Are you quick to blame yourself – even for things you didn’t do or couldn’t control?
When things go wrong, is your immediate response “it’s all my fault” or “I shouldn't have done that”?
For many of us, self-blame and criticism are insidious. We’re unrelenting with our demands and expectations and we’re our own worst critic when things don’t go as planned or we don’t perform perfectly.
Why we’re so hard on ourselves
Self-blame and self-criticism are learned behaviors. A blaming or critical parent, teacher, friend, or family member may be the original source of your inner-critic.
Children are especially vulnerable to blame, rage, and criticism because they don’t have a strong sense of self. They base their self-concept on what others tell them. So, if you were repeatedly told you’re needy or you’re stupid, you probably grew up believing it.
Our negative beliefs can also result from what wasn’t said or done for us as children. For example, if your parents weren’t attentive to your feelings the unspoken message was that your feelings (and you) don’t matter.
When criticism, blame, verbal abuse, and emotional neglect are chronic, we internalize this critical voice and make it our own. We continue to repeat these negative false beliefs (I’m ugly, I’m stupid, it’s all my fault, I’m worthless) and reinforce them until they become automatic.
We also tend to choose partners in adulthood who repeat this cycle of blame and criticism. We’re unconsciously drawn to people who criticize and blame us because we're used to it – and it validates the negative beliefs we have about ourselves.
Here’s an example of the cycle of self-blame:
Maggie and Ted (a narcissist) were married for 12 years. At the beginning of their relationship, Ted doted on Maggie. He was charming and successful – everything her father wasn’t. However, as their wedding approached, Ted’s true personality emerged. He was controlling, had to win every argument by making Maggie feel inadequate and embarrassed, and insisted that things be done his way. Ted could never admit his own mistakes and shortcomings. He blamed Maggie for things she couldn’t control, accused her of things she didn’t do and shamed her into believing that she was the cause of their marital problems, his business failings, and even his insomnia.
Narcissists, like Ted, lack boundaries, which means they expect you to be an extension of themselves. They don’t see you as a unique, worthwhile person. Its all about what you can do to build them up, please them, and make them look better to the rest of the world. And because narcissists lack boundaries, self-awareness, and the ability to acknowledge their faults, they love to blame others for their mistakes. So, it’s not surprising that after years of being married to a narcissist, Maggie internalized much of this blame and now, even after being divorced for six months, she criticizes herself for even the tiniest imperfection and she blames herself for everything that goes wrong.
As you can see from Maggie’s story, removing yourself from the people who project blame onto you, doesn’t cure you of blaming yourself. So, how do you break free of this entrenched pattern of self-blame?
Self-compassion is an antidote to self-blame and criticism
Self-compassion – being kind to yourself -- can help you break the cycle of self-blame. Self-compassion can include affirming your feelings, prioritizing self-care, accepting your mistakes, or giving yourself the benefit of the doubt.
The first element of self-compassion is to acknowledge that you’re struggling (perhaps feeling like a failure, feeling overwhelmed or tired) and recognize that everyone struggles; no one is perfect or has it all together.
You can begin to be more self-compassionate by practicing the following exercises designed by self-compassion expert and psychologist Kristin Neff, Ph.D.
When you notice that you’re being hard on yourself, take a few moments to write down exactly what your self-critical voice is saying. Next, try to respond to it in a positive and caring way, like something you’d say to a friend. Here’s an example of how Maggie can respond to her self-blame:
Self-critical voice: “You’re so stupid. Why did you ask Ted to take Chloe to ballet class? You should have known he’d blow up!”
Compassionate response: “I know you wanted Chloe to be able to go to class; ballet means so much to her. It’s not your fault that Ted blew up.”
Imagine that you have a friend who loves you unconditionally, forgives you, understands your life experiences, and knows all your strengths and weaknesses – including everything you’ve failed at, feel ashamed of, and don’t like about yourself. Write a letter to yourself from this imaginary friend that focuses on the things you tend to judge yourself harshly about. Dr. Neff suggests that you consider:
- What would this friend say to you about your “flaw” from the perspective of unlimited compassion?
- How would this friend convey the deep compassion he/she feels for you, especially for the pain you feel when you judge yourself so harshly?
- What would this friend write in order to remind you that you are only human, that all people have both strengths and weaknesses?
- And if you think this friend would suggest possible changes you should make, how would these suggestions embody feelings of unconditional understanding and compassion? (source: https://self-compassion.org/exercise-3-exploring-self-compassion-writing/)
Be sure to reread your letter a few times and let the compassion and acceptance it contains sink in fully.
You can also calm and soothe yourself through loving touch. Physical touch is a powerful therapeutic tool. It releases oxytocin, the love hormone, which promotes feelings of calm, trust, safety, and connectedness and it reduces the stress hormone cortisol that’s released when we’re blamed or criticized by ourselves or others. So, by giving yourself a hug or gentle neck massage, you’re changing your body’s chemistry (increasing oxytocin and decreasing cortisol). It’s a simple yet effective way to comfort yourself.
Practicing self-compassion exercises regularly, such as the ones above, can help you break the self-blame cycle and restore your sense of worth!
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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