Clients, friends, and people I meet sometimes will ask, "What is the one thing I can do that can create the biggest difference in my life?" When asked that, my initial thought is, "Wow, slow down. That's a big question! I'm not some wizard. I surely don't have all the answers!" And fortunately, most of the time, we just laugh it off and I wiggle out of answering such a significant question.
Today I'm feeling a little pep in my step and I thought I'd give it a go and attempt to address this question.
So what is the one thing that can create the biggest difference?
Let me start by saying that I do believe what I'm about to unpack is quite impactful. There are a lot of ways in which I thought of answering the question. And this route just so happened to have the most inspiration and steam behind it today.
While therapy is a very dynamic process between two human beings that cannot be replicated on paper, I hope this will serve potentially as a guide, a spark, or some sort of opening for you and your experience.
Let’s start by asking a series of questions of yourself. Pay attention to the energy that arises within yourself as you consider each of them.
Do you ever feel sensitive or defensive to negative feedback or the possibility of rejection?
Do you feel self-conscious around others?
Are you uncomfortable being around people who express anger, rage, negativity, or other intense emotions?
Do you ever feel personally responsible for another person’s feelings or outside events?
Do you feel you lack self-esteem or self-confidence to pursue what you want?
Do you struggle to work through interpersonal conflicts effectively?
Are you afraid to confront someone or give direct feedback?
Are you hesitant to express what you want or need in relationships?
Do you believe you could easily hurt someone’s feelings and as a result, you filter and monitor much of what you say?
Have you ever had the thought, “I wonder what they are thinking of me?” or "How am I doing?"
If you answered yes to any of them, some of them, or even all of them, then I believe that you may find the rest of this helpful. Part of the joy of my work with people is being able to experience the incredible uniqueness of each individual person. It amazes me to see the resilience, creativity, and resourcefulness of the human spirit. And at the same time, I have noticed that there tends to be certain mental and perceptual filters that cause a lot of suffering and agony.
These filters can be considered a program and much like a computer program, there are ways in which we sort, view, and make sense of our external experience in the world. I believe one of the most powerful limiting programs that undercuts our ability to experience enjoyment and satisfaction is something we do called personalizing.
What is Personalizing?
Personalizing is a distorted way of thinking where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to them. Someone is in a bad mood and you believe you caused them to feel that way. A person who experiences this kind of thinking will also compare themselves to others, trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. Personalizing leads to rumination and obsessive thinking about what others think of you. Personalizing results in you feeling self-conscious and like the spotlight is shining on you at all times. A person engaging in personalizing may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused everyone to have a terrible time. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.”
So now the question becomes what do we do if we are personalizing often? The simplest answer exists in an old parable about an angry man and a monk.
The Story of the Angry Young Man and the Monk
It is said that one day a monk was walking through a village. A very angry and rude young man came up and began insulting him, saying all kinds of rude words, berating him. The monk was not upset by these insults. Instead, he asked the young man, “Tell me, if you buy a gift for someone, and that person does not take it, to whom does the gift belong?” The young man was surprised to be asked such a strange question and answered, “It would belong to me because I bought the gift.” The monk smiled and said, “That is correct. And it is exactly the same with your anger. If you become angry with me and I do not get insulted, then the anger falls back on you. You are then the only one who becomes unhappy, not me. All you have done is hurt yourself.”
Awareness Alone is Curative
A friend of mine once told me, “Awareness alone is curative.” It took some time for me to digest what he was trying to get at, but I finally understood what he meant when a client of mine had her own little lesson with personalizing first hand.
The client discussed how her friend picked her up from the airport one day and she was kind of silent and not very willing to engage in a conversation. The client talked about how she initially thought to herself, "What did I do? What did I say?" She felt responsible and like she had somehow hurt her friend. So she sat in silence for some time feeling really torn up inside. As she was about to drop her off, she asked her directly, "Hey, is something wrong? Did I say or do something to hurt you or anger you?" Her friend responded emphatically and said, "Absolutely not! I gave a presentation today at work and felt like I really messed up. I can't get it out of my head and I keep replaying the terrible scene!" At that moment, the client almost laughed out loud because she had the awareness that her friend was not inventing that behavior for her and that she had nothing at all to do with it. My client talked about how that experience was a moment of awareness she will never forget and how it was indeed curative for her.
Don't Try to Get Rid of Personalizing. Notice It.
Common questions I get are, "How do I stop personalizing? How do I get rid of it?" I remember the day I asked
my friend the very same question. "Now that I know about personalizing and all of these other cognitive distortions, how do I get rid of them?”
He calmly replied, “You don’t get rid of them, you simply become aware of them, and then they begin to have less power over you.”
At that moment, that simple sentence made a lot of sense to me. Then it all seemed to make sense and come together when he finished by saying, “It’s a lot like sweeping the floor. You can’t just do it one time and the floor stays clean forever. It’s a constant practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and the less you consciously have to think about it."
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