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An Antidote to Self-Blame

For those who take everything personally.

Key points

  • Many of us take everything personally, leading to self-blame.
  • Taking things personally is normal, but unrealistic. It stems from our desire to have control.
  • While it’s healthy to think about our roles in uncomfortable situations, people’s behavior towards us isn’t always about us.
  • Rather than always blaming yourself in such situations, take a step back and consider what else could be going on.
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

This is for those like me: People who take things personally. People who take everything personally.

Your child rolls their eyes at you. The customer service agent is rude to you. Your coworker gets snippy with you.

You just cannot figure out where the hostility is coming from. It’s your fault, right?

Wrong. We often know it’s not all about us, but we still can’t get out of that headspace. It’s one thing to examine our role and behavior in a situation; it’s another to take it so personally that we drown in self-blame.

It’s Relatively Normal

I’m going out on a limb here to normalize taking things personally because, honestly, psychology has many theories suggesting we tend to make personal attributions about others. Still, I think it’s pretty normal to turn inward, wondering how any situation applies to us. And if anxiety is at play, it’s almost guaranteed.

Fundamental attribution error, however, suggests that we tend to explain other people’s behavior by making personal attributions. That person tripped on the sidewalk? Clumsy! It’s about them.

If we trip on the sidewalk, however, actor-observer bias suggests that while we’ll say others are clumsy (a personal attribution), we’ll explain our behavior by pointing out the crack in the sidewalk. It’s about external factors, not anything personal about us.

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

And then self-serving bias says we actually tend to be much kinder to ourselves than we are to others. Got a bad grade? It’s not that we aren’t smart; we just had a tough week and didn’t have enough time to study.

The Tendency for Self-Blame

“Well I do the opposite, so what’s wrong with me?” No, no, and no again.

First of all, in social psychology, these theories are presented as the not-that-great reality of human behavior. So you’re actually much fairer to others when you examine your role in such situations. But you’re not fair to yourself when you make it all about you.

My psychology students are sometimes shocked when I suggest they can maybe use these biases in their favor. They so often blame themselves for so many things related to student performance that perhaps it’s time to look at situational factors, not just personal factors.

Perhaps it’s time for us, too.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

It’s Not (Necessarily) About You

It’s not about us. Any therapist, every therapist, will tell you that when someone does something that you take personally, sure, it’s healthy to think about any reasonable role you might have played and to examine your own behavior and response—but you also need to think about the other person as well.

You don’t know what’s going on with that person. You don’t know that they yelled at you because you’re horrible at your job. Maybe they just got dumped by their partner. Maybe their child is sick. Maybe they’re just in a bad mood.

When I taught in person in L.A., I loved office hours because I shared the office with a colleague who was a pro at this approach. It came so naturally to her; I was jealous. If I had students acting out that day, she’d remind me that I didn't know what was going on with them. That it’s about them.

We all could use those reminders.

The Antidote

So this is your reminder that it’s not all about you. It’s not all about me. It’s not all about us.

It’s not easy to change one’s mindset, especially when we’re so used to taking everything so personally. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes support.

So ask people in your life to remind you that it’s not all about you. Ask them to point out that you don’t know what that person who did that thing is going through. It might not be because you’re bad. It probably isn’t because you did something wrong.

Sure, it might be, and I hear the therapists out there stressing that we must always examine our own behavior in a situation. We must be accountable. Yes, but when you’re prone to self-blame, you do that all the time. Now’s the time to try the opposite.

Striving for Control

This is ultimately about control. Many of us do this because if we can just identify the thing we did, we can change the situation.

But here’s the thing: Often times we cannot.

I am a primary prevention person. Trust me, I believe wholeheartedly in behavior change. Yet as someone prone to taking everything personally and blaming myself, I have to acknowledge that we can’t change every person or every situation.

I wish we could, but that’s me trying to have control. Sound familiar?

Sometimes we have to give up control and this is one of those times. If we stop trying to control every situation, if we stop trying to control things that are out of our control, like other people’s behavior, trust me, we’ll feel better.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Easier Said Than Done

Keep striving for accountability, my friends, both of yourselves and of others. There is nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I promise that if you take a step back, look at the situation, and ask what could be going on with the other person, you’ll feel better.

What if it’s not about you?

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