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Two biased forms of thinking that involve taking things too personally
Personalisation: believing that you're the cause of a negative event, despite having little or no evidence to support the belief.
Mind reading: believing someone is making a critical judgment about you, especially in an ambiguous situation where you've received no direct feedback.
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.
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.
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.
To help you understand and separate the connections between feelings and thoughts, practise labelling them whenever you have the opportunity.
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.
The next time you’re experiencing a strong or difficult emotion, tune in to your thoughts.
For example, 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.
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.
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.
Get out a sheet of paper. On the left side, write down a brief description of the situation.
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.
Below the situation, thoughts and feelings, write down what you know that suggests your thoughts are true.
Write down anything that tells you that your thoughts might not be true.
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.
Four interrelated components of emotional experiences, which you can remember by using the acronym STUF:
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.
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.
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.
You can’t always know what people are thinking about you, but you can decide how you’d like to conduct yourself.
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.
Practice 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.
Below are some further ways to understand and relate to your feelings and urges:
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.
Examples of value-driven action:
Community arts worker
Self-awareness is the key to conquer your feelings.
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