Self-Blame v.s. Self-Responsibility: How to learn, grow, and heal from the inevitability of mistakes
(scroll to bottom of the page for audio version of this article)
"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?
Antidote: Trust that you will make mistakes. In fact, you are in good company with the rest of the human population. Accepting this truth can liberate you to step off your pedestal of perfection to join the ranks of your fellow human mistake makers. We are limited beings who made many important decisions about how the world works, how to cope with pain, and how to fill our need for Love before we were 5-years old. This is majorly significant because we don't develop the ability to reason until 5-years old, plus. Essentially, we make some pretty unreasonable assumptions based on our most basic infantile survival instinct for parental Love and attachment.
As social beings, even adult humans need Love and attachment to survive and thrive. Still, the adult world is more complex because we are technically responsible for getting our own needs met (unless you're a proficient co-dependent, in which case you may still successfully live in dependency.) As "responsible" adults, we become the child and the parent to ourselves. Our parents only take us part of the way, and because they are also human, they made mistakes that we have to overcome. They pass the baton, and it's our job to work with "what yo' mama gave you." How we parent ourselves matters, including how we treat ourselves when we make mistakes.
We do not grow out of dependency into independence despite the Western World's obsession with it. The truth is we are interdependent. As adults, we have to get our own needs met while still getting along with others because, frankly, what we need is each other. This takes some killer skills most of us don't even try to develop until we experience the failure of our enduring childhood strategies. Then, we either sink further into infantile helplessness or rise into a true grown-up.
We talk about blame only when something goes wrong. Rarely has anyone walked into a situation trying to make a terrible decision. Yet, choices have consequences, both intentional and unintentional. We may like some of what was created and not others. There may be aspects we thought we had control of but ultimately didn't. Or we boldly walked into the unknown with whimsical notions of how it would turn out without a plan B. Or we were biased by our unconscious and convinced ourselves of lies we didn't recognize as lies. Sometimes things don't work out the way we imagined, and it freakin' hurts. Mistakes are usually no fun (although I've made some, that worked out pretty well)! They are often inconvenient, sometimes painful, and at other times absurd or even silly. And as a human, they are inevitable. Yet, we are all doing the best we can with what we know at the time. As Maya Angelou wisely said, "When we know better, we do better" (unless we beat ourselves up for not knowing better, in which case we'll wallow in the mess we've made and struggle to actually know better).
3) … imagine the future as a reflection of what we wished for in the past.
We imagine that we can be perfect in the future, so we keep on trucking in hot pursuit. Perfection meaning that everything goes according to our will and plan, so no one gets hurt. It is always just around the corner, and then... phew! I can rest in eternal happiness and joy. No one is pissing me off or hurting my feelings, or making assumptions, and I'm perfectly not doing those things to you too. Isn't this great?
For whatever reason, good or bad, life is an unfinished creation, not pre-determined. It is not a straight progressive line toward perfection. The twists, turns, dead ends, U-turns, detours, distractions, and all the "mistakes" are the adventures that create life.
Antidote: Accept a future with some pretty solid mistake making. We can protect ourselves from the sting with a heavy dose of self-compassion. As the Buddha said, "Your compassion is incomplete if it does not include yourself." The truth is I am a good person with limitations. Despite all my good intentions, I still screw up. I will continue to get some things wrong. I will make mistakes... sometimes BIG ones! Mistakes are where our limitations come front and center for everyone to see despite our best resume or Instagram feed.
Rather than striving for perfection, we can strive to be perfect mistake makers! If mistakes are inevitable for everyone, why not make them like a pro… after all, we have a lifetime behind and in front of us of making them.
Here is a brief breakdown of what that looks like. I'll explore this more in a future newsletter:
Own my role in the mistake (not yours or everyone else's. Just mine.)
Turn toward myself with curiosity and questions rather than assumptions and judgments.
Listen to any hurt, scared, or misunderstood parts within me.
Acknowledge what I didn't know.
Forgive myself for what I misunderstood, assumed, or didn't know.
Forgive myself for my actions based on the above.
Explore what other possibilities there might have been that I might not have been aware of or didn't choose at the time.
Apologize and/ or remedy whatever is repairable.
Allow others to have their reaction and response to my mistake (even if I have apologized).
Be gentle with myself in word and deed, despite the words and deeds of others (especially if those others are still upset.)
Acknowledge my ability to lovingly care for myself, my willingness to learn, and my desire to grow.
The opposite of self-blame isn't other blame… most self-blamers do plenty of that too. The opposite of self-blame is self-responsibility. With self-blame, we feel like hopeless shitty victims to our own limitations (i.e., mistakes). With self-responsibility, we accept there will be challenges, self-created and otherwise, and we step boldly into the opportunities to learn, heal, and grow that they offer. It's all perspective.
To recap: Our lives are created by the choices we make. The choices we make are ultimately our responsibility. We're all making the best choices we can from a limited perspective. We're limited because we don't know what we don't know and often don't find out what we don't know until we are faced with the consequences of our choices.
Things we often don't know:
What other people are thinking and feeling
All of the various factors impacting a situation
Our own unconscious biases, wounds, and mistaken beliefs
Facts and information we haven't been exposed to yet
Facts and information we do know but aren't complete or correct
The will of God (if you are spiritually inclined)
It is often in the consequences of our choices that we discover our naiveté, biases, and misunderstandings. We are essentially learning by trial and error. It's a tough way to learn, but it's our way as fallible human beings. The more we acknowledge this about ourselves and each other, the greater compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness we can offer. Transformation isn't found in information alone but in engaging the process of learning and healing from the past.
For me, healing means a sweet visit back to my inner child, who settled for the role of peace-maker, people-pleaser, and problem-solver in the absence of feeling seen or heard. It is not true that my parents didn't love me, as my inner child assumed. They were limited in their emotional capacity to show up for me how I thought I needed. I have no doubt that if they knew better, they would have done better. I visit the depths of my heart to remind her, my scared and hurting inner child.
Growing up as a child, teen, and young adult under the assumption that my parents didn't love me was extremely painful. It was a mistake. And it led to many more mistakes. I must forgive myself and my inner child for every one of them if I am to truly heal and move on. This is not an intellectual process but rather an emotional, energetic, and spiritual practice of loving and parenting myself better. It reaches out into all of my relationships, and I become a better lover of humanity.
Hi, my name is Kori. I am a mistake maker. And getting better at it every day... this is my responsibility on the path toward intimacy, wisdom, and freedom. Want to walk it with me?