a friend told me this story, would I blame them?”
Personalisation can often occur because we are worried about what other people will think or experience because of us; we seek the approval of others and take the blame as a way of getting that approval. Ask yourself, “Will someone think less of me if I only take responsibility for the things that I have control over?” The answer is more than likely no. People respect people who admit to their own failings, but may not feel the same about someone who always self-blames when it is uncalled for.
Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts without judgement and be more present in the moment. Try breathing deeply, remaining present in the moment, and noticing small details of your surroundings, sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Mindfulness means being present and grounded in the current moment rather than fixating on the past or future. Meditation and other relaxation techniques can help.
If you are struggling with personalisation, particularly if it is affecting your mental well-being, you may want to get professional help. Therapies including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help, which aims to teach people that while they cannot control every aspect of the world around them, they can take control of how they interpret and deal with situations. The NHS talking therapies services finder can help you find out which services are available in your local area. You can also find accredited CBT therapists through the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP).
For anyone who is engaging in personalisation because of a trauma such as domestic and/or sexual abuse, or rape, there is confidential help available such as, but not limited to:
Every day we can experience things that happen that are out of our control; someone bumps into us and we do the apologising. By blaming ourselves, we maintain the perception that we are still in control of the situation. In this situation our personalisation doesn’t really matter, it’s a fleeting moment with someone we will probably never see again.
But we need to remember that personalisation and blame are pointless control mechanisms that disconnect us from reality when things outside our control don’t go as planned. They only serve to make us feel bad, knock our confidence and damage our self-esteem. So, the next time you are tempted to personalise or self-blame, stop and think to yourself, “It happened, it really wasn’t my fault, is there anything that I can do to make it better?” If not, let it go, you are not responsible.