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Self-Blame v.s. Self-Responsibility: How to learn, grow, and heal from the inevitability of mistakes

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

"Blame is a way to discharge discomfort and pain." - Brene Brown

We are told repeatedly in the self-help movement that we are in control of our destinies. Given the proper perspective, healing, motivation, and/or techniques, we can claim dominion over the impulses that prevent us from living up to our fullest potential. While these statements are generally considered accurate, they can easily be misinterpreted to mean, "It's my fault that I am not who and where I want to be in my life. I suck!"

Blame is essentially a way of looking for fault when something goes wrong to know who to punish and where to direct our ire. In self-blame, we punish ourselves with diminished trust, negative self-talk, helplessness, and rage. We hold ourselves in contempt, often indefinitely. Confirming our suckiness does very little to empower us to actually create change. Instead, we become paralyzed and stay stagnate, which again proves how ineffective and sucky we are.

Believe it or not, self-blame is a coping mechanism. We self-blamers used this strategy when we were wee ones to help us make sense of feeling disconnected from our primary caregiver. For a helpless babe, separation (physical, emotional, or spiritual) from our primary caregiver was a life or death issue. If they didn't love us, they might have stopped caring for us. Then what?!?!?

We all know certain things kids do that make most adults want to snuggle them and, at their cutest, even eat them up (thank you, cute aggression). And there are certain things kids do that can make any adult lose their sanity. Then there are ways adults are preoccupied with their own shit that are entirely unrelated to their child, which distracts and distances them, makes them more irritable and snippy, or sadly at its worst, abusive. Because our parents' Love was essential to our survival, we could be especially sensitive to those absences and/or tensions in our relationship. Even a slight shift in tone or silence can make a child nervous and spell trouble.

So what's the answer to this problem? Be a perfect child. That's right, perfectionism is the goal; self-blame is the tool to get us there! We had to believe our parents were infallible, so any tension with them was obviously our fault… a mistake in our character or just in our existence. We cleverly surmised that if we can control ourselves, we can control our parent's Love. To control ourselves, we started striving for perfection by manipulating, hiding, faking, people-pleasing, and otherwise losing ourselves. We were in pursuit of the unwavering unending Love we couldn't live without. This behavior was often rewarded by more pleasant interactions with parents, which proved our brilliance and kept us going.

Brene Brown said, "Blame is a way we discharge discomfort and pain." This does not actually lead to comfort or peace but instead creates the illusion of control.

And control is a crappy substitute for the good stuff. In fact, it makes the good stuff impossible to actually believe. "You love me because I worked for it. If I stop working for it, the Love will go away, so you don't really love me; you love the way I make you feel. Damn it! I have to keep making you feel good to get what I want… now who's in control?"

After years of working with clients and facing my own challenges with self-blame, here's an observation about self-blame and some antidotes to empower you toward greater self-responsibility.


Self-blame is rooted in a desire to control the past, deny the present, and imagine the future as a reflection of what we wished for in the past. That's a hefty sentence. Let me break it down for ya:

1) Blame is rooted in a desire to control the past.

This is impossible and yet incredibly seductive. "If I had known all the things I know now, I would have acted/ spoken differently, and things would have turned out differently (i.e., better/ the way I wanted)." So we fantasize about what we could have/ should have known and how we would have/ should have acted differently to get the outcome we desired. Focused on the result, we assumed that what we wanted was perfect, and we somehow screwed it up. In our imagination, we are often willing to manipulate ourselves and other people by hiding, denying, defending our limitations, or becoming overly responsible for others to pursue what we wanted.

Antidote: We all know it is essential to learn from the past, but it is equally important to heal. Learning and healing are not the same things. Learning is an intellectual process that can be insightful and entertaining. Still, it hangs out at the surface like a Band-Aid. Healing is a deep dive back to that sad, frightened inner child unmoved by intellectual banter.

Our inner child needs only one thing: Love. Like a therapeutic ointment, Love is the process of accepting, forgiving, and evolving from pain. It has the power to transform our perception and the effects of the past. Consider the difference between trying to reason away a child's pain from falling down versus wrapping them in a soothing hug and letting them cry until it's all better. Which one sounds yummier? The soothing hug meets the child in their pain and affirms that how they are feeling is okay. Reasoning helps an adult feel in control and distracts or confuses the child but leaves the child feeling unseen like the rock they tripped over. Their skinned knee will heal, but their heart may keep aching long into adulthood.

2) …to deny the present.

In self-blame, I attempt to control the past by shaming myself in the present. "I should have, could have, known better." "I knew better and still followed this same hurtful pattern." "I didn't mean to hurt anyone, but people still got hurt." In any case, I screwed up even though I didn't mean to, so I must be stupid, can't be trusted, worthy of punishment (usually the most severe), etc.…

With perfectionism as our guide, we deny who we are… a limited being, a mistake maker, and, hopefully, an evolving person. This means I gather information as I go. I don't know everything. And what my mistakes often teach me is that what I thought I knew was wrong. I wasn't knowledgeable, but rather assumption-able (I know it's not a word, but that's why I used a hyphen ;) ) Because I can't know everything, especially about other people, I make a whole bunch of assumptions (like I did when I was a kid) and act on those. Doh! That works out about 60% of the time every time.

And there is a difference between intellectual knowledge and embodied knowledge. I can read about something, mentally recognize a pattern and even have a refreshing insight. Still, once I'm triggered, all that goes to hell, and I'm back making the same mistakes over and over. Triggers are ingrained unconscious patterns that can flare up and are unmoved by the latest podcast you listen to or self-help book you read. They take over, and all that "wisdom" is gone, at least temporarily. In fact, your new intellectual knowledge can breed more shame because, on a conscious level, you knew better and made the same ol' stupid mistake again.

Shame is not the same as regret. If someone tells me they "live life with no regrets," I feel suspect and potentially unsafe in a relationship with them. To regret means to experience sorrow or remorse for something said/unsaid or done/not done. It is the symptom that tells me I have something to learn and/or grieve here. Feeling bad is not a bad thing. It indicates that I am out of alignment with my values and have some reflecting, learning, and reconciling to do. Regret creates the doorway for me to learn and grow.

Shame, on the other hand, is a closed-door with me locked inside. Shame thrives in the darkness. I can't learn from shame because shame tells me something is inherently wrong with me and affirms that my limitations are as fixed as concrete. Therefore, if I ever hoped to feel Love and accepted, I should hide… hide everything that is wrong with me behind defensiveness, anger, distance, manipulation, phoniness. But when we hide, we can't heal.

Shame affirms my worst judgments about myself. The worst of which is, "I can't trust myself." If I can't trust myself, how the hell am I going to accept and forgive myself, which is necessary to heal and evolve?