Image of a man screaming with two mini versions of himself yelling into his ear. FOCUS ON: Self-Blame

By Tanya Clausen, LCSW

The holidays can be a wonderful time of family togetherness, but can also trigger more complex memories and feelings when you’re exposed to certain family and friends. Sometimes we will blame ourselves when things with family don’t go the way we would like, even though family dynamics are complicated and certainly never dependent on the acts of just one person. This kind of self blame is a common reaction to many different situations, but a reaction that one can work on.

It’s all my fault, why didn’t I do something different?

Blaming one’s self is a common response to having a traumatic experience. This is especially true even when the traumatic event occurs through no fault of our own -we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t want it and we certainly weren’t okay with it happening. And while this self-blaming response isn’t logical, the self blame can run deep, cold and hard to shake. There are many reasons why we take on this blame whether it’s a single event or prolonged childhood trauma. Here a just a few explanations:

1) We don’t have the capacity to see the flaws and wounds of our caregivers when we’re young. Developmentally, we do not possess the ability to step out of our own experience and perceive that our caregivers aren’t capable of meeting our needs. We can’t see beyond ourselves, so blaming someone else isn’t even possible. Because we are not capable of assigning blame elsewhere, that pain has to be directed somewhere, and that is often inward.

2) Self blame is a survival response. If we blame the caregiver at the root of our trauma, it undercuts our perception that they can provide for us. That, in turn, implies that we are alone in this world without the ability to take care of ourselves. By blaming ourselves, we maintain the perception that we’re still in control of the situation and ultimately safe -even when we’re not. That message of self blame commonly travels with us into adulthood, manifesting into thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough” or “I’m unlovable”.

3) When a traumatic event occurs, we are hard wired to respond rapidly on an unconscious level. Unknowingly, our nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for potential danger. It’s like a personal alarm system. When the alarm goes off, we assess the situation with a rapid fire response: “Do I escape, fight or hide?” Because we are not aware of this near instantaneous assessment, it often leaves one thinking that more could have been done. The truth is that we likely did everything that could have been done in attempt to keep ourselves safe -even if bad things still happened. Not being aware that this action unconsciously takes place leads us to conclude that we could have done better or more, thus placing the blame on ourselves.

Not everyone’s self blame fits neatly into one of these categories, since each person’s experience is different and carries its own complexities. With the guidance of an experienced trauma informed therapist, you can explore your own narrative and how to begin shifting your perception. Self blame has the potential to keep you stuck in pain and trauma. There is a way to heal safely. There is help. There is hope.

Contact us at The Ross Center to schedule an appointment with a trauma-informed therapist to begin your recovery.


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