The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.
Personalizing the behavior of others is when you assume that the motivation or reason for someone else's behavior is yourself. This is something that pathologically narcissistic people have a huge problem with, and sometimes non-narcissistic people have trouble with it as well. One of the things that this author reiterates is that the behavior of the narcissist is not personal. It really isn't. It's about them, not anyone else. This is often hard for other people to understand or accept, because there is so much pain involved. Our own sense of self-preservation and our own sense of ego screams out that it must be personal because it hurts us. And it is personal - to the victim. It is ego that makes us feel it must be about us. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself. It's how our self-defense mechanisms keep us safe. However, it can also make us believe we have more influence or importance in the situation than we actually do. This causes us more pain in the end.
This is why narcissistic people have such a hard time with it. Their ego is so dysfunctional and consuming that it creates the idea that everything is about them or to them or for them. They're not able to separate their experience or feelings from anything because of their inability to separate the self from external objects. It's all about how it affects them and if it affects them, they believe it must be for them, or because of them. The idea that people have their own feelings and their own motives that don't include them does not usually occur to pathologically narcissistic people. They simply assume that the motive for all things is themselves, whether it affects them directly or not.
This is not to say that people don't do things purposely to hurt or upset others. They definitely do. But the reason behind it is still more to do with them than the other person. If you go up to five different people and punch each one of them in the face, you're going to get five different reactions. One person might cry, one might laugh, one might call the police, one might hit you back, one might pull a gun out and shoot you. This is because a person's behavior is a choice they are making based on the kind of person they are. The person doing the punching is responsible for that, but the other person's reaction to the punching is on them. Most people would say that if you go up to someone and punch them, you would deserve what you got and that may be true. But it's still their choice. Justification doesn't eliminate responsibility. If you punch someone, you own that. That was your choice. If someone punches you back, that's their choice. They own that. We often hear people say, "You made me angry, you made me do that." This isn't the truth. How we react to things is a choice.
That may be one of the biggest differences between pathologically narcissistic people and those who are not. They don't seem capable of taking responsibility for the fact that they are choosing to behave the way that they are. This is one of the reasons that it's so hard for them to change anything. They are unable to own it. Ironically, for people who want control over so many things, they completely abdicate control over their behavior and their emotions to other people. Through personalizing the behavior of others, they achieve the justification they need to relinquish responsibility for their actions. They feel attacked continuously and justify their abuse as self-defense. As far as they are concerned, they bear no responsibility for how they are behaving because the other person has caused the whole thing. Their ego is wounded, they feel inadequate and imperfect and they believe that they must retaliate in order to protect their ego and ultimately, themselves.
Of course, the bigger problem is that because of their inability to understand that not everything is related to them and because of their own projected self-hatred, narcissists may fail to realize that they aren't actually being attacked. Their behavior may be justified in their minds, but it isn't to other people. It looks unreasonable, mostly because it is unreasonable. Even if someone has slighted or been rude to them, often their reactions are disproportionate to the offense. They come at people with both barrels, attempting to destroy people for little things that may be very overblown or even nonexistent. This is because the threat has been so magnified, and the personalization so strong and deemed so malignant. Mistakenly leaving a narcissist out of something because you have other things on your mind, for example, is interpreted by the narcissistic person as a blatant and purposeful attack on their self-worth designed to make them feel rejected and humiliated.
As you can see, these two things are very different. One is a simple mistake and the other is a cruel and intentional desire to hurt someone. This is what personalizing the behavior of others can lead to. One of the lessons we can learn from narcissistic people is that personalizing the behavior of others is not only inaccurate but unhealthy and only leads to more pain. We are responsible for our own behavior and others are responsible for theirs. Our actions are a choice, regardless of the provocation. When someone is cruel to us, it is often our first reaction to believe we've caused that, that it's about us. The truth is that other people's behavior is about them. Our behavior is about us. So much of what we do is a habit and this is really no different. Behavior is a choice we are making and we can choose to do something else. It may take time to get into a new habit or way of behaving but it is absolutely possible and ultimately worth it.
G, Ireland on July 31, 2019:
Dear Little Shaman,
I enjoy your articles and youtube clips, and find them to be accurate, insightful, and a great help.
However, in my opinion there is an inaccuracy in the above article which i feel is worth my mentioning. I've spotted it in at least one of your other articles too - unfortunately I can't remember which one at present.
What i believe to be an inaccuracy is the idea that people are responsible for their feelings. So in the above article you state 'We often hear people say, "You made me angry, you made me do that." This isn't the truth'.
I don't believe we are entirely responsible for our feelings. We have a certain amount of control over them and bear a certain amount of responsibility, but we don't have full control and don't bear full responsibility.
To take the example in your article above - if a person punches someone else in the face, the punched person is going to experience certain feelings as a result of the incident. Surprise, hurt, and probably anger will be experienced. But the punched person isn't responsible for these feelings. These feelings were created by the 'puncher'. The 'puncher' bears responsibility for creating the feelings in the victim.
Certainly, the victim is responsible for how they choose to react, and they are responsible for how they deal with their feelings - but they are not responsible for creating the feelings in the first place. Any healthy person will feel surprised and hurt if someone suddenly punches them in the face. The puncher is responsible for creating those feelings.
The reason I believe it's important to be clear about this distinction is because I have experienced situations where an abuser has attempted to blameshift by saying, after they had committed an act of abuse, that their victim was responsible for the victim's feelings. They claimed if the victim felt hurt, then that was the victim's responsibility, and the abuser hadn't really done anything wrong.
I'm wary that if people believe they are (entirely) responsible for their feelings, this gives abusers carte blanche to abuse and then wash their hands of the hurt caused. I'm wary that some victims will blame themselves to an extent for initially feeling hurt after abuse, when they are not in fact responsible for that hurt.
As I'm sure you would agree, victims of abuse are often unsure of themselves and confused as a result of gaslighting and other manipulations etc. I think it's important not to confuse 'you are responsible to an extent for your feelings', or 'you are responsible for the actions you take following abuse' with the more general idea that 'you are responsible for your feelings full-stop', as doing so could lead victims to blame themselves. (I'm aware you didn't make the statement 'you are responsible for your feelings full-stop' - but I think this article and at least one other could be interpreted as stating that).
Thank you for writing the articles and making the Youtube clips btw! As I said, I think they are excellent - the issue mentioned above is just what I believe to be a minor inaccuracy that I felt I should make a comment about.