There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on a situation and considering where you got off-track, but for some of us, these types of thoughts can quickly start us on a spiral towards shame and a habit of self-blame. Shame is icky and uncomfortable... you might recognize it in the pit of your stomach, in the downcast of your eyes, or the whole-body collapse sensation you feel when you’re confronted with some piece of information that seemingly confirms what you’ve sometimes suspected: that you’re not really a good person. Guilt is the feeling you get when you did something wrong, but shame is the feeling you get when you sense you are something wrong.
Here’s the thing, though: self-blame and shame often prevent you from feeling the real feelings you need to feel, or taking responsibility for the real things you need to change. In other words, self-blame and shame are actually counterproductive to you doing better next time! When too much self-blame triggers shame, it’s easy to get defensive and run away from real responsibility. Conversely, it can also be easy to fall into a shame spiral and get stuck in believing that you really are a hot mess that needs total life reconstruction. Oh, the drama of our brains!
Here are 5 things to do to bust through your self-blame and avoid the spiral down to shame:
1. Use self-compassion to soothe.
Everyone struggles sometimes, you are not alone in this! From a kind and compassionate place, ask yourself a few key questions: What does it feel like when you’re blaming yourself? Where is it in your body? If it had a shape, what shape would it be? How about a color, taste, and smell? Many people occupy a collapsed position when they’re feeling shame, and others puff up in defensive anger. Tend to how you’re feeling and experiment with soothing those sensations through deep breathing and self-care. With more awareness of self-blame, you’ll be better able to spot it when it pops up and see it for the monster it is.
2. Figure out exactly what your brain is telling you that you did or didn’t do that was “wrong.”
A lot of times, when shame gets triggered, it’s just a tangled up mess inside your head. Slow down and try to get specific: what exactly are you telling yourself that you did wrong? Sometimes I ask people this question and they quickly realize that they’re blaming themselves for the most outlandish reasons, or for things that they had no control over whatsoever! Self-blame can become a habit, a knee-jerk reaction that, with a little investigation, can quickly be undone.
3. Ask yourself why you did or didn’t do the thing you’re blaming yourself for.
This is the most crucial step! If, after consulting your brain for specifics, you come up with something you think you actually did wrong, ask yourself why you think you did (or did not do) this. Lots of people who are hurt by others blame themselves for not fighting back hard enough. When they start considering why they didn’t fight back more, they often come to realize this wasn’t actually possible, or that it may have resulted in a worse outcome. Facing your reasons for why you did or didn’t do something can get you much more in-touch with the real story and broaden your view of the people or factors responsible.
4. Are you playing Monday Morning Quarterback?
Remember: hindsight is 20/20! That means that when you look back on a situation with the information you have now that it’s all played out, you can easily spot the places that different actions may have been able to change the outcome. This is biased thinking because you didn’t have the information you have now when you were in the situation initially! If hindsight bias is contributing to your self-blame, remind yourself that you’re not playing fair. Things happened as they did because you made the best decision you could with the information you had at that time. If after this, you spot a real mistake you made that you really could have avoided making, now is the time acceptance and forgiveness.
5. Consider how you want to behave in situations like this in the future and what you need to make that happen.
Change in the future does not always require you to understand what exactly you did wrong in the past. If you have a clear idea of how you want to act in situations like these in the future, you are in the perfect position to see what might get in the way of you making that happen and getting what you need now. A person blaming herself for not fighting back enough might decide she would like to know how to defend herself more effectively in a similar situation. Once she takes stock of her ability to do so, she may realize she has no training and really would not be able to fight any harder given her current knowledge and skill level of self-defense. “Why,” she’ll realize, “am I blaming myself for not doing something I had no idea how to do?” Now, instead of getting stuck in self-blame, she can move forward in an empowering direction. (And if your brain goes to, “Well it’s her fault she didn’t get self-defense classes… she should have gotten self-defense classes so she could have fought back and prevent being hurt” then you’ve got it bad, my friend, but that’s OK! Just repeat steps 3 and 4 and you’ll come to some really good reasons she never took that class.)
What’s funny to me is that the more I try to find out what I’m doing wrong, the more shame I feel, and the more that shame gets in the way of me acting like I want to act. And when I feel shame, the response is not pretty. Cutting back self-blame takes courage: you have to look it straight in the eye and entertain its ideas, you have to face the monster and beat it back. But you can do it, and it's worth it!
If you’re struggling with anxiety, depression and a habit of self-blame, don’t be shy about seeking out support from a mental health professional who can hold your hand as you start standing up to guilt and shame.
Hi friends! I'm Jordan Motta, a licensed therapist in CO and FL-- lover of both snowfall and ocean waves. A work-in-progress, constantly in search of a life of peace, a girl sailor with a pocket yacht, I love helping people find more options about how they want to live their lives. Follow me on Instagram @jordanmottaLMFT.