One of the premises of a cognitive-behavioral response to problems with social anxiety, shyness, or performance fears is that certain ways of thinking fuel the experiences that are our complaint; we can call this phenomenon “anxious thinking.” There are several patterns or types of anxious thinking defined in the literature on cognitive-behavioral therapy, and many of these patterns overlap. In this post, I am going to focus on one and touch on a couple of others. The kind of anxious thinking that I will concentrate on today is often called personalization.
When we engage in personalization, we take an experience personally – that is to say, as caused by or about us – and we fail to consider all the other factors that may be at play, or other ways of interpreting the situation. If I am sitting in a coffee shop, for example, I might look up and see a woman at another table looking in my direction and wrinkling her nose. I assume that the woman is looking at me and wrinkling her nose in disgust at some aspect of my appearance or behavior, perhaps the fact that I’m typing on my laptop in a coffee shop, or that I forgot to comb my hair before leaving the house. In this instance, not only have I taken the situation personally in seeing myself as the object of the woman’s attention and as the cause of her facial expression, but I am indulging in mind reading as well – assuming that I know the woman’s thoughts — yet another kind of anxious thinking. In reality, this woman may be looking at me and admiring my tousled hair, or noticing my laptop, which is a brand she has considered buying, while her nose starts to tickle. She may not be thinking about me at all, even if she is looking at me!
Cognitive-behavioral therapy encourages us to challenge our anxious thinking, to consider meanings or interpretations other than the ones that fuel our experiences of anxiety. In the case of personalization, we may remind ourselves – perhaps with a mixture of relief and disappointment – that “It’s not all about me!” After all, what makes me think that this woman cares about what I am doing or how I look? Even if the woman is looking at me, and is critical of my appearance or behavior (which is not the same as being critical of me as a person, I might add), I could ask myself, “So what? Why do I care?” I wonder if we care at times because we want a sense of validation that we matter somehow to someone, or because the criticism that we imagine echoes our own conscience, self-doubts, or inner critic. Perhaps I am feeling a bit guilty about sitting at a table for two at the coffee shop to type on my laptop for an hour, or I tend to be critical of my hair, thinking it too thin or wispy or curly, or I am beating myself up for being a ditz yet again, this time walking out of the house before I looked in the mirror. We can talk about negative core beliefs of the “I’m not good enough!” or “Something is wrong with me!” variety (and there are others) as a third kind of anxious thinking involved in this scenario.
To the extent that you are comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of personalization? What are the helpful ways you have found to respond?
I will be writing more about other types of anxious thinking in the coming weeks. If you’re interested, you can follow this blog via e-mail!
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