Self-blaming is the act of criticizing and berating yourself for everything that goes wrong in your life. Sometimes, things are our fault, and we must be held accountable, but accountability is not the same as self-blame. In this article, we’ll look at the nature of self-blame and, ultimately, how to stop blaming yourself.
When things go wrong in our lives, whether in our relationships, careers, or our own goals and ambitions, it’s important to see where we were responsible and learn from our mistakes. The difference between accountability, which is healthy and productive, and self-blame, which is toxic and destructive, all affect how we view and treat ourselves after the fact.
Many of us maladaptively think that we should blame ourselves when things go wrong. We’ve either made a mistake and failed in our responsibility, or something just hasn’t worked out for reasons that are in fact outside of our control, but the only way we know how to deal with the situation is to blame ourselves relentlessly. We might call ourselves names, equate mistakes and failure with low self-worth, and reinforce a deeply held belief that we’re not capable of success.
Self-blame is both a cause and symptom of mental health issues, including but not limited to depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, self-doubt, and health risk behavior such as substance abuse and self-harm.
It seems harmless at first – you might figure that at least your internalized feelings are contained within you so they don’t have to influence your external life – but this isn’t the case. Any feeling or emotion we hold is based on judgment, and fear will inevitably surface and cause issues in our lives.
As such, it’s vitally important to address your self-blaming thoughts and behaviors and commit to overcoming them. Doing so can be challenging at times, but it’s a crucial step on the path to a peaceful, happy life.
Why do we blame ourselves?
We often take on blame because we expect to be blamed anyway. We figure that taking on all the responsibility for a mistake or error is the safest and wisest choice, often because we believe that fighting against it or standing up for ourselves might lead to shame or punishment. This belief or fear can usually be traced back to negative experiences in childhood.
The link between self-blame and childhood trauma
Childhood trauma impacts us in many ways. When we hear the word trauma, many of us jump to the conclusion that it refers to acts of sexual abuse or physical violence. Those are most undoubtedly traumatic experiences, but many others don’t often get as recognized for their damaging impact.
Growing up with emotionally unstable or immature parents can be traumatizing. As children, we look to our caregivers and the adults in our lives for support and guidance on living and relating to the world around us. Though children are innocent and somewhat naive, they’re not clueless. The innocence of a child also allows them to notice unusual and contradicting behaviors that can be confusing.
Children look to adults, who are supposed to model emotional and nervous system regulation. When those parents fail to do so through inconsistent parenting, substance abuse, or mood and emotional instability, our self and world view become distorted.
The dangers of self-blame
Self-blame is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It might not seem like it, but it’s a means of regaining some sense of control in our lives when things don’t go the way we want them to. Coping mechanisms are essential because they help us make sense of things, but they can be unhealthy and maladaptive.
Another example of an unhealthy and maladaptive coping mechanism is substance abuse. When we use drugs or alcohol to cope, like self-blame, we achieve temporary relief from emotional pain and discomfort. However, this relief is temporary, and we’re soon flooded once again with those painful and uncomfortable feelings.
How to overcome self-blame
It’s not always to let go of behaviors and coping mechanisms that protect us from difficult and overwhelming emotions, but just because it isn’t easy, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Working on yourself by exploring your depths and making a conscious effort to reshape your perspective is a courageous act of self-love and self-care, of which the rewards far outweigh the effort required to do so.
To begin overcoming self-blame, make sure you have sources of love and support nearby or accessible via phone or video call. You can go it alone, but having people there to help you on your self-love journey makes a big difference.
Reach out to a trusted friend or family member who can let you express your feelings and emotions without judgment and who is generally mentally healthy themselves. Be mindful of speaking to people who are struggling with mental health issues when talking about the process. Sometimes our own struggles and successes can be inspirational to those also struggling, but if we are tactless in our approach, we can end up causing more harm than good.
If you don’t have easy access to supportive friends and family, consult a therapist or counselor for help. A licensed professional can offer you a safe space in which to explore whatever comes up through your self-exploration.
Take accountability where appropriate
There is a big difference between blaming yourself for everything and accepting responsibility for your own life, but that line is blurred for those who tend to self-blame.
It’s important to stop thinking in black and white and understand that some mistakes, errors, and disappointments will be your responsibility, but just because you’ve made mistakes that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person or incapable of any other success. Self-awareness around your behavior is a valuable tool to help you draw the line between what’s yours to take on and what’s not.
Taking responsibility the right way is empowering and also helps to define that line between actual responsibility and accountability and excessive, maladaptive self-blame.
Challenge your thoughts
Next time you find yourself talking in all the blame, notice how you’re speaking to yourself. What is your self-critical voice telling you? Listen to it with close attention, and write it down. Read it over and write down your response. Challenge its self-criticism with constructive and compassionate thoughts.
