Self-Blame: How do you respond when things go wrong?

Are you one of those people that when things go wrong you blame yourself?

Kim was talking to a client when she realized she needed to leave work and pick up her daughter at school. By the time she left, the streets were clogged with commuters and she was 20 minutes late. She blamed herself for taking the call, for letting the time slip by, and for not trying to find an alternate route to the school.

Ronald was in a terrible auto accident caused by a drunk driver who was speeding and ran a red light. During his hospitalization and recovery, he thought of the accident and how it will permanently change his life. He believes that he must have done something wrong and blames himself for his situation (e.g., should have driven on a different street, should have swerved away from the oncoming vehicle, shouldn’t have gone out at night).

Heather has been in a tumultuous marriage for seven years. Her husband, Cole, works long hours. He has a lot of stress in his job and wants to find serenity and comfort at home. Recently, after the birth of their twins, Cole has become so angry at the state of their home and Heather’s preoccupation with the children, that he has hit her on several occasions. Heather believes Cole when he claims that it is her fault that he hits her because she gives more attention to the twins than to him or to her home keeping responsibilities.  

Playing the self-blame game can be destructive. Although reviewing your actions to determine what went well and what went wrong can be highly beneficial, getting stuck in “self-blame” has the potential to be psychologically destructive. We don’t mean that people should not acknowledge when they are at fault. When you take responsibility for a wrong-doing or making an error in judgment, it can

  • give you insight
  • provide a roadmap to help you review how to move forward 
  • cause you to right a wrong
  • encourage you to grow 

Self-blame is a different process altogether, as it often evolves into a trait—a “knee-jerk” reaction when things go wrong. For example, “If only I would have…, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s my fault.”

Second guessing ourselves after we have experienced a negative or harmful situation is natural and common. This is different than conducting a post-mortem to discover what went wrong and why so that we can learn and hopefully avoid a recurrence of such an event. This can be psychologically adaptive and can abate feelings of helplessness.

Self-blame is different than acknowledging one’s wrongdoing, which is ethical and socially appropriate behavior. Understanding and accepting responsibility helps us maintain self-integrity and honesty. Doing so strengthens our moral conscience. Moreover, by publicly announcing responsibility for a negative event, we do assume the chance of receiving public forgiveness or public censure. Failing to do so, can lead to the other side of the blame game: blaming others for our faults and wrong actions. That process of “other blaming” can lead to a “chip on the shoulders” or a “grievance” thinking style. 

There is an important difference between accepting self-blame when the circumstances support it and keeping it time-limited versus situations when the self-blame does not seem rational or justifiable, or the individual reflexively defaults to self-blame whenever things go wrong. Researchers suggest that there are several groups of individuals who may maladaptively engage in self-blame for negative events. These include

  • People who suffer from obsessional problems. They may have general preconceptions about their responsibility—holding beliefs that they must not cause harm as well as they must prevent harm from occurring. Consequently, in order to avoid blameworthiness, they are very careful and diligent, and tend to engage in a number of hypervigilant behaviors aimed at preventing foreseeable harm. They are so obsessive in their thoughts and behaviors that their fears become overwhelming.
  • Individuals who were sexually abused as children. They may have incorporated the belief system that they were responsible for the perpetrator’s offending behavior and are unable to recognize that they were the victim manipulated by the sexual offender.
  • Sexually or physically abused individuals. Some people may attribute the responsibility for the assault to their character (e.g., “I am weak.” “I deserve punishment.”) or to their behavior (e.g., “I drank too much.” “I didn’t fight back hard enough.”). These perceived “faults” can hinder a more realistic view of the event and recovery.
  • People who suffer from depression. When individuals are depressed, they may feel inadequate and guilty; they tend to blame themselves for their failures. The self-blame can then lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness which feed the cycle of self-blame and depression.

There are also individuals who express self-blame, but may do so for “manipulative” purposes. Although these people may or may not believe that they are responsible for the negative event, their confession of self-blame to others is done deliberately. This type of a person may want to appear as a martyr and willing to publicly sacrifice their reputation or perceived competence. Often, however, the martyr’s motivation for doing so can be to have others contradict them and proclaim them as innocent or to make others feel guilty, or both. Similarly, people, who do not genuinely feel blameworthy but claim to be, may be presenting themselves as having a higher sense of morality than they actually have.

Self-blame, when experienced genuinely, under reasonable circumstances, and time-limited can be a healthy emotion. It promotes self-criticism, preserves self-esteem, and encourages moral behavior. However, there are a number of mental conditions where self-blame is not only maladaptive but destructive—possibly leading to suicide. For those whose self-blaming beliefs are emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally disturbing, the need to seek professional mental health treatment is crucial.

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