Thinking Traps V: Personalisation

It’s all my fault!

“It’s all my fault” Rebecca lamented. Her son had recently been fired due to testing positive on a workplace drug screen. “I knew he was using; I should have done more to stop him!”  

It is a good thing to take responsibility for your actions and their outcomes. When we take responsibility, we start to look for ways that we could have done things differently. This is the foundation of self-improvement.

Like all good things, this tendency to attribute responsibility to ourselves can be taken too far. Rebecca felt guilty whenever one of her children made a poor choice or failed. Rebecca had a Self-Sacrifice Schema. A part of her stretched reality in order to seek out reasons why she was to blame for her children’s wrong turns.

The Spotlight Effect

Andrei felt hyper self-conscious at parties and other social events and avoided them whenever possible. “I finally built up the courage to go to work trivia – complete disaster! I called Karen ‘Carmel’ and everyone looked at me like I was a complete idiot. I just kept my mouth shut for the rest of the evening”.   

Like Andrei, most people have had the experience of feeling embarrassed by a faux pas. Also like Andrei, most of the time these events are not the disaster we believe they are. Humans vastly overestimate the extent to which other people are thinking about us. Social psychologists call this the Spotlight Effect – we feel like we are on stage in front of the world with a big light highlighting all of our flaws and foibles. It’s as if we forget that everyone else feels that they are the stars of their own shows too!


“I’m not paranoid but everyone whispers around me but shuts up when I get close”. Meaghan was on the verge of quitting yet another job due to social stress. “I’m sure they’ve been speaking with my ex-boyfriend, why else would they turn against me like this?”

An extreme, and extremely negative, extension of the spotlight effect is paranoia. Paranoia is the belief that others are trying to persecute oneself. Paranoia is anxiety-driven emotional reasoning. Coincidental or chance events are viewed with deeper, often sinister, meaning. Meaghan had a Social Isolation Schema and had suffered social anxiety her whole life.

It’s not all about you!

Personalisation is the thinking trap of seeing oneself as overly important to the bad things that happen, often in a magical way. We might blame ourselves for things we had little control over, like Rebecca. Or feel that the eyes of the world are always on us, like Andrei. Or feel like hidden forces are out to get us, like Meaghan.

The answer to the Personalisation trap is to become more comfortable with our own insignificance. We have less influence over others than we think. Others think about us far less than we think. It is hard to imagine that we are really that insignificant. Part of the reason for this is that: Callous hurts more than malice – that is, humans have a preference for negative attention over no attention. So we prefer to attribute painful events to others negative attention (malice) than to the possibility that they are not even thinking about us at all (callousness).

However, once we become comfortable with the fact that people care less about us than we think, we gain the freedom of acting how our better selves would act. Safe in the knowledge that no one really cares that much anyway.

Speak Your Mind


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