Caring for yourself

It’s Not Your Fault & It Won’t Always Feel Like This

5 minutes

During difficult times, it’s easy to fall into mental traps, such as the “3 P’s.” Remember that it’s not your fault, & this feeling won’t last forever.

During hard times, it’s easy to fall into mental traps that make us feel even worse. Psychologist Martin Seligman refers to a common set of thinking traps—personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence—as the “three P’s.”

Personalization suggests you, alone, are responsible for everything that has gone wrong. It tells you that you’re at fault for your father’s hospitalization because you didn’t make him exercise or that it’s all your fault for struggling with depression or anxiety.

Pervasiveness suggests your problem will spread, affecting all areas of your life. While our hardest moments often do impact many parts of our lives, one conversation where you don’t feel heard by a friend can lead to the conclusion that “no one cares about you.” One mistake at work when you were distracted by an upcoming doctor’s appointment expands into feeling like a failure who will never succeed again.

Permanence suggests the challenges you face will last forever. It can trick you into thinking that an unwanted breakup means you’ll be alone for the rest of your life or that the immediate acuteness of grief after the death of a loved one will never fade or feel less painful over time.

Together, these three P’s create a false but convincing story. Fortunately, decades of research show that recognizing and challenging the three P’s can help us navigate hardship and move toward healing.

  • Tip #1
    To de-personalize your struggles, consider multiple causes

    When something goes wrong, we naturally look for ways to prevent similar problems in the future. However, most of life’s most painful moments have multiple causes, including causes beyond our control.

    For example, diet might play a role in our health problems, but so do factors like stress, bad luck, aging, genetics, and pollution. While there may be things you could have done differently leading up to the challenge you’re facing, it’s unlikely your actions were the only factor in what happened. Being fair to ourselves by considering these causes can help us blame ourselves less and acknowledge the bigger picture.

  • How to do it
    1. 1
      List the parts of a hard situation you’ve been blaming yourself for.
    2. 2
      Identify all the other factors that could have played a role. If you get stuck, noticing what you’ve been apologizing for can be a good way to catch sneaky self-blaming thoughts. You could also consider asking someone you trust for their perspective.
    3. 3
      Once you’ve identified all the external factors that have also contributed to the challenge you’re facing, use that knowledge to reshape your thoughts. When you catch yourself thinking, “It’s all my fault . . . ,” replace that thought with something more realistic like “I wish I’d made some different choices, but I had no way to control X and Y. This isn’t all on me.”
  • Tip #2
    Slow down your all-or-nothing thinking (pervasiveness)

    Human brains do a great job of making connections. Unfortunately, this means that when we’re feeling bad about one thing, our brain pulls up reminders of all the other times we’ve felt awful.1 That process feeds the second P, pervasiveness.

  • How to do it

    Thoughts including words like “no one,” “everyone,” “nothing,” or “everything” are probably both unhelpful and untrue. Replacing broad, absolute statements with more realistic ones can help right-size the challenges you’re facing. Instead of “Everything is awful,” try “Getting that phone call was really hard.”

    You can also push back against pervasiveness by looking for evidence of things that still bring meaning to your life. That might mean noticing remaining parts of your support system like pets or friends. Or it might mean actively looking for things you feel grateful for, whether that is health insurance or your favorite song coming on the radio at the end of a hard day.

  • Tip #3
    Remember it won’t always feel like this (permanence)

    The third P, permanence, tricks us into believing our emotional pain will last forever, but it won’t last forever. Psychologists have studied our not-so-great ability to anticipate how we’ll feel in the future. Whether we’re predicting the impact of ending a relationship, getting diagnosed with HIV, or coping with paralysis, we tend to overestimate how strong and long-lasting our bad feelings will be.9

  • How to do it

    Upsetting beliefs about permanence come with words like “always” and “never.” Because no feeling or experience lasts forever, choosing words like “sometimes” and “lately” can make your situation feel less overwhelming.

    • “I’ll always be alone” might become “I feel alone right now.”
    • “I’ll never forgive myself” might become “Like everyone, I will sometimes feel regret.”

    You can also push back against permanence by reminding yourself of difficult experiences that you’ve gotten through before. Just as the bad feelings from those times faded, the feelings you have now will also become less intense with time.

Recognizing that life’s hardest events aren’t personal, pervasive, or permanent makes it easier to cope. Pushing back against the three P’s isn’t about denying that things are hard right now. Rather, they are about helping us understand that it’s not all your fault and it won’t always feel like this.

Other Lessons

Endnotes

  1. Melinda A. Gaddy and Rick E. Ingram, “A Meta-Analytic Review of Mood-Congruent Implicit Memory in Depressed Mood,” Clinical Psychology Review 34, no. 5 (July 2014): 402–16; Chai M. Tyng, Hafeez U. Amin, Mohamad N. M. Saad, and Aamir S. Malik, “The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory,” Frontiers in Psychology 8 (August 2017): 1454.

  2. Elinor Flynn, Arpine Hovasapian, and Linda J. Levine, “Affective Forecasting,” in The Wiley Encyclopedia of Health Psychology, ed. Kate Sweeny, Megan L. Robbins, and Lee M. Cohen (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2020), 21–29; Daniel T. Gilbert, Elizabeth C. Pinel, Timothy D. Wilson, et al., “Immune Neglect: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75, no. 3 (1998): 617–38; Timothy D. Wilson and Daniel T. Gilbert, “Affective Forecasting: Knowing What to Want,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 14, no. 3 (June 2005): 131–34.