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Always blaming yourself or assuming others think ill of you? A CBT therapist shares ways to break these self-critical habits
by Joel Minden + BIO
Photo by FluxFactory/Getty
The other day, I found out that one of my close friends had an extra ticket to a football playoff game, and he invited another friend instead of me. Hurt by this apparent slight, I thought I must have done something to make my friend mad, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I also wondered if my friend thought I’d be a boring guest who’s not much fun to bring to a game. I wasn’t quite sure at first how to handle it, but eventually I decided to casually share what I’d heard the next time I saw him. He replied: ‘Yeah, I thought about asking you, but I know you don’t like football,’ which made me laugh – in part because it was true, but also because I had been so focused on what I believed this incident said about me that I overlooked a more likely explanation for his decision.
This example highlights two biased forms of thinking that involve taking things too personally. The first is personalisation, which is believing that you’re the cause of a negative event, despite having little or no evidence to support the belief. In my case, I thought I had missed out on an opportunity because I upset my friend, even though I had no idea what I had done. The second is mind reading, which is believing that someone is making a critical judgment about you, especially in an ambiguous situation where you’ve received no direct feedback. Again, in my case, I assumed that my friend thought I wouldn’t be fun to bring to a game, basing my belief solely on the fact that I wasn’t invited.
You can find examples of these beliefs in many ordinary experiences. Personalisation can emerge after any unwanted event but, for some, it stands out the most when other people are involved. Suppose you encountered a relatively minor social disappointment, like sharing a picture of friends online, only to find out later that one friend hates how they looked in that shot. In this situation, beating yourself up about it might highlight a personalisation bias (thinking it’s all your fault), particularly if your friend didn’t ask you to get their input before sharing photos.
Similarly, even the smallest interactions can drive a mind-reading bias. If you ask your server at a restaurant to explain exotic dishes or ingredients, you might imagine that they view you as pushy or uncultured. Or if you struggle to describe the details of your pet’s symptoms when you call the veterinarian, you might worry that they think you’re wasting their time. In these situations, it’s likely that the other person will actually have a certain amount of patience after numerous encounters with people who are unfamiliar with their job-specific jargon. But if you tend to take things personally, your attempts to make sense of their reactions could distort your sense of what’s actually happening.
There are several problems with these errors in thinking. The first, of course, is that they’re inaccurate, driven more by feelings, personal histories, ambiguity and conspicuously negative information than by objectivity. Another is that, if you commit to these biased beliefs, you limit your emotional options to feeling sad about your perceived flaws, anxious about your ability to withstand upcoming social challenges, or angry at others for not being nicer. Finally, they limit your behavioural options. If you accept these thoughts as facts, it can be hard to see past giving up, avoiding or lashing out. In short, these tendencies to take things too personally restrict your emotional and behavioural options and increase the likelihood that you’ll struggle with distress or dysfunction.
The importance of these cognitive biases was outlined by the psychiatrist Aaron T Beck, who emphasised in his cognitive model of depression the reciprocal relations among self-defeating, hopeless thoughts, feelings such as immense sadness, and passivity or withdrawal. The terms personalisation and mind reading were popularised by the psychiatrist David D Burns, who brought these concepts to a consumer audience in his classic self-help book, Feeling Good (1980).
Misleading thoughts about social situations can become habitual
Social situations are always somewhat unclear, so it’s natural to try to make sense of them. If you experience a social setback or can’t get a good read on what another person is thinking, being self-aware can help you pinpoint and correct social problems. But if you resort to personalising or mind reading whenever there’s a bit of social ambiguity, these well-rehearsed thoughts will start to appear automatically, even when you don’t have much evidence to suggest they’re true.
You can think of these automatic thoughts as learned behaviours, acquired through experience. They might be linked to a history of accepting responsibility for problems to take the pressure off others. Or if a friend, romantic partner, boss or parent repeatedly blamed you for problems you didn’t cause, you may have internalised their accusations and started to believe them. Such experiences can make personalisation or mind-reading errors your go-to thoughts whenever things aren’t going well. But that doesn’t mean they’re true. It just means that that’s where your mind goes.
If you struggle with taking things too personally, it’s likely that these self-critical thoughts have been rehearsed so often that you don’t even notice them anymore, particularly if you’re wrapped up in the uncomfortable feelings and urges that accompany them. You can compare these well-learned automatic thoughts to the procedural ones that help you perform activities you’ve done countless times, like driving a car.
