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Mia’s sad because she and her boyfriend just broke up. Many of us can relate, right? Many of us know what heartache feels like.
But Mia’s also thinking, ”We broke up because I stink at relationships. It’s all my fault.”
That phrase, “It’s all my fault,” is the hallmark of the distorted thought pattern we’re talking about:
It means we take all the responsibility for the bad stuff that we’re only partly responsible for or couldn’t have avoided.
Breakdowns in relationships are nearly always two-sided. But those using the personalization distortion believe it’s all on them. So, they take the burden of the whole thing.
The road of responsibility has a ditch on both sides.
On one side is the ditch of personalization, where we fault ourselves for things that are not even our fault.
But on the other side is the ditch of blame, where we try to throw fault as far away from ourselves as possible.
Our goal here is to stay out of both ditches. We just want to stay on the road.
Cognitive therapy can help.
In this series, we’re applying four principles of cognitive therapy to specific distorted thoughts.
Principle #1: Do Your RESEARCH.
- What was my role this situation? Did I intentionally do something wrong, or neglect to do something right?
- Did I have absolute control over what happened?
- Could I have changed things or prevented a bad outcome?
Maybe Mia is thinking, “I should have been the kind of girlfriend that he wouldn’t break up with.”
Or, “If only I had done things differently, we would still be together.”
“Should” and “if only” thoughts are common in personalization, but they just throw salt into the wound.
“Shoulds” imply that we should have the foreknowledge or power to stop bad things from happening.
But we often don’t.
Those of us who have been through a few breakups know that there’s often fault on both sides. Mia can accept her share, but she’s not responsible for his.
“If only” thoughts don’t change the past. All they do is force us to relive the same pain over and over again.
As Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Principle #2: Be a REALIST.
You and I often think that the events of our lives have a single cause. But reality is usually much more complex than that.
Mia can illustrate this with the “pie chart” technique.
She draws a “pie” that represents the breakup. Next, she divides the pie into slices, each slice representing factors leading to the breakup.
Mia’s own hang-ups could have contributed to the breakdown of the relationship. She can acknowledge this because it’s realistic thinking.
But there could have been other factors as well: his hang-ups, maybe communication problems, not spending enough time together, and so on.
This technique is not about dodging responsibility, but rather trying to see it more realistically.
Principle #3: Find the Right RATIO.
When we are truly responsible for hurting someone, we usually feel regretful about it.
Regret is one aspect of the guilt we feel when we physically or emotionally harm someone else. We say “Man, I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Regret does have one benefit: it makes us want to avoid doing the same thing in the future.
But personalization involves feeling guilty over things we didn’t do or couldn’t control.
This kind of guilt has zero benefit but extorts a heavy cost. Feeling an exaggerated sense of responsibility for events beyond one’s control is directly linked to depression.
And it gets worse.
Personalization often involves feelings of shame.
Shame doesn’t say, “I wish I hadn’t done that bad thing.” Instead, it says, “I wish I wasn’t such a bad person.”
This is a deeper emotional wound, because shame is not about my actions, it’s about me personally.
Maladaptive guilt and shame are linked to the most serious of depression symptoms: suicidal thoughts.
So we really should ask ourselves,
- Is the cost worth it? Especially for something I didn’t do by myself, and couldn’t control?
- What benefits could I gain from using another approach?
Principle #4: Follow the Golden RULE.
Remember that, on the road of personal responsibility, our goal is to stay out of the ditch of blame, where we blame our actions on others, and the ditch of personalization, where we take on more blame than we should.
The core principle we use here is Empathy.
Psychologist Alfred Adler described it this way: “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”
This is being considerate of others’ feelings, the way we would want others to be considerate of us.
Here’s how empathy helps us stay safely on the road.
When we have hurt others, empathy is a healthy starting point for change. We see what we’ve done and feel appropriate sorrow and regret without believing we are bad people. 
Empathy motivates us to apologize and make it right.
And when we have not hurt others. empathy allows us to enter their pain without necessarily taking the blame for it.
In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch describes it to his daughter this way:
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If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
 Leahy, R. L. (2017). Cognitive therapy techniques: A practitioner’s guide. Guilford Publications. 321-323.
 Tignor, S. M., & Colvin, C. R. (2017). The Interpersonal Adaptiveness of Dispositional Guilt and Shame: A Meta‐Analytic Investigation. Journal of personality, 85(3), 341-363.
 Kim, S., Thibodeau, R., & Jorgensen, R. S. (2011). Shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 137(1), 68.
 Bryan, C. J., Roberge, E., Bryan, A. O., Ray-Sannerud, B., Morrow, C. E., & Etienne, N. (2015). Guilt as a mediator of the relationship between depression and posttraumatic stress with suicide ideation in two samples of military personnel and veterans. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 8(2), 143-155.
 Burns, D. D. (2009). Feeling good: the new mood therapy. New York: Harper Publishing. 206.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.