‘I wake up filled with dread for the day ahead. And why should I get out of bed? The anxiety buzzes louder as the hours tick by, increasing the risk that something will go wrong, and if it does (because it always does), I will be the one to blame. No matter the day, the fault lies with me.’
I hear these words all too many times. An excessive sense of self-blame leaves people paralysed with fear. They assume things will go wrong, and so they avoid life more and more, because they cannot face the prospect of bearing the weight of responsibility.
Avoidance and isolation can only makes things worse. If you feel that you suffer from a sense of excessive self-blame, take a moment to consider these thoughts -
Believe it or not, you matter. Excessive self-blame is often the characteristic of someone who grew up with the message that they did not matter. Perhaps you grew up with caregivers who were otherwise distracted from your needs (they may have been struggling with their own issues, or they may have been depressed). Sometimes this is hard because we don’t want to blame our caregivers. And finding fault in others is not the focus of this article. The focus is on finding out why we might bear an unreasonable sense of responsibility, and one of the reasons might be because we were taught, intentionally or not, to believe that our needs were less important than other people’s. Once we have this awareness, that it is something we learned, we can search for evidence to dispute this. We do matter, just as much as anyone else. So we need to look for ways to develop a sense of self-compassion rather than self-blame.
What is the point of this self-blame? When you were young, blaming yourself might have helped to distract you from an abusive or manipulative caregiver. The same pattern might be playing out in your current life: Perhaps it is easier to blame yourself because the alternative is to accept that someone else’s behaviour has crossed the line. Alternatively, you might blame yourself because you were taught to do this, because you were recruited as the ‘scapegoat’ of your family. For the ‘health’ of the family, a scapegoat is often recruited to accept blame, and as a child, you may not have even realised this was happening. Even if you did realise, you had little choice but to stay in that family, and accept the role you were given. But as an adult, with the right help, you can abandon the role of the scapegoat, and adopt a more realistic perspective of your strengths and areas for improvement.
Allow for imperfection. Self-compassion can often be developed if we allow for imperfection. If we just loosen our grip on how things ‘should’ be, and accept the reality that we will make mistakes, no matter how tightly we try to control things, we can start to relax a little. Of course you need to look for ways to improve, but not so much that you risk your physical or mental health. Embrace imperfection as an opportunity to learn about yourself, others, and the world around you. This sense of acceptance (of yourself and others), can offer more opportunities to connect with others. We are all imperfect, so we at least share this common experience.
Ditch the labels and projects and focus on the specifics: Create SMART goals. It is all too easy to make sweeping generalizations and label yourself ‘Lazy’ or ‘Stupid’ or ’A Procrastinator’. This broad-brush approach misses our subtle characteristics, including our strengths. It ignores the times when you have made an effort, or when you achieved something, or when you have not put something off. This broad-brush approach also leads to self-blame when you try to tackle a huge project, instead of breaking it down into bite-sized goals. I have mentioned in other articles how our goals need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound), and in the same way, your self-critique needs to be the same: Be specific about what behaviour you would like to see more or less in yourself. How might you measure that change? Is it achievable, realistic, and how are you going to set time limits to achieve the goals you set for yourself?
Listen for the voice of doubt. When you start to challenge your self-blame, you may feel anxious because of the little voice of doubt. It might try to make you believe that if you don’t blame yourself, you will fail at something serious. But this is rather black and white: We are not saying you close your eyes to reality, free-wheeling through life with abundant recklessness. We are simply suggesting that you reality-test each self-statement, each assumption you make about yourself. And you do not hold onto absolutes. You may feel certain behaviour needs to change now, but in the future, you may realise that you are managing that behaviour quite well, and there is another focus for your self-evaluation. If you hold too tightly onto fixed labels, you will not allow for this fluid, and more realistic, perspective.
Nurture the child or best friend. List all the ways you blame yourself, and write a few paragraphs using the self-critical voice you constantly hear. When you read it, ask yourself whether you would direct these words to a child, or someone you love. If you would not, why do you allow yourself to direct so much blame, and so much criticism, at yourself? Your needs are just as important as every other person’s.
Reality-test your assumptions. Fault is fuelled by unrealistic assumptions. If you assume you have to be a certain way, and you fall short of that, you end up beating yourself up. And the annoying thing about this is that these assumptions are often not yours in the first place. You may have learned them from someone else (usually your caregivers), and yet these assumptions may not fit the reality of your present-day life.
Accept reality. So much stress and anxiety is caused by a need to look at the past or the present, searching for ways to improve. An excessive emphasis on the past can lead to guilt, and an excessive emphasis on the future might lead to anxiety. The trouble is, we have no control over the past or the future, we only know how we exist in the present. Become aware of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in the present by focusing on your breathing. Mindfulness can help with this because it encourages a non-judgmental attitude, and this can help to strengthen your self-esteem.