The other day, I helped a client begin to work through the prolonged pain he had experienced from bullying. In trying to understand what made him a target, both of us realized that it was nothing more than his fear of fighting back. The punishments he received were mere displacements, ways that the other kids could redirect their anger to a safer subject. (It’s difficult for anyone to consciously experience self-hatred or anger toward a caregiver.) With that sort of insight, one feels free and, simultaneously, terrified. On the one hand, she isn’t to blame for her suffering, but on the other, her sorrow is the result of some random process; she just happened to have been there, and her tormentor just happened to be angry. It could have easily been someone else, as, often, the only real criteria for abuse is being an easy target.
Personalization is a cognitive distortion, defined as taking too much responsibility for something that was either minimally your fault or not at all. This can manifest in several ways: Road rage occurs when the driver believes he’s been wronged for a personal reason, because of who he is, rather than because the other individual is an asshole who would have cut off almost anyone else; rejection sensitivity when one believes that she’s unlovable and was, therefore, broken up with because of her partner’s intractable inability to love her; and, when when children are convinced that they’re sources of abuse.
At a young age, our brains learn to personalize, to take responsibility for our environments, because it helps us to feel safe and in control of them, and due to our limited understanding. If I’m to blame for my father’s rage, then, maybe, I can change myself in order to affect him. If preparation is the antidote to fear, then personalization is the extreme form of it. So, at the expense of our own well-being and self-esteem, our brains blame us for our own anguish; the alternative is unacceptable. In our development, we go from blaming ourselves because we’re scared to finding the courage to turn our anxiety into anger, and blame others for mistreatment. But, in the end, the point is to let go. For, that anger can only suffocate us.
Those of my clients who’ve spent most of their lives feeling insignificant initially blamed themselves, and tried their best to gain approval, but then resorted to blaming others because of the injustice, and internalization, of the rejection that they felt. The person who gets cut off on the road deeply feels how unjustly they’ve been treated, but, at the same time, they internalize, or rather manifest, their core belief of being insignificant.
If you were to ask me why I rejected people in the past, I’d tell you because they weren’t attractive enough, or because they were controlling, or simply because I was terrified of vulnerability. And, I’m sure that most were hurt because I left them. But, it was always about me. I wanted to date someone who was gorgeous because I felt unattractive, I deeply resented being controlled because of my own childhood experiences, and I was afraid of being open because I was sure I’d be rejected. At bottom, empathy is significant, but so is understanding our self-conceptions and how they affect our interpretations.
I often tell people that it’s easy to personalize being mistreated because of our narrow views. In childhood, we see how our caregivers treat us and compare their actions to those of other parents. If they’re misaligned, we infer that we must be causes. For, if everyone else’s dad is nice to them, then I must be the problem, and if I’m the problem, then I have to try to become a better child. Unfortunately, what we don’t know is that their roles are tainted by their traits. We’re aware of how our mothers should be and judge them by that standard, but, often, we don’t know that pathology can reduce their ability to be the mothers we deserve. Behind the role of a bad mother or father lies a narcissistic personality, a selfish individual who can’t even love himself.
So, what does all of this mean for us? It means that we ought to examine our rage, our hurt, and our core beliefs. It means that we should try our best to see others’ perspectives, asking ourselves if their maliciousness is ever truly about us. However, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have boundaries and standards for other people. Because we understand that someone is being hurtful as a way of masking hurt doesn’t imply that we’re obligated to keep tolerating their bad behavior. But, it does mean that we no longer have to take it personally. And, if you’re rejected for being an asshole, it doesn’t mean that you can’t change. But, it does mean that you probably should.
Life can be conceived of as one big process of development. We are where we are because of a mixture of genes, our environments, our talents, and our opportunities. Some are further along the path than others because of the hands that they were dealt early on; they had a normal beginning. Meanwhile, others remain barricaded in psychological prisons of self-hatred, which preclude the light of self-transcenece from radiating in. The most viscous among us are the most profoundly sad. They’re the ones who need the most help; yet, they won’t allow themselves to acknowledge how they push it away. And, what’s the purpose of being angry at a blind man for not seeing the way forward?