Why Do I Feel Like It's My Fault?

How to free yourself from self-blame after sexual trauma.

Posted May 04, 2020

Despite the saying, time does not necessarily heal all wounds. In fact, time itself may cause increased negative thoughts that seem to lodge in the subconscious mind and deplete vitality, hope, and joy. One of the worst offenders of such negative thoughts is the gnawing feeling of self-blame. Most victims of interpersonal trauma, at some point, blame themselves. While this may seem counter-intuitive, and down-right confusing for friends, family, and even some professionals, it is nonetheless very common.

Self-blame typically starts with simply wondering, why? Why did this happen? You may wonder, “Why did this happen to me?  It didn’t happen to that person, it happened to me!” Logic follows that “if it happened to me; therefore, it must be about me.” 

The second wave of self-blame goes to wondering, what? You may wonder, “What did I do?” “What did I do to deserve this?” This may instigate thoughts such as: “Did I give the wrong impression? Did I upset this person?  Did I give mixed signals or wear the wrong thing?”  Without a clear answer, the mind will try to attribute the blame to something the person did, said, thought, or possibly should have done differently. For example, “I should not have trusted that person, taken the drink, gone in his car… or I should have screamed louder, or fought harder.” These attributions are called behavioral self-blame where the blame is on a specific action. The positive part of this type of blame is that the person can vow to never do that action again. This gives the person a sense of control, even if it still feels negative.

A more concerning type of self-blame is characterological self-blame. This occurs when self-blame attacks one's character, such as thoughts that “I must be stupid, naïve, or bad.” This type of self-blame not only feels terrible, but it also sets in motion beliefs that the trauma is somehow deserved or could happen again.

The third wave of self-blame is wondering if only. Examples: "If only I did this, or that, or didn’t go on the date, didn’t join the military, didn’t wear that outfit, if only I didn’t drink so much, or go in the car. If only I did a different action, then, this never would have happened.” “If only I wasn’t so stupid, or gullible, this wouldn’t have happened.” The conclusion is, therefore, (once again) that it is “my fault.” 

These three waves of thinking: Why, What, and If-only, create a circular logic that ends up reinforcing more self-blame. This is an attempt to make sense of something that does not make sense. It is a way to create a reason, an attribution, an answer to the nagging question of how did this happen? People do this because they wish it did not happen. It gives an illusion of control as if to pinpoint the reason, but self-blame is also a trap because this logic is missing a critical factor. It excludes the real culprit, the true source of blame, the perpetrator.

If the element of the perpetrator is added to the logic, then it shifts the entire conversation. Why did this happen? It happened because the perpetrator had an agenda and wanted it to happen. Most events are planned and pre-meditated. The perpetrator had the thought, desire, plan, and consciously took action, knowing fully well that it was wrong and without regard for the other person.  What did you do? Probably nothing out of the ordinary and you were responding to normal social cues such as going on a date, wearing a fashionable outfit, or having a drink at a party where everyone was drinking. If only you did something differently? Then the perpetrator may or may not have been thwarted. Violence could have escalated, and it could have been worse. If perpetrators are set on their agenda, they look for opportunities and find a way.

It is impossible for a sexual assault to be the victim's fault.

Let’s say there is a purse or wallet on a table. You probably put your purse or wallet on a table when you’re at home. Is it being stolen right now? Hopefully not, but why? Answer: Because it takes a thief for a theft to occur. There will not be theft unless a thief decides to knowingly, willfully, take the item, and then try to get away without being caught. The thief may lie, manipulate, use trickery, threats, and/or violence, but he or she is fully aware that the agenda is to take the item.

The purse or wallet cannot steal itself. The purse or wallet can be left on a table, with hundreds of dollars in plain sight. Heck, it can even be drunk! There will be no theft unless a thief decides to take it.

Let’s put blame where blame is due. We can all agree that we wish these events never happened. We can wish things were different. We can get furiously angry about it, and mourn and grieve our losses.  But one thing is for certain, it is not your fault. You may regret doing or not doing something, but you did not commit a crime. And there is no guarantee that it still could have happened if you did or not do the action that you regret. The perpetrator is the guilty one. It’s time for you to get out of jail for a crime that you did not do.

Action Step: Send your younger self who experienced the trauma some love and forgiveness. Tell your younger self that it is not your fault. Imagine giving yourself a hug, compassion, and understanding.