Source: Photograph by Foundry. Copyright free. Pixabay
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 where 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 not just of forging healthy, ongoing connections but 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 which put a high premium on everything going right and looking perfect, and 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 dandy and that life would run smoothly if it weren’t for Cindy or Charlie who’s messing things up and making life difficult. Of course, if you’re Cindy or Charlie and you’ve been told over and over that everything is always your fault, you come to believe it’s a general principle and absolutely true every time something goes wrong. 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. These adults are inveterate pleasers, afraid to say no, and feel as 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 explained:
My role as a kid was 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: This 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 and far less personal context. This is closely connected to self-blaming—indeed, it has its roots in how you are 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 without an off-button, and echoing their mothers’ voices.
Self-criticism defeats all attempts to make your life different or better and keeps you psychologically stuck. Seeing yourself wholly— your strengths and weaknesses and accepting both—is the only way to defang self-criticism.
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 end as you hoped and calmly. analyze all the factors that contributed to the outcome.
Let’s say you’ve had a relationship badly. Instead of blaming yourself (“Of course, she didn’t want to be my friend because 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. When the critical voice begins its litany, silence it by talking back—out loud if you’re alone—and pointing out how these supposed “facts” about yourself—that you’re lazy, inadequate, unlovable—are simply not true. If you do this often enough, 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 small number of character flaws that supposedly define him or her; rather than seeing yourself in three-dimensions, you’re reducing yourself to a cardboard cut-out when you behave in these ways. Journaling can help you begin to see yourself with greater clarity as can talking to close friends about how they see you in all of your complexity.
4. Develop self-compassion
The work of Kristin Neff and others focused 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.) I will summarize Neff’s three-part explanation of what self-compassion is:
1. Being kind to and understanding of yourself and not judgmental.
2. 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.
3. Being aware of painful feelings without being overwhelmed by them or overly identifying with them.
Granted, 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 S. Dweck and others show that what you believe about the self affects not just how you think and act but can either help you recover from rejection and setback or keep you from recovering. So do you think you—and other people—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
Photograph by Foundry. Copyright free. Pixabay.com