Often, thoughts suggesting that a problem is your fault or that someone must be judging you negatively are compounded by other kinds of distorted thinking. You might not only treat an ambiguous behaviour as a personal slight but also tell yourself that it reflects a problem with you, one that will last forever and affect everything you do. Such explanations, which are personal, permanent and pervasive – the so-called ‘three Ps’ described by the psychologist Martin Seligman – often go together. If you strongly believe these thoughts, you limit your options for change or problem solving.
With practice, however, you can learn to be selective about the self-critical thoughts you take seriously and those you leave alone. Instead of always taking things personally and getting stuck, you’ll be able to consider and adopt more realistic beliefs about yourself and challenging social situations, make more useful plans to address problems or prepare for the future, and work through the difficult emotions that get in your way.
As a clinical psychologist specialising in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for anxiety and depression, I often work with clients who blame themselves excessively for social setbacks or assume the worst about other people’s judgments of them. With guidance, they learn to respond to their thoughts more flexibly, with a collection of useful strategies like the ones I’ll describe here. These methods for coping more effectively with personalisation and mind-reading biases have been helpful for many people, and I’m confident that, with regular practice, they’ll be useful to you, too.
Distinguish your feelings from your thoughts
If you tend to take things too personally, it’s important to recognise your patterns of personalisation or mind reading before deciding what to do with them. This can be challenging, however, because the line between feelings and thoughts is often blurred. A good way to distinguish feelings from thoughts is to remember that feelings can often be summarised in one word – nervous, happy, surprised, scared – and thoughts are the ideas that drive or follow the feelings. This is an important distinction because, although it’s difficult to change or control uncomfortable emotions, you can choose from a number of coping strategies to respond productively to your thinking traps.
To help you understand and separate the connections between feelings and thoughts, practise labelling them whenever you have the opportunity. For example, if during a dinner, your guest suddenly got quiet and you thought: ‘He doesn’t like talking with me,’ acknowledge that you’re working with a thought that may or may not be true, and then consider the feeling that came with that thought. An example of a more accurate way to describe what happened is: ‘When he got silent during dinner, I felt sad because I thought he didn’t like talking with me.’ Remember that feelings are not debatable – you just feel how you feel, even when you wish you didn’t. Your thoughts, on the other hand, can be challenged, revised or replaced with more realistic and useful ones.
Look for signs that you are personalising or mind reading
The next time you’re experiencing a strong or difficult emotion, tune in to your thoughts. Suppose, for example, that, while grocery shopping, you run into an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a long time, and after a brief and somewhat awkward conversation, you feel a sudden sadness. This might seem like an unusual feeling if this person doesn’t play a significant role in your life. In such a moment, notice your feeling and check in with yourself. See if you can pinpoint the thought that led to or influenced that feeling.
If you’re prone to personalising, the sad feeling you experienced in the grocery store situation might have something to do with attributing awkward moments in an unplanned conversation with someone you don’t know well to a belief such as ‘I’m not good at making small talk or getting people to like me.’ Or if you’re prone to mind reading, and you didn’t change out of your Saturday morning sweats before making a quick run to the store, you might feel sad or even anxious when you worry that ‘She thinks I’m a slob.’ These thoughts might have an even greater emotional impact due to other events in your life – perhaps your brief encounter triggered a disappointing reminder that some close friends recently moved away, and you’re concerned that your interactions with people will more frequently resemble the superficial conversation you just had.
The accuracy and utility of thoughts in such situations can vary, so the best way to respond to them won’t always be the same. In some cases – especially once you’ve had practice identifying biased thoughts – you might quickly come to the conclusion that your mind is taunting you with personalisation or mind reading, and that your best bet is to acknowledge what’s happening, tolerate the background noise, and redirect your attention to something more important. However, if you’re dealing with thoughts that aren’t so clear-cut to you, or the importance of a situation seems to demand more exploration, it can be helpful to take a closer look and challenge the accuracy of your thoughts.
List the evidence for and against your thoughts
Remember that your thoughts may reflect biases in thinking, which is an important starting point. Now is your opportunity to consider the evidence for and against your thoughts, which will help you decide whether to stick with your original understanding of a situation or go with an alternative explanation that seems more plausible.
The best way to go through the process of gathering evidence is to write down your thoughts. If you have the urge to just power through this and explore the evidence in your mind, know that you run the risk of getting stuck in an ongoing internal debate and revisiting thoughts you’ve already addressed. After you’ve had some practice, you might decide to save the writing for particularly challenging situations but, for now, give yourself an opportunity to see what happens when you approach this process systematically.
Get out a sheet of paper. On the left side, write down a brief description of the situation: ‘awkward conversation with Marie at the store’. On the right side, write down how you felt: ‘sad’ or ‘anxious’ or ‘annoyed’. Between the situation and the feeling, write down your explanations for what happened and how you felt: ‘She couldn’t wait to stop talking to me,’ or ‘She was put off by how I looked.’