Writing down our self-critical thoughts gives us a chance to view them objectively. When they remain in our heads, they tend to have staying power and a strong influence. Getting them outside of the mind and onto paper diffuses some of their power and makes them easier to confront. If you don’t want to write them down, make a voice note on your phone. Just find some outlet that will allow you to look back and reflect.
Self-compassion is a power – one that can be cultivated and honed through consistent practice. With self-compassion, we tackle many issues of self, including blame, loathing, criticism, and shame. When we practice compassion toward ourselves, we become our own best friend and treat ourselves as such.
Just imagine if a friend came to you and explained a mistake they had made or opened up about not being happy or satisfied with their life. They’re harsh, critical, and at times outright nasty to themselves. They blame themselves for everything that’s gone wrong in their lives and bring up several perceived flaws in their character as extra culprits.
How would you respond? Would you agree with them? Would you agree that they’re an inherently bad person and that they don’t deserve to be happy? Probably not. If you’re a good friend, you will point to the fact that everyone makes mistakes from time to time and that mistakes don’t have to define who we are.
You would offer kind and supportive words, focus on their positive traits and characteristics and encourage them to consider how effective and productive self-blame really is, instead suggesting how it might be more beneficial to try an alternative, healthier approach.
Heal your childhood wounds
If your childhood experiences led you to become a self-blamer, then it makes sense that to stop blaming yourself, you must address those wounds that were opened when you were young. ‘Trauma is not your fault,’ explains Dr. Peter Levine, ‘but healing is your responsibility.’
As children, there is no way that we are at fault for the way our caregiver modeled regulation, or dysregulation, to us. That was entirely out of our control. Still, as adults, we have control. We have power over the way we react and respond to life, and with that power comes the responsibility to heal ourselves from our childhood wounds.
Going back to your childhood and trying to heal those wounds can be frightening and overwhelming at times, so it’s wise to seek the support of a mental health professional if you believe a revisit to your childhood might be overwhelming. However, there are things you can do from where you are now to begin the healing process. Much of the time, all the inner child needs to know is that they are safe and that they will not be punished and do not need to feel guilty for expressing their emotions and their wants and needs.
Open a dialogue with your inner child and ask them how they feel. Invite them to be honest about their fears and worries, even if your adult self can think more objectively. Objectivity is not important here, at least not as important as the subjective experience of your inner child.
Speak to a therapist
The habit of blaming oneself for everything is associated with feelings of worthlessness, depression, hopelessness, and a markedly increased risk of anxiety. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found a strong correlation between self-blame and major depressive disorder. Anxiety and feelings of worthlessness are known consequences of childhood trauma, including events that lead adult survivors to blame themselves unnecessarily.
As such, it’s wise to speak to a trained mental health professional if you’re struggling. You can most certainly work on yourself by yourself and make great strides on your healing journey but remember that you don’t have to do it all alone. A therapist can help you identify the areas of your life in which you can accept responsibility and those out of your control and can also help prevent the possibility of retraumatization as you revisit your past.
Some people will blame you and make you blame yourself because they know you won’t stand up for yourself. You may have taken in unnecessary blame before, and the harsh truth is some people take advantage of such behavior.
One might not feel comfortable with even the slightest feeling of guilt or blame, so they do all within their power to allocate the responsibility onto someone else and free themselves from facing emotional pain.
As such, it’s important to recognize when people don’t have your best interests at heart and to set boundaries around your relationship with those people.
You don’t have to cut them out of your life completely, but notice when their behavior affects your well-being. It’s helpful to create an emotional or even physical barrier between the two of you to prevent your mental and emotional health well-being from being jeopardized.
Allow yourself to make mistakes
People who have phobias, such as agoraphobia or even arachnophobia, often receive a type of treatment known as exposure therapy. This is a means of gradually introducing the person suffering to the object of their fear in small doses.
Over time, they build emotional resilience and develop the ability to tolerate larger doses of exposure to fear. Eventually, the fear dissipates because they’ve learned how to feel safe in those once frightening and overwhelming circumstances.
You can apply the principles of exposure therapy to self-blame and challenge yourself to do something difficult. If you tend to self-blame, then you probably don’t take many risks or try hard things because if you fail, you’ll have to deal with a flood of negative feelings.
Once you’ve been to practice self-compassion, addressed some childhood wounds, and sourced some practical and professional support, consider getting out of your comfort zone and trying something difficult that you will likely fail the first time around. The more comfortable you become with familiarity, the easier it becomes to understand that failure is not always your fault, and even when it is, that’s ok.