There’s no question that a large part of emotional and psychological maturity involves taking responsibility for our actions, as well as owning the words we speak. In a healthy dyadic relationship, each person is held accountable and is given room to make amends for missteps and breaches of trust and caring — and does precisely that. Healthy responsibility includes learning from our mistakes. But for those raised in households in which love was absent or withheld, and scapegoating, verbal abuse, or shaming were the norm, self-blame and self-criticism often take the place of healthy responsibility.
What complicates the problem further is that these behaviors are unconscious, default settings — learned in childhood as a way of coping with or surviving the way you were being treated — which carry over into adulthood, unless you become consciously aware of them. As I explain in Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, these unconscious habits of mind get in the way of forging healthy, ongoing connections, and actively stop you from healing and living your best life. The two behaviors are closely connected and sometimes overlap, but nonetheless are different and affect personal outcomes in specific ways.
The how and why of self-blame and self-criticism
The adult habit of self-blame is often an internalization of childhood experience. This is especially true if you grew up in a household that put a high premium on everything going right and looking perfect, and if a parent, or even both parents, needed someone to be the scapegoat when things didn’t.
One of the more interesting things about scapegoating, as one researcher discovered, is that it permits a parent to believe that her family is actually healthier or better functioning than it actually is; by focusing on the one child who’s to blame, she can convince herself that everyone else is just fine, and that life would run smoothly if it weren’t for the problem child who’s messing things up and making life difficult.
Of course, if you’re that child, and you’ve been told over and over that everything is always your fault, you come to believe that it’s a general principle and absolutely true in every situation. If you’ve been scapegoated as a child and have come to believe that you somehow deserved the blame and derision, this unconscious and automatic assumption of responsibility carries over into adulthood. Such adults become inveterate pleasers, afraid to say no, and feel as if they always have to work at garnering acceptance from other people. And when there’s a disagreement, a clash, or even a small tiff, they try to fix things by blaming themselves. This can create an unhealthy kind of escalation when there’s stress, as Ariel explains:
"My role as a kid was to be the fall guy to keep the peace. I so hated fighting between my parents and my siblings that I was willing to take the blame just to stop the yelling. I came from a family of screamers, and the screaming scared me. I didn’t realize that I still did that until a few years ago when my best friend and I got into a squabble over plans for a trip we were taking. After I got off the phone, I panicked, sure that she was going to cancel. I called her, but she didn’t pick up, so I started sending her texts, apologizing, begging for forgiveness, saying it was all my fault. Well, it turned out she was in a four-hour meeting, and when she got out, she had 15 blubbering messages from me. She didn’t cancel the trip, but she convinced me to see a therapist, and I did."
The habit of self-blame also facilitates ongoing relationships that are controlling or abusive, since your focus on being at fault is likely to blind you to how your friend, partner, or spouse is treating you.
Self-criticism is the habit of mind that ascribes every mistake, misstep, setback, or failure to fixed aspects of character or personality that can’t be changed, rather than seeing what went wrong in a larger, less personal context. This is closely connected to self-blaming — and it has its roots in how you were mistreated in childhood — but is an unconscious default position and very difficult to unlearn. It’s the internalization of being subjected to a constant barrage of criticism, of being told that everything you did as a child was inadequate or lacking, and that you were a flawed, deficient person by nature.
Self-criticism sounds like this: “I didn’t get the job, because the interviewer saw right through me and knew I was incompetent”; “The relationship failed, because I’m too difficult to be lovable”; “I might as well not try to get that promotion, because I’m not good enough.” Daughters describe this as a looping tape in their heads, echoing their mothers’ voices, without an off button.
Self-criticism defeats all attempts to make your life different or better and keeps you psychologically stuck. Seeing yourself wholly — accepting both your strengths and weaknesses — is the only way to defang it.
5 trouble-shooting techniques
1. Work on distinguishing taking responsibility from self-blame.
Seeing how your actions and inactions, words, and things left unspoken contributed to an outcome creates a very different narrative than the one that features self-blame. Spend time thinking about all the aspects of a recent event or interaction that didn’t calmly end as you'd hoped. Analyze all the factors that contributed to the outcome.
Let’s say you’ve had a relationship end badly. Instead of blaming yourself (“Of course, she didn’t want to be my friend; I make too many demands on people”), focus on what each of you brought to the party: “She needed to control every aspect of how we connected, and I should have called her out on it. Instead, I just let myself get steamrolled until I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
There’s a huge difference between attributing an outcome to certain factors and needing someone to pin it on; this is a habit learned in childhood that needs to be left behind.
2. Talk back to the self-critical voice.
Make a list of the things you like about yourself — qualities you admire, or abilities you think are pretty good — and spend some time focusing on them. See yourself as a friend might, and if you have trouble doing that, ask a friend to describe you as honestly as he or she can. Then, when the critical voice next begins its litany, silence it by talking back — out loud if you’re alone. Point out how these supposed “facts” about yourself — that you’re lazy, inadequate, unlovable — are simply not true. Do this often enough, and it will begin to supplant that old knee-jerk response.
3. Work on seeing yourself wholly.
Both self-blame and self-criticism rely on reducing a person to a small number of character flaws that supposedly define him or her; rather than seeing yourself in three dimensions, you reduce yourself to a cardboard cutout. Journaling can help you begin to see yourself with greater clarity, as can talking to close friends about how they see you, in all your complexity.
4. Develop self-compassion.
The work of Kristin Neff and others focuses on self-compassion, which unlike self-pity, has you see yourself — your actions and inactions, strengths and weaknesses — in a larger context which is non-judgmental. (Yes, the term is derived from Buddhism.) Neff’s three-part explanation of self-compassion is:
- Being kind to and understanding of yourself, and not judgmental.
- Seeing your experience, actions, and reactions as no different from the way other people experience, act, and react. Rather than single yourself out, you locate yourself on the spectrum of human responses.
- Being aware of painful feelings without being overwhelmed by them or overly identifying with them.
Self-compassion is difficult if your default settings are blame and judgment, but it can be learned over time.
5. Examine your beliefs about the self.
Do you see a person’s character and personality as set in stone, or malleable and capable of change? Research by Carol Dweck and others show that what you believe about the self affects not just how you think and act, but it can also either help you recover from rejection and setback or keep you from recovering. So do you think you — and others — can change if you want, or is what you see what you get? These beliefs matter.
These old habits can be changed with persistence and effort, once you become consciously aware of them.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2018
Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups," Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418
Neff, Kristen D., The Development and Validation of A Scale to Measure Self-Compassion,” Self and Identity (2003),2, 223-250.
Neff, Kristen D., Ya-Ping Hsieh, and Kullaya Dejitterat, “Self-Compassion, Achievement Gals, and Coping with Academic Failure,” Self and Identity (2005), 4, 263-287
Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Science (2008), vol.17, no.6, 391-394.