Are you quick to blame yourself even for things you didnt do or couldnt control?
When things go wrong, is your immediate response: Its all my fault or I shouldn’t have done that?
For many of us, self-blame and criticism are insidious. Were unrelenting with our demands and expectations, and were our own worst critic when things dont go as planned or we dont perform perfectly.
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 dont have a strong sense of self. They base their self-concept on what others tell them. So, if you were repeatedly told youre needy or youre stupid, you probably grew up believing it.
Our negative beliefs can also result from what wasnt said or done for us as children. For example, if your parents werent attentive to your feelings, the unspoken message was that your feelings (and you) dont 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 (Im ugly, Im stupid, Its all my fault, Im worthless) and reinforce them until they become automatic.
We also tend to choose partners in adulthood who repeat this cycle of blame and criticism. Were 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.
Heres 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 wasnt. However, as their wedding approached, Teds 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 couldnt control, accused her of things she didnt 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 them. They dont see you as a unique, worthwhile person. It’s 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, its 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 Maggies story, removing yourself from the people who project blame onto you, doesnt cure you of self-blame. So, how do you break free of this entrenched pattern?
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 youre 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 youre 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 youd say to a friend. Heres an example of how Maggie can respond to her self-blame:
Self-critical voice: Youre so stupid. Why did you ask Ted to take Chloe to ballet class? You should have known hed blow up!
Compassionate response: I know you wanted Chloe to be able to go to class; ballet means so much to her. Its 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 youve failed at, feel ashamed of, and dont 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 thats released when were blamed or criticized by ourselves or others. So, by giving yourself a hug or gentle neck massage, youre changing your bodys chemistry (increasing oxytocin and decreasing cortisol). Its 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. Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash.com