Below the situation, thoughts and feelings, write down what you know that suggests your thoughts are true. For example: ‘Marie was looking around the store a lot,’ or ‘I couldn’t stop thinking about how uncomfortable I was.’ Take your time with this – like a detective or a scientist. See if you can list everything you know that supports the belief that led to such a difficult emotion.
Now write down anything that tells you that your thoughts might not be true. For example: ‘She said she’s travelling this weekend and needed to buy some things quickly before a long drive,’ or ‘The store was busy and crowded, which isn’t great for having a conversation.’
See if there’s an explanation that isn’t just about you
Write down some other possible explanations for what happened. For example, it may be that your conversation seemed off because Marie felt anxious, too; that she was in a rush; or that you were both caught off guard and your reactions were to be expected in that situation.
Finally, consider a ‘best-case’ explanation for your experience. Instead of resorting to not-very-believable reassurances such as ‘Everything went great!’, make sure that your explanation is realistic. In the case of the awkward conversation at the grocery store, is it possible that it was somewhat stilted because you both wanted to make a positive impression and you put too much pressure on yourselves to be comfortable in an unexpected situation?
To take another example, if you were cut off by a supervisor during a work meeting and thought it happened because ‘nobody takes my ideas seriously’, one alternative explanation is that ‘The meeting was running long and everyone had to get back to work,’ and a best-case explanation is that ‘My supervisor thinks my suggestion has value and wants to address it later, when we can give it the focused attention it deserves.’
Look through your notes. Compare your original thoughts about the situation with your new thoughts. Should you stick with your first assessment, or would it be better to trade it for a new, more realistic explanation of what happened? The goal here is to help you become more balanced in your thinking, so you can make the call not to commit to personalisation or mind reading just because you happen to think that way initially.
After understanding your experience differently, you might find yourself grappling with the urge to revisit your initial thoughts. That’s to be expected. Remember that these thoughts, and the impulse to get wrapped up in them, are well learned, and you don’t control their appearance or persistence. Allow your brain to do its thing and see if you can understand these sticky thoughts as mental noise rather than as facts. Know that these unwanted thoughts will probably live on in the background for a while, but you’re not required to get invested in them. Remind yourself that revisiting them will prolong the struggle, and then see what happens when you leave those internal annoyances alone. With a little time, they should decline on their own.
Ask yourself, what’s useful?
Once you’ve had a chance to explore, challenge and revise your thoughts, consider what would be useful for you to know or do now. As you did before, write down your useful thoughts and plans to be sure you remember them.
So, what’s useful? If you take things too personally because you regularly overlook details that would help you think objectively, it might be useful to acknowledge the biases in your thinking, give yourself credit for challenging and revising your beliefs, and be on the lookout for alternative explanations when you find yourself going down this road in the future.
Useful thinking might also include a reminder to notice obvious examples of personalisation and mind reading that don’t deserve more of your attention, along with a plan to gently let go of the urge to overthink things and go easy on yourself for struggling with unwanted thoughts and the difficult emotions that come with them.
When it’s clear that you haven’t handled a social challenge as effectively as you would have liked, useful thinking could include multiple plans: to think objectively about what happened, to not be too tough on yourself, and to take action to address a practical problem. This might involve circling back to clarify a miscommunication, building skills to express yourself more effectively or eliminating other obstacles to future social success.
If you are exploring behaviours that you want to prioritise in social situations, make a plan to address your biggest concerns. For example, if you believe you’re not good at making small talk, prepare to make brief comments about shared situations or current events, which are easy ways to see if other people want to chat. If you worry you’re not participating enough in work meetings, you could plan to ask a question, share an idea or offer support for others at least once or twice at each meeting. And if it’s difficult to interpret the actions or intentions of others, you might decide to work toward being politely assertive and asking for clarity when you’re unsure of what someone else is communicating. A good way to approach this is to point out what seems vague, reference the importance of understanding what’s happening, state what you believe the other person is expressing, and ask for feedback.
If you decide to practise a new, potentially useful social behaviour, remember that change can be difficult, so set aside the urge to shoot for the moon in favour of a realistic plan to set yourself up for success with small but consistent changes. This is important because, if you struggle to follow through with your goals, you could unintentionally strengthen your commitment to personalisation (‘I’m not good at this’) or mind reading (‘They aren’t interested in me’). A good rule of thumb is to commit to the smallest change you know you can make that you’d still consider to be meaningful. If you observe yourself making these changes, you’ll develop more confidence in your ability to navigate social challenges, which will provide a positive counterpoint to the biased beliefs that currently get in your way.
