Self-blame can be toxic. It can stunt your life— professionally, socially, romantically. It can even hurt your health. The fact is you can’t solve the problems at hand if every time you hit a setback or things don’t go your way you fill your mind with your perceived failings. And too, too much self-blame means you’re distorting what upsets you and not seeing the events in your life accurately. Self-blame is brought under our control when we tackle the root fears that sustain it. Here are four common fears that underlie the self-blame spiral:
1. You fear not taking responsibility for someone else’s bad mood: When the people we are close to become upset it can be hard to tolerate. After all, we care about them and it’s easy to feel helpless when we can’t make them feel better. One way around accepting our loved one’s negative feelings is to blame ourselves for whatever is going on for them. So perhaps your partner comes home after a long day and is grumpy and monosyllabic in his responses. You can’t get him to open up so you conclude “it must be me!” and then you a rack your brain for what you may have done to cause his upset or you overly accommodate trying to make him feel better. You can’t fix everyone’s pain and it’s not your job to attempt to do so. We each get a share that we simply have to manage, all on our own.
2. You fear not being in control: For many it is preferable to blame themselves than to feel out of control. When we blame ourselves we may be miserable but deep down we think we are somehow problem solving. We believe that replaying our perceived flaws will change or improve our difficulties. Worrying and thinking about what we did wrong and what we need to improve can be an attempt to try to control bad situations. Sometimes we just have to accept that life is uncertain and that there are things that are out of our span of influence. Ask yourself when caught up in self-blame: “Is this an attempt to control the uncontrollable?”
3. You fear not being perfect: The self-blame loop for many is an attempt to never make a mistake and to be endlessly perfect. We imagine that second-guessing ourselves means we will forever be in the clear—doing what we should and what is expected and having all of our ducks perfectly in a row. With this kind of thinking you end up spending most of your precious time getting your ducks in a row and little if any enjoying life and being present. If this thinking describes you, consider letting go of perfect in favor of enjoying your life now. Sure some of that self-blame preoccupation has gotten you out of a few jams from time to time. It’s still a happier life though to allow yourself to make mistakes and not beat yourself up in the process.
4. You fear getting out of your comfort zone: A particularly menacing correlate of self-blame is that you become entirely stuck. You are so caught up in analyzing and second-guessing and self-criticism that you end up not making any decisions. You don’t take promotions, new jobs, and new education tracks. You don’t go to new social milieus or date new types of people. Your life becomes one track and one track only. As boring as this is it means you’re safely living in your comfort zone. Consider that your self-blame might unconsciously be a way to never have to grow and change. Change will ultimately bring you greater fulfillment but, of course, will be challenging to get there.
In my book, Building Self-Esteem: 5 Steps, I offer specific strategies for overcoming self-doubt and insecurity.