This is my tenth post in the Cognitive Distortions Series. “Cognitive distortions” is another name for beliefs that hold us back and prevent us from living our best lives. The key reality for this series is that our thoughts have profound effects on our perceptions of reality. In order to improve our lives, we must first become aware of our false or negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
While most of the cognitive distortions we have covered over the past few months have been fairly straightforward, the distortion associated with personalization and blame is a two-sided coin. On one side is the act of blaming ourselves for something that is not within our control. For example, perhaps you have thought something along the lines of, “He wouldn’t have lied to me if I weren’t so hard on him.”
On the other side of the coin, we can also blame other people for the way things are turning out in our own lives. For instance, I’m sure at least a few of you have thought something like, “If he had planned better, we wouldn’t be in this financial mess.”
In the first case, we are taking responsibility for something that has nothing to do with us. In the second, we are failing to take responsibility for something that we failed to do while blaming someone else for the outcome. In both cases we are personalizing. It’s either our fault or someone else’s fault. We are also blaming. We either blame ourselves or someone else for life events.
Let’s take a look at the first scenario. It may be true that I have unrealistically high expectations, but is it true that the only choice he had was to lie? This is the critical question. What other things are possibilities? It might be true that I need to work on my expectations, but that doesn’t give anyone else the right to lie to me.
In the second scenario, we have to ask, “How many adults are involved in this situation?” The answer, of course, is two. What was my part in the outcome? What could I have done to prevent this outcome? While it may be true that he is a poor planner, at some point I had to give away my power over the outcome of my own life.
I can almost hear you saying, “Yeah, but…there were extenuating circumstances.” I’m sure that there were. However, we can only control ourselves, our thoughts, and our behaviors.
What are the results of personalization and blame? Why does it matter so much? The result of engaging in this type of behavior is that we never get the chance to correct our behavior. If we assume responsibility for things that are not within our control, we allow the person with whom the responsibility lies to avoid dealing with their issues. We also cause ourselves undo frustration because we are in a no-win situation. We feel responsible for something that we can’t change. Our self-esteem takes a hit. We feel inadequate and helpless. Likewise, when we blame others for our failure to take responsibility we are not able to learn from our mistakes. After all, it wasn’t our mistake, it was the other person’s mistake, right?
Relationships are affected by blame being thrown back and forth. Accusations are hurled at each other and soon we are so aggravated that we don’t even remember what we are talking about. Neither party wins in this scenario. Words spoken are not easily forgotten.
Imagine a world where each person took responsibility for his or her own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Nice, isn’t it? It really can be that nice! The next time you start to blame yourself or someone else stop and ask yourself:
- Is this true?
- Whose fault is this, anyway?
- Whose responsibility is this?
- Do I need to do anything to correct the situation?
- What can I learn from this?
Personalization and blame come pretty naturally to us. They begin when we are small children. If we receive messages from the adults in our lives that this way of thinking is in our best interest (such as lying to get out of trouble, etc.) we continue. If not, we learn to take responsibility for our behavior. Unfortunately, many of us have had the former experience. You can learn these behavioral changes for yourself as an adult with intentional interventions.
This is the last of my posts on the topic of cognitive distortions. I hope these blogs have helped you learn a little bit about your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can sometimes be distorted. Good luck on your journey of changing your thoughts. You really can change your thoughts and change your life!