Self-blame is so common that it is widely accepted and universally understood that the phrase, “we are our own biggest critics” is often true. Have you ever stopped to wonder why this is the case? The truth is that human beings and our brains like to have answers. They like to have control and believe they may actually need this control. Unfortunately for us, we live in a chaotic world. Cause and effect don’t always make sense. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Putting in our best effort doesn’t always achieve our desired goals. Life throws us curve balls and lessons that seem impossible to understand when we are in the midst of the struggle. Many times, we may know these hard truths at a logical level, but when it comes to our emotional understanding, that part of us is still craving answers, yearning for certainty, and aching for a way to make sense of it all. All of this largely impacts our relationship with self-blame.
Sometimes, this striving for certainty might take the form of blaming others. Blaming others is externalizing discomfort and uncertainty. Finger pointing. Defensiveness. Name Calling.
More commonly, and what I see a lot in my practice, is an internalization of the need for certainty. When there’s no other way to make sense of something, then the only place left to turn is to blame oneself – to criticize, to scrutinize, to identify all of the “woulda, coulda, shoulda”. Internalizing the need for control may present itself as the belief that “if we were smarter, wiser, thinner, prettier, or better, the current pain, confusion, and uncertainty could be avoided.” This soothes the anxious brain. It gives the anxiety an answer and a reason, even if that answer is not the truth, even if it actually makes us feel worse. This also creates a nasty vicious cycle that fuels low self-worth and depression. Our need for certainty can feel so overpowering we are willing to be incredibly cruel to ourselves to obtain it.
How to Stop the Cycle:
Recognize when it’s happening
The first step in changing anything is awareness. In order to shift your relationship with blame, you must first recognize when your brain is doing it. It can be overt or subtle. A practice of mindfulness will help with this step.
Example: I’m so stupid. If I would have studied harder I would have earned a better grade. I shouldn’t have watched that TV show. What is wrong with me? I should have known better. I’m too lazy. I do this all the time, I deserve to fail out of school.
Self-compassion is not necessarily self-love. This is not toxic positivity, nor is it simply making excuses. It is operating from the framework that all humans are fallible and no one is perfect. This is also understanding that although no one is perfect, every human is worthy. An understanding where you were coming from and how the decisions made sense for you at the time. It is kindness and grace you likely extend to others.
Example: All humans have strengths and weaknesses. People are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. It makes sense that I would have wanted to watch the show, I have been feeling really overwhelmed lately and needed a break. I did what I thought I needed to do at the time.
Differentiate between other conditions
Blame is not the same as accountability. A common misconception is that without the self-critical blame, terrible things may happen (i.e. “I’ll fail, I’ll be lazy, I’ll be selfish, I’ll never get out of bed”). Accountability is recognizing the role you play and learning from it for the future. It helps make commitments to self that are in self’s best interest. Blame breeds shame. Shame is an unproductive emotion that results in wallowing, inaction, shutting down and inability to access your wisest self.
Example: I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time. While I can understand why I needed a break, I can be more mindful about planning my study time and my free time. Instead of feeling guilty for taking breaks and never allowing myself to relax and then giving up when I’m too exhausted, I can plan time for both and experiment with a schedule that works for me.
Identify underlying emotions
Where there is blame and uncertainty, there are underlying vulnerable emotions. Remember, blame swoops in to feel in control. It also can swoop in to “save us” from experiencing unpleasant emotions (although the shame with blame can actually feel worse and likely linger around longer). To identify these emotions is powerful. To understand, listen to, and release emotions, allows us to manage them rather than them chaotically managing us.
Example: I’m really disappointed with my grade. I feel embarrassed that it seems like a representation of my intelligence. I fear that it predicts how I will do in the class and my career in the future. I’m jealous that my classmate did better.
Build comfort with uncertainty
Life is change. Change is unknown. We can try to prepare for it, but unexpected things can always happen. If we don’t build our comfort with tolerating uncertainty, our whole lives may be spent trying to fight against it. Acceptance doesn’t mean we like it. It doesn’t mean we approve of it. Acceptance means, “It is what it is”. Explore what is within your control vs what is out of your control to aid in this challenging process.
Example: I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I can keep putting my best foot forward. I don’t have to add to the disappointment I’m feeling by making myself feel miserable. Maybe I can’t control what’s on the exams or what the outcome of my grade is, but I can continue working toward learning the material to the best of my ability. What I can do is raise my hand and ask questions when I don’t understand something. I can prioritize a balance of rest and study.
Now go out there with a newfound way to cope with the only certain thing in life – uncertainty – without unconsciously adding to your suffering!
Article by Jessica Dattalo, LCSW