In my 20 years as a psychologist, I have seen that self-blame is a major obstacle to change. It’s paralyzing and damaging and the enemy of growth.

Often, before I can help a patient address a problem, we have to first climb this mountain of self-blame, and then find our way down to the other side.

I have seen that the people most prone to self-blame are people who grew up with childhood emotional neglect (CEN). This is because CEN is invisible and unmemorable, yet leaves people with significant struggles in adulthood.

People with CEN may look back upon a “fine” childhood, and see no explanation for their adult struggles. So they assume those struggles are their own fault, setting off a cycle of self-blame.

Here’s a story of how childhood emotional neglect leads to self-blame, which then interferes with addressing the true problem:

“I’m pathetic,” says my patient Beth, tearfully, blaming herself. “What is wrong with me?” So I ask her, “What is it about this promotion that makes you so anxious?”

This question is followed by a fresh burst of tears. “I have no idea. There’s no reason for it. I’ve worked so hard, and I so deserve this. Everyone tells me so. But every time I think about going to my new position, I get panicky. I feel it now; give me a minute.” She puts her hands over her eyes and takes a few deep breaths.

Eventually, as I ask question after question, Beth suddenly starts talking about her fifth grade graduation. Here is her story:

It was a big day at school. Each child had created a collage for the parents to see, and Beth was extremely excited about hers. After the ceremony, the parents had the opportunity to mill around the classroom to look at all of the collages hanging on the walls. Just as her parents had worked their way through the crowd to the spot where her collage was hanging, her mother’s pager went off. “We have to go,” her mother announced, as both parents headed rapidly for the door.

Beth obediently followed her parents through the crowd, across the parking lot and to the car, dragging her feet and looking down at the pavement. She knew that her mother was a cardiac surgeon who saved lives, and that her collage was nothing compared to that. Since she understood, she kept her tears silent in the back seat of the car.

It was only after I helped Beth connect the dots that she was able to see the source of her anxiety, and how it related to her childhood memory. Both of Beth’s parents had high-pressure jobs. So throughout her childhood, many moments that should have been hers had been trumped by someone else’s crisis.

Beth had internalized the notion that her needs and achievements weren’t important. And, on a deeper level, that she herself wasn’t important. This is why she was feeling panic about her promotion. She did not feel worthy or deserving of it.

When Beth said, “I’m pathetic” and “What am I, eleven years old?” she was actually expressing much more. She was putting herself down for having anxiety about her promotion. She was locking herself in a prison of blame. It was only by realizing the power of her parents’ unintended message to her, “You don’t matter,” that she was able to stop the self-blame, feel compassion for herself, and deal with the anxiety.

It’s important to note that Beth’s parents loved and wanted the best for her. Emotional neglect can happen quite unintentionally, by parents who truly love their child, but who are simply not tuned in enough to the child’s emotional needs. This is part of what makes CEN so difficult to see or remember in one’s childhood. This is why emotionally neglected people so often get stuck in a cycle of self-blame.

If you are prone to self-blame, follow these tips:

  • Become aware. Self-blame has a lot more power when it happens automatically. Once you realize you’re doing it, you can take control of it.
  • Determine the content of the self-blame. What problem are you blaming yourself for having?
  • Look for the roots of that problem in your childhood. Could you have grown up with some form of childhood emotional neglect?
  • Have compassion for yourself. It will free you up to address the true problem.