Accept a reasonable amount of uncertainty
By their nature, social interactions contain a certain degree of ambiguity or uncertainty. Although you can’t control what others think nor actually read their minds, you can make plans for change, practise social behaviour that’s generally effective, and learn to tolerate the uncertainty that comes with taking social risks. Instead of directing attention and energy toward your perceived limitations or concerns about others’ thoughts of you, you can shift your focus back to your behaviour and how you’d like to operate in challenging social situations.
Devoting your attention and energy to what you can control can make it easier to accept and tolerate what you can’t control: your automatic thoughts and the uncomfortable feelings that accompany them. (The Learn More section below takes a deeper look at strategies you can use to better tolerate the internal noise that comes with taking things too personally.)
If you’re clear about how you’d like to conduct yourself in social situations and you practise these behaviours, you might not always be as polished as you’d like nor know how others are reacting. But you’ll still be able to generate enough behavioural evidence to judge yourself more favourably – and not remain so committed to personalisation or mind reading.
Notice your STUF
Despite your best efforts to move toward more realistic and useful thinking and goal-directed behaviour, personalisation, mind reading and the feelings that come with them are still likely to appear – especially in the situations that test you the most. When you’re overwhelmed by intense and persistent emotions, and you’re grappling with the urge to overthink, run away, lash out or engage in some other counterproductive behaviour, it can be helpful to acknowledge and try to relate differently to your inner experience.
We have already discussed ways to notice, challenge and change your thoughts. Now, as you explore opportunities for greater acceptance, start by shifting your focus to your emotional experience in a difficult situation. Try to notice these four interrelated components of emotional experiences, which you can remember by using the acronym STUF:
Here’s an example to help you notice your STUF. Suppose you were sharing plans for a work project with your boss, and he gave you a look that you interpreted as disapproving. In that moment, you might notice your:
Imagine what would probably happen if you acted on your STUF. If you decided to anxiously avoid your boss, you wouldn’t get the clarity you seek, and the lack of communication could create more tension at work. If you chose to angrily accuse him of being unsupportive, he could retaliate, and it would be difficult to recover from the conflict. And in both cases, your actions would give you more reasons to judge yourself critically. You might start to think: ‘I can’t talk to my boss,’ or ‘My boss hates me and I’m going to get fired.’
Remember that the emotions you experience when you take things personally can be driven by automatic thoughts that might not be accurate. This is why it’s important to distinguish between your STUF – the challenging sensations, thoughts, urges and feeling labels – and how you choose to respond.
To bring more clarity to your thinking about your STUF, here are some good questions to ask yourself. You might find it helpful to write down your answers.
Accept and redirect
The mantra ‘accept and redirect’ is a good reminder to practise accepting your authentic inner experience, without judgment, before redirecting your attention and behaviour to a productive response that’s driven by your values and long-term goals. Start with acceptance. Below are some further ways to understand and relate to your STUF:
Now think about where you’d like to redirect your attention and behaviour after you’ve accepted your STUF. Give some thought to the emotion-driven choices you make when you take things personally and consider the value-driven behaviours you’d like to choose in the future. These can include the plans for effective social behaviour we considered earlier. Other examples of value-driven action are:
Learning to accept and redirect will not only help you tolerate the emotional challenge that comes with taking things personally, it will also help you function effectively, even when challenging thoughts and feelings get in your way.
The excellent self-help book Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Made Simple (2018) by the psychologist Seth Gillihan provides an overview of the principles of CBT, which help inform the sections of this Guide that deal with realistic and useful thinking and behaviour change.
‘A Swiss Army Knife for Your Mind’ (2019) is a great article by the psychologist Jonathan Stea, which covers the CBT practice of using a thought record and its benefits.
To learn more about accepting the difficult thoughts and feelings that come with taking things too personally, check out Russ Harris’s book The Illustrated Happiness Trap (2014). It’s an informative and reader-friendly take on the foundations of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
You can work toward noticing and accepting your STUF with this downloadable recording of a mindful acceptance practice exercise, adapted from the book Emotion Efficacy Therapy (2016) by the clinical psychologists Matthew McKay and Aprilia West.
Some people who take things too personally benefit from skill building to improve their social effectiveness. Working toward being a better listener is a great way to get started. ‘How to Be an Excellent (or at Least Pretty Good) Listener’ (2017) is a wonderful article by Kristin Wong that includes suggestions for reflective listening.
‘How to Help a Friend Through a Tough Time’ (2019) is another superb article by the clinical psychologist Kathryn Gordon that offers strategies for being a supportive and helpful listener when people close to you are going through difficulties.