Self-blaming often goes along with mind-reading, but it also has a life of its own, separate from mind-reading. In self-blaming, we attach too much power and responsibility to ourselves. We hold ourselves accountable for things that are outside our sphere of control, and take responsibility for things we had no part in. The ‘inner critic’ turns into the ‘inner prosecutor’—or even the judge!
Children often blame themselves for their parents’ problems. “If mommy and daddy got a divorce, I must have failed somehow to keep them together,” is the child’s inner reasoning. Children or adolescents may feel responsible for the needs and emotions of their parents or siblings. A sense of false guilt can become chronic, where, as adults we accept that everything is our fault, and try to manage other people’s emotions. (See How Toxic Guilt and False Responsibility Keep You in Dysfunction.) As we grow, we can gain a more balanced perspective about our own responsibilities vs. outcomes that are a result of something outside of us. As is also the case with black-and-white or magical thinking phases, it can be easy during times of stress to slip into an earlier stage of thinking that affects our view of experiences.
The precursor to self-blame is called personalization. It takes two forms: 1) blaming ourselves for challenges and negative events that happen to us, and 2) taking responsibility for others’ feelings or situations.
As far as our thought processes, we need to become aware of our habitual self-blaming. Stop to notice what the inner prosecutor is accusing you of. Then, examine the evidence. Does the case that our inner prosecutor has raised against us really have merit? Most often there is very little, if any, evidence to support blaming ourselves, and quite a bit of evidence for our acquittal. We can also ask ourselves if we are engaging in magical thinking by relating two events that have no connection. The prosecution uses this as a cause-and-effect argument, which also has no merit when we disconnect the two unrelated events.
We also need to give others emotional and mental space to take responsibility for themselves. Am I responsible for Tom’s outbursts? When he reacted to something I said or did, was being angry his only option? Could he have acknowledged his own responsibility? Or reacted with kindness to what he perceived as my mistake? Tom is his own person, in charge of his own reactions.
What if Julie didn’t seem to enjoy herself on our outing yesterday? Am I responsible for her mood? Maybe she didn’t feel good. Maybe she was worried about her sister, who is ill. Maybe she discovered she didn’t really enjoy that activity as much as she thought she would. I did everything I could to plan an enjoyable outing, and could not have anticipated, or even compensated for, any of those situations. If we quit taking the responsibility for someone else’s happiness, and the blame for their bad moods, difficulties, struggles, or disappointments, we may find it lifts a heavy burden off ourselves.
Another way to counter self-blame is to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion.org has a number of resources for practicing self-compassion, including guided meditations and exercises. A compassionate self-defender is one of the best antidotes for an overactive self-prosecutor. Self-compassion can reduce our stress levels, improve our outlook, and help give us motivation to take positive steps for our well-being.
Begin to notice situations in which you immediately take the blame or take someone else’s responsibility – and do a thorough cross-examination of your inner prosecutor. Employ the resources of your new-found compassionate inner